How to minimize distractions

Remember the “distractions” quadrant of the Urgent/Important grid?

priority grid urgent importantDistractions are the grains of sand in our rock jar. Usually they’re small, and they take time we’re unaware of. A time and motion study can help you identify them.

Allowing other things to impinge on your writing time may seem practical in the moment, but Laura Vanderkam warns us that it’s the “little mistake that kills your productivity,” and it is way too easy to make. We must guard those blocks of creative working time jealously.

Interruptions destroy concentration, which means a loss of creativity. Some ways to minimize distractions:

  • Turn off your phone and e-mail.
  • Trade babysitting with a neighbor.
  • Stay off Facebook so that message bing doesn’t call you.
  • While you’re writing, close as many other apps as you can.

Sometimes it helps to get out of the house by going to a coffee shop or the library. Whether you can work in that environment depends on your temperament, but at least the kids won’t bug you for a snack.

Sometimes the distractions come from our own brains. If you think of something that needs doing while you’re in the middle of working, make a note of it and get back to the work. Don’t stop to take out the garbage just because you remembered tomorrow is pickup day.

Controlling e-mail

One way to use fixed schedule productivity is to set limited times for checking e-mail, and turn it off outside those times.

Sort your mail into four folders: Reply, Act, Read, File. Then actually schedule time to do those things. Put them on your calendar or to-do list so you won’t forget.

Let me be clear: your to-do list would not contain a separate item for each e-mail newsletter you need to read. It should say something like spend fifteen minutes reading e-mails in the Read folder. This, and having set times to check e-mail, will work best if you schedule it for the same time every day. The last fifteen minutes before lunch, for example.

Any e-mail for which the reply will take less than a few minutes, do it during your scheduled e-mail time instead of putting it off. Only longer replies, like ones that require you to do some research or compile information, should be delayed in the Reply folder.

The Act folder is for things you need to do but that don’t require you to reply to the sender. Renewing a subscription, for example.

Aim for Inbox Zero—an empty inbox by the end of the day. Take some time before you shut down each day to process everything in your inbox. This means either dealing with it so it’s done, or moving it into one of your four folders and creating a to-do list item for tomorrow.

Ending your day with your inbox at zero is a Small Win.

If you’re a Judicious Scheduler like me, you may make more than four folders, sorting your messages into different kinds of work. For example, I have one Act folder for e-mails from paying clients and another for the organizations I volunteer with.

Consider this: anything older than a week that’s still in your inbox is probably not urgent. Stick ’em all in the File folder and deal with them when you need to. Or maybe that should be if.

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1 Comment

  1. I really like your ideas for handling e-mail. I’ve gotten away from this over the last few months and need to get back into managing it better. Thanks for the kick in the butt and the tools for doing it.

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