Ever asked a colleague about an email or task, only to get sidetracked talking about something else entirely? At StellaPop we call these moments “squirrel time,” after Doug the notoriously distractible dog in the film Up.
Not all squirrel time is bad. We all need a break every now and then, and sometimes squirrel time can result in valuable discussions or insights about a client, a task or a process. But how do you control squirrel time so that you don’t go nuts?
Here’s how we ensure that we stay on task and meet our deadlines – while still allowing for occasional office chit chat and discussion.
Time Limit Your Tasks
A to-do list is handy for keeping you accountable, but it’s even better when you assign each task a particular amount of time for completion. Give yourself fifteen minutes to handle your morning emails, an hour to write that meeting report, or half an hour to handle the day’s social media. Applying a time limit will make it more likely that you stay on task until you’re done instead of getting distracted partway through. You can always reward yourself with some squirrel time once you’ve checked off a to-do item.
Try the Pomodoro Method
There’s no doubt that our attention spans are shrinking. Staying on task for hours at a time is a challenge for even the most dedicated worker. That’s where techniques like the Pomodoro Method come in. With this, you apply yourself completely and fully to one task for 25 minutes, getting as much as you can do in that time. You can break up your day into as many of these “sprints” as you need – and you’ll be surprised at how efficient you can be. All you need is a timer and a personal commitment to not check your phone or to see what your colleagues are up to.
Plan Out Your Week – and Day
Arriving with a game plan makes it much easier to stay on task. After all, most of our procrastination stems not from not knowing what we’re meant to do next, or when and how to start. If you know what you need to do, when it needs to be done by, and how much time you have to do it, you’ll be much more likely to sit down and get it done. Spend some time on Friday afternoon or Sunday night planning out your week, and then at the end of the day review your plan for tomorrow so that you can hit the ground running.
Check Your Email Twice a Day
Emails, texts, calls and push notifications are notorious facilitators of squirrel time. Humans are curious, and every time we see a notification we can’t help but see what it’s all about. But doing that drags us off task, dragging down our productivity. That’s because every time you get pulled out of the zone you need some time to get back into it. One solution is to turn off your notifications, hide your phone in your desk drawer, and commit to checking your emails and messages just a couple of times a day. Not only will this keep you on task, but it’s faster to handle your messages all at once rather than one at a time.
Do the Hard Stuff First
The 3 pm slump is real. Most of us are at our best in the morning, with our productivity dropping off in the afternoon. If this applies to you, schedule your tasks so that you’re working on your more challenging projects earlier on, and the easier ones in the afternoon. You’ll find you spend less time daydreaming or avoiding starting work – plus your afternoons will become much more enjoyable.
Pop in Some Earbuds
If your workplace tends to get noisy, or if you can’t help but get drawn into conversations, keep a pair of earbuds handy. Pop these in if ever you need to completely focus on a task and don’t want to be distracted. Often your coworkers will take them as a “do not disturb” sign and will leave you be until you’re ready to come up for air again. That said, you probably don’t want to keep your earbuds in all the time – being available to your colleagues is important.
Learn to Say No
If you’re going to work at peak productivity, you need to be working on the things that you’re best at. Avoid taking on extra tasks, projects or busy work if you think it’ll take you away from your main job or is a poor use of your skills. (Of course, it depends on who’s doing the asking!) On the flipside, if you’re being run ragged, consider delegating some tasks to another colleague.
Set a Hard Limit on Meetings
Meetings are renowned for being black holes. They drag on, meander off topic and run over time. Strive to keep meetings on-task and essential by sharing an agenda ahead of time and assigning a hard “stop”. You can also boost productivity by having staff stick around only for the meeting topics that apply to them – there’s no need to have everyone in the office attend the full meeting if only the first topic applies to most people.
Squirrel time is part and parcel of office life, but building solid time management habits will help keep it to a minimum. By using some of the above techniques, your squirrel time will become a reward for work well done or an opportunity for valuable discussion – rather than a time waster that pulls you off task.