Continuing our monthly theme, Graham Allcott provides the community with a few good tips for making time away from the desk as productive as possible.
We all know the value of clear thinking space. Having the time and space to think is something we often crave or admit that we don't have enough of. And when it does come along, the space to do quality thinking often produces those lightbulb moments that make our work worthwhile and productive. A common theme that arises on my workshops is that there's just so little chance for calm and collected space to think in the average office environment.
In fact, if you could design the least likely environment to engender opportunities for clear thinking space, you'd probably design something very similar to where you're supposed to be sitting for most of the hours between 9 and 5 each day! Our offices are hyper-connected and overloaded: phones, emails, websites, paperwork instant messenger services, people coming to your desk, the nagging feeling you should be on Twitter or promoting what you do via Linkedin, all those noises and conversations and cake competitions...the possibilities for distraction are endless.
Indeed, sometimes it's even tempting to get lost in these distractions as a way of feeling productive, even though you know there's an important problem or piece of planning you need to confront – if the difficult thinking to come is harder than the ease of being distracted, it's tempting to choose busy over truly productive.
We work with a lot of people whose view is that this situation is inevitable, and there's nothing they can do to change it. The office will always bring distractions, so essentially we're just set up to fail and we'd better get used to it. Well, it's time to take control. Here are a few rules you can try.
If you really need some clear thinking time, perhaps to write a report, get creative, solve some problems or plan your work, then realising that the office might not be the ideal place to find that space and calm is the first step. The second is to find an alternative. It could be a meeting room on another floor, a cafe down the road, a broom cupboard where no one will find you, or a day working from home. The location will depend on what's allowed and what's culturally acceptable in your company, but a courageous conversation with your boss if you don't feel able to step out of the office at all can be a great place to start. Once in your new, 'temporary office', be conscious of the distractions following you around – keep your laptop wi-fi turned off and the phone on silent if you possibly can.
Batch it up
If it's difficult to focus on detailed thinking whilst sat at your desk, then don't even try. Use your desk time to do other things. Meanwhile, have an ongoing list of 'think about...' tasks. Store these up until you have several important decisions to make or until your next opportunity to get out of the office and then come back to this list when it's easier to focus. 'Batching up' your thinking in this way also presents fantastic opportunities to go for a walk, get some fresh air or just sit somewhere in quiet contemplation. You'll also find that thinking is easy in the most unlikely of places – on your journey to and from work, in the queue for the check-in desk, in the dentist's waiting room, during a tedious film your partner wanted to see... in fact decision-making is easier practically anywhere other than your office desk. But to make that happen, you do need to have your 'think about...' list with you when these opportunities present themselves to you. Keep it in your phone or somewhere easily accessible. Be prepared.
Be your own project manager
Every week I practice a 'weekly review', an idea I first came across from David Allen's book 'Getting Things Done'. My review is the time in my week when I move my thinking from operational level to the higher, 'project' level. Keeping on top of projects is more important and more often overlooked than keeping on top of actions. My weekly checklist takes me about an hour to get through. I often do it on a train, in a coffee shop or somewhere where I can be separated from the everyday 'throng' of the working world. It's an hour to be your own project manager, remind yourself of key priorities and make sure you're in control.
Turn off your email – and schedule the times to process it
Back at your desk, and email overload can be a major headache. However, there are some simple things you can do to make your email software work for you and some simple behaviours you can adopt so that you control your email, not the other way around. One of the single biggest pieces of feedback we get from our email workshops is that people love the idea of turning off all the flashes and noises that a new email produces. Reducing these notifications reduces interruptions, which in turn will mean you have more of your attention on what really matters. Since a high proportion of our email is low-value, it makes little sense to have this 'noise' interrupting our high value work. In time, you can get your inbox to zero – a great way of keeping focused on the actions and eliminating the noise.
Reduce your information consumption
Our attention is limited. Everything we do, everything we consume, everything we own, everything we commit to, everything we put our attention on all takes us away from something else.
Practise a low-information diet: remove yourself from mailing lists, blog feeds, newspaper subscriptions and other forms of information noise. Be conscious of your use of Twtter, Facebook and other services – aim to go in, get information and get out – if you leave these things on in the background, they'll eat away at your attention just like your emails will. Decluttering your desk and your mind just as you would your garage or living room.
As Henry Ford once said, "thinking is the hardest work there is, which is the probable reason so few engage in it". So it's time to stop feeling like a victim of circumstance, get proactive, get out of the office...and get some work done!
Graham Allcott is founder of Think Productive, a productivity workshops company running email training and contemporary time management workshops