Reader question: “You’ve decided to work on a project exclusively for two hours. You have to retrieve files and information clients have sent you over email. In the process, your current email downloads and you see that there are issues with other clients and family situations that need “immediate” attention. You want to seem responsive, so you spent 20-30 minutes on those emails before you get searching for the project info. Now you’ve lost a half an hour of your work time. Thoughts?”
What a great question. The answer is a mixture of psychology and technology, as are many organizing or productivity issues.
First, good for you, for blocking time for a project – an appointment with yourself and your work. Great way to make progress on the big projects as well as the day-to-day work.
- Save the “files and information clients have sent over email” to your hard drive, instead of dragging into an email folder. I often use the “print to PDF” option, which provides a permanent record. This eliminates going into your email program, which I agree, is quite distracting! You could do all of this gathering of info the day before you plan on working on this; that would ensure you have everything you need, and would mean you could dedicate a bit less time the next day. Smaller bits of tasks are easier to wedge into a busy schedule.
- “Your current email downloads.” During your two hours of project time, stop the “Send and receive email” option (Outlook option).
“Client and family situations that need ‘immediate’ attention.” Immediate is in quotes, which either means the other person thinks the need is immediate, or you consider the needs immediate.
- Break up the request. What does the person really need immediately? For example, it could be acknowledgement that you have the message and that you’d get back to him/her later today. You may want to explain that you are at work on a tight deadline.
- How long does “immediate” mean here? We’re talking about the person waiting two hours to hear from you. If it were that much of a crisis, needing attention in less than two hours, wouldn’t the person have called you instead? What would happen if you hadn’t seen the message until later in the day? These are questions to answer to help you think through whether this is truly immediate and therefore needs to break up your two hours.
- If this sort of thing happens often enough that it’s bugging you, start noticing who these interruptions are from. Is it the same person, with personal requests? A discussion about work schedules would be useful. Is it the same client? If so, a 5-10 minute check-in which you initiate would be helpful; the frequency would depend on how important the client is to your business (profit-wise, for the time they take up).
- Learn to triage: If the other messages are all from clients, filter through them. Which need to be answered or acknowledged before you begin your two hour work session? Which need to be acknowledged after the two hours? And then block time to get back to all of them at once, or add client communications to your “next actions” list. The key here is to unclutter your mind but keep track of what you need to do.
Stop, pause, breathe. Realize the choice you are making; that’s the key.
Also key as time passes is to notice patterns, of what interrupts your work. Who interrupts your work. How much comes from you and how much comes from others. What is the true urgency and what or who is the source. When you observe these patterns, you can change them. As a teacher used to say, though, ” The devil’s in the details.” That’s one reason the patterns are so important to observe.