It happens to the best of us. You sit down to work on your top project, but soon you find yourself thinking about how to respond to a contentious email. Or after a solid hour’s work, you step out for a quick break and get waylaid by a co-worker who “just needs five minutes” help. Two hours later, you realize his crisis has taken over your day.
There are ways to train yourself to avoid digressions like this. But let’s look at what to do when it happens, despite your best intentions.
You can’t assume you should stop digressing and return to work on your #1 project. Sometimes you have to adapt. A more important issue comes up, and you properly put your original plan aside.
Even if the digression is not that important, it may be worth finishing up. You have some momentum — maybe you have figured out how to respond to the email, or you are close to solving your co-worker’s problem. Finishing up has a big payoff with low cost.
One thing you can be sure of is this: you need to take a brief timeout to consider what’s best to do. When your mind is wrapped up in a digression, the digression has an immediacy and an out-of- context importance that can distort your judgment. You need to take time to activate the wider context, the context that includes the reasons you were working on that #1 project.
This doesn’t take a long, drawn-out thinking process. You just need to explain your reasoning to yourself so you can check it.
Suppose you say to yourself, “I should finish this up now because I could be completely finished in just 5 minutes, and that other project can wait until after lunch.” Does that sound reasonable? If so, good, you have a new plan.
Or do you hear snickering in the background at your time estimate? Or do you suddenly remember a conflict this afternoon? If so, you’d better reconsider.
Sometimes you can do this thinking in a second or two. For example, as you’re reaching for the telephone, you can let it ring one extra time while you consider whether to answer or let voicemail take it. Other times you need to take several minutes to write down the issues, maybe by “thinking on paper” or writing a pros and cons list.
In the end, you don’t need a long, drawn out process to evaluate a digression. It doesn’t take much to regroup, consider the question, and perhaps change your direction. But that short timeout lets you make a decent decision — not one you’ll regret.
You just need to put in enough thought to ensure your choice passes the laugh test.