To concentrate on a mentally demanding task, you typically need at least one full hour of free time when you can ignore everything and everyone else. At that time, you focus all of your energy on that one task. I teach many tactics for concentrating effectively during this high-quality time.
However, you can’t do highly concentrated work when you are tired or sick or distracted. And if you can carve out 2-4 hours a day of high-quality time, you are doing well. Most of the workday is low-quality time. It’s subject to interruptions, and you are not at your top energy. How do you best take advantage of low-quality time?
The problem with low-quality time is that you often don’t have the luxury to take half an hour to prioritize. You’re lacking the time or the energy or both. You need some kind of infrastructure to help you make easy decisions in these cases, so you can still be productive.
How do you figure out what infrastructure you need? The general rule is: Figure out what you are contributing to the problem and then build in a tactic or practice that addresses that issue.
When you are trying to be productive during low-quality time, some aspects of the situation are not under your control. But several possible contributors to poor productivity are:
• Lack of planning
• Lack of commitment to a particular task
• Failure to clean up before taking an interruption
Any or all of these could be a factor in not getting much done. Let’s talk about each of them in turn, and how you might develop a tactic or practice to help with it.
Perfectionism is part of the problem if you feel that you should be figuring out the best task to do during this in-between, low-quality time. But you don’t have the quality time needed to do serious prioritizing. You probably don’t know how much time you have. Instead of making a list of options, look at this as time for puttering through tasks on an ad hoc basis, seizing the opportunity because it’s there.
In these situations you can benefit from adopting a (contextually) egalitarian attitude toward the tasks. Anything you might be able to do now is good enough. Taking time to choose is bad. It’s more important to pick one and act on it than to discover the right one — because that could use up all your time. This egalitarian attitude is not valid as a way of life, but it is a valid, important tactic to use in a situation where stopping to figure out the best thing to do would mean you wouldn’t get anything much done.
So, if you have a problem with perfectionism in these situations, you need to develop a mantra for yourself: “Pick one!” or “It doesn’t matter which one!” or “Right now, good is better than best!”
b) Daily Planning
If in hindsight, you feel like you make poor decisions when you just do something “good,” you may not be doing enough daily planning. I recommend a 15-30 minute planning session in the morning to get on your radar what you want to accomplish in the day. If you do this when it’s quiet, you will then know how to make half-decent choices when you have that in-between, low-quality time and you need to just pick something to do.
My point here is that daily planning needs to be done during high-quality time, not low-quality time. There is no alternative. Planning and prioritizing are some of the most concentrated thinking you will do in a day. You need to focus your mind, look seriously at the day or week from a high-level point of view, and possibly deal with frustration or guilt or other negative emotions if you’re feeling like things are not going smoothly.
You don’t have to spend a lot of time prioritizing, but it cannot be done in the frenzy in the middle of the day. So, if the problem is that your ad hoc decisions are no good, add in a daily planning session when you at least jot down on a piece of paper the top things you hope you’ll get done.
If you use the “just pick one” tactic, you may find that you have a different problem — you keep changing your mind. You pick one, start it, then pick another, start it.
This is the problem of lack of commitment. It’s easier to commit to a task when you think it’s urgent or important or the best thing to do right now. You know it’s the top priority. When it’s one you picked just because it seemed reasonable, you may not feel all that committed to it. So, if some other task strikes you as a slightly better use of your time, you may be tempted to switch tasks.
That is a prescription for churn! And getting nothing done! The premise here is that all these tasks are approximately equal in importance. It is much more important to finish one than to start a seemingly slightly more important one.
A good way to bolster your commitment to your chosen task is to use a decision log. It’s very easy: Keep a pad of paper with you and every time you change activities, update it. On a fresh line, write down the new time and the new activity you have decided to do.
Just by writing down the chosen task, you reinforce your intention to do it. If you want to switch tasks, you have to write it down — so you remember you should just finish the first one. If you do get distracted, you quickly notice that you aren’t doing what was on your decision log!
If you are convinced that churning tasks is bad, a decision log can provide an infrastructure that helps you monitor for churn and easily avoid it.
d) Managing Interruptions
Finally, if you are choosing a task, starting it, and committing to it for this in-between period, yet still having problems — it is probably because you are not dealing with the interruptions when they come. You are probably dropping everything and losing your work.
I always recommend you minimize interruptions. But some people have “dealing with interruptions” as part of their job description. They fight the fires. They are the person everyone comes to when there’s a fire.
Even so, the fires are not actual fires. An actual fire would mandate your instantly abandoning what you’re doing without hesitation. That is not the situation at work and it is helpful to remember it. There are very few business emergencies that cannot wait three minutes. Fewer still cannot wait 15 seconds.
This gives you enough time to use my “mental cleanup” tactic when you get interrupted. The process in short is: write down your takeaways, open issues, and next steps. If you have three minutes, do this as thinking on paper and tell yourself what you would do next if you hadn’t been interrupted.
The “mental cleanup” tactic is crucial to make sure you don’t lose your work. When you go back to the task, you can read your notes and get back into it much more quickly. This is an effective way to ensure that the work you do during low-quality time will not be wasted. It guarantees you won’t have to start all over from scratch if you get interrupted. It’s the only method I know that ensures this.
Depending on your job and how interruptions come to you, you may need to strategize a bit about how you will handle the interrupter. In person, you can put up a hand as a stop sign. On the phone, you can ask to put the person on hold for 30 seconds. There are many courteous ways you can both acknowledge the interrupter and take the time to do a mental cleanup so that you don’t retroactively waste the last 10, 20, or more minutes of your time.
There you have it: two practices (daily planning and decision logs) and two tactics (“just pick one” and “mental cleanup”) that can help you make more effective use of that in-between, low-quality time.
- In the Thinking Lab, I offer a self-study course called “Evolving a Scheduling Infrastructure” to help you create a daily and weekly planning process that actually works for you.
- If you have trouble concentrating during quality time, learn thinking on paper! It’s taught in my (free) Thinking Directions Starter Kit.