Having a checklist of things to do each day really keeps me organized and focused on my goals, but it doesn’t solve all my problems. Constantly throughout the day, little things come up that take me away from those important tasks.
I’ll get a phone call or an email about something that seems urgent, so I end up having to pull up notes on something I didn’t expect and dig into a conversation about it.
I’ll feel absolutely out of focus and perhaps even a bit tired, so I’ll spend some time playing a game of League of Legends or something similar.
I’ll go down to the family room with my wife in the evening and get distracted by a television show instead of working on whatever I had planned to finish up.
I’ll go out to lunch with a friend and then convince myself to run a relatively unimportant errand after lunch, even though it eats up that narrow band of child-free time I have to get other things done.
Over and over again, urgent tasks pop up and take my attention away from the genuinely important things I need to do, leaving me with a hard choice later in the day between two or three important things that need attention.
For me, a few things help me avoid this.
First, I simply turn off most communication devices when I need to work. My cell phone goes off. I leave my personal Skype number on because that’s the contact number for my children’s school, but it’s only a number used for emergency purposes. I shut down my email program.
Basically, I save all of this communication for one big batch once I’ve completed some of the genuinely important things. I usually go through email twice a day at most – once a day on many days. If I let it constantly interrupt and distract me, I end up bleeding a ton of time throughout the day. The same is true for phone calls and texts to my phone – they just serve to interrupt.
Second, I keep an “errand list” for when I go into the nearest large town. Once a week, I’ll go on an “errand run” and take care of all of those errands at once. Otherwise, I simply avoid doing any errands. If I have to go out for a specific purpose and I don’t have time for a full errand run, I don’t do any of them and make the specific task go as fast as I can.
I usually keep this list of errands on my phone in a note. When I do decide to go out for errands, it turns into a long period that usually involves a library stop, a grocery stop, and usually a few other stops, and it gobbles a lot of hours, but it keeps those errands from interrupting me at other times.
Third, I don’t go into the family room if I need to get things done. I just simply don’t go in there because there are too many distractions between the electronic devices and the television. In fact, I basically only go in there about once or twice a week, and then it’s specifically so that Sarah and I can watch a program we’ve been planning on watching or it’s for a family movie night.
If you have a location that just distracts you, only go in there when you’re completely fine with being distracted from things.
Fourth, if I’m tired, I focus solely on resting. If I do important things when I’m tired or heavily distracted (which is usually a subtle symptom of being tired), I know that I don’t do them very well. I might do low-focus tasks when I’m tired (like loading the dishwasher or something), but if I’m tired and I’m just facing genuinely important things, I will go meditate or get some exercise or take a nap.
If I force myself to work when I’m tired, my work output is terrible. I make very slow progress and often that progress is of low quality. Simply put, I’m wasting my time when I make myself do it. I’m much better off simply using my time of sharpest focus for the important things and offloading less important and less focus-oriented things to times when I’m tired.
Finally, if I feel like a regular responsibility is eating up too much of my time, I admit it to myself and look for alternatives. I’m on multiple community committees and have several different offices and responsibilities. At various times, I have felt overwhelmed by them and I’ve felt that they’re getting in the way of other things that are more important in my life.
When that’s happened, I’ve openly admitted it. I’ve told others that I am actively looking to step down and I seek out a replacement. I would rather do a few things well than many things poorly. It takes guts to say that you want out of a worthwhile organization or responsibility, but when you’re making choices where something of importance is going to lose out, you need to be willing to step away.
I try as hard as I can to avoid unnecessary or unimportant tasks, even if they seem really urgent. This leaves time for the things I consider very important – my family, the core hobbies I’m most passionate about, my close friends, my core work, and so on.