Here’s a simple tip to increase efficiency by minimizing one of the stressors in your working life.
Consider the following list of things that can interrupt you at work:
- A barrage of incoming emails
- A pile of unanswered email in your inbox
- Incoming texts/instant messages
- A ringing phone
- Someone stopping by your office unexpectedly
- Anxiety about needing to respond to someone (e.g., a difficult conversation)
- Concern about a deadline or upcoming/unfinished work
First, pick one – and only one – that causes you the most stress when it happens.
Second, consider what you can do to minimize it – not the stress, but the cause of the stress.
Third, take action, now that you know what’s stressing you out, throwing your work-work and work-life balance out of whack.
Let me offer one suggestion for each item on my list.
Incoming emails: As I’ve written in previous articles and in my book The Off Switch, this is usually the most pernicious problem in today’s office environment. Go to Mail Options and turn off the sound for an arriving email, along with the Desktop Alert, the translucent blue ghostie that pops up just long enough to totally distract you. (Also, turn off notification of new mail on your smartphone.) Put your email window in back of whatever you’re working on. Now check email whenever you get a break – ideally, when you end a task, but even if it’s every time you come to the end of a paragraph, you’re making progress. Yes, it is that simple. And you will still be responsive to clients… and will do better work for them if you cut down on the interruptions.
Piled-up unanswered email: Set aside 30-60 minutes and unpile them. Sort with the most recent on top (in Outlook, on the View menu, among other places – click Date twice to reverse the sort order if needed). Now resolve to get through the entire pile. If something requires a longer, thoughtful answer, put it on your calendar – in other words, schedule a time to answer it today or tomorrow, but not during this initial sort. (You can drag the mail to the calendar icon at the lower left of the Outlook window and turn it into an appointment, if you don’t share out your calendar.)
Incoming texts: Set your phone to vibrate or even no alert for new texts. And practice good text business etiquette – don’t feel you need to reply to concluded conversations, such as a final “Ok.”
Phones: Consider silencing the ringer on your phone and letting calls go to voicemail – maybe not all the time, but during certain periods where you’re absorbed in other work.
Drop-by chats: Close your door. It sends a clear message. Again, don’t do this all the time, but when you need uninterrupted work time, take advantage of the closed door. If you work in an open-plan office, face away from hallway traffic so a passerby can’t try to catch your eye, and put on headphones even without music playing.
Difficult conversations: Put it on the schedule for as soon as possible. The conversation will be hard enough. You don’t need to add to the difficulty by letting the anxiety fester. Often, the other party is anxious as well, so you gain a double benefit. There are books written about handling such conversations, or you may have someone who can advise you. But half the problem is the anxiety caused by its looming presence. Reduce the loom by getting to the conversation sooner rather than later.
Deadlines: As with difficult conversations, you face a double whammy of the pressure of the work itself plus the pressure of worrying about it. So get started, now. Find some part of the project you can tackle – it could be as simple as creating an outline – and start moving. As Sir Isaac Newton said, a body at rest tends to remain at rest, while one in motion tends to remain in motion. Get moving!
None of these solutions are cure-alls, nor will any given solution be right for every instance of the problem. Still, they can offer you a leg up, a start on wrestling these stressors to the ground.