5 Simple Tools That Unleash Meaningful Work

I recently watched a TED talk by Jason Fried of 37 Signals entitled Why Work Doesn’t Get Done at Work. The message was right on: The office has become a place of endless distraction; so much so that people seek anywhere but there to get their real work done. What happens is the real work ends up getting handled at home, on the weekends, super-early in the morning or days off.

Office distractions are almost an institution in the workplace. They can come in the form of impromptu meetings, Sharon from accounting stopping by your cube to clarify your latest expense report, or a buddy dropping in to kill some time. It’s endless.

The reality is that we cannot get meaningful work done in 15 or 20 minute increments, and office distractions regularly put us in that position. We must allow space for our minds to create the stuff that matters; we can’t command that to happen at a moment’s notice. Sometimes it can take the first hour just for the juices to start flowing, and then the last thing anyone wants to do (especially your boss) is interrupt that flow. Because once it’s gone, no one knows when it will return.

But it happens constantly. These tiny interruptions keep us from doing what matters. Well, I have a few suggestions that can work wonders in reclaiming our best work. In a word it comes down to focus (something deeply covered in 11 Steps to Insane Focus).

Any one of these will likely add hours to your week. Try one — or try them all.

1. Arrive early, leave early.

The majority of true work happens alone. And since many offices still view face time as a barometer of hard work, we must create “alone time” while we’re there. Get in 1-2 hours early and vow to not open email or any other message device. Save that for when the normal workday (and distractions) start.

To keep our hours in check we need to start leaving early as well. If your work day isn’t as flexible and you’re expected to be there until “closing time” regardless of when you get there, then prepare specific reasons for why you have to leave. Having a genuine reason is crucial. Why?

  1. Because no one likes lying.
  2. Because if you really do have to pick your kid up from school or meet the handyman at home, you are much less likely to get sucked in by afternoon office banter.

On your way out just drop by your boss’s office or shoot her an email explaining why you’re leaving and that you got in at 7am instead of 9. Make sure that you review the main things you got done earlier. Do this enough and you will condition yourself for a newer, more productive schedule.

2. Make it clear that you mean business.

Develop routines that show yourself and others that you are in the zone and cannot be bothered. I call these triggers. It’s a way of training people when it’s okay to interrupt and when it’s not.

The easiest and most productive I’ve found are headphones. If the background chatter is distracting then crank up the volume — but even if it’s not, I will put mine on with no music. This is my focus trigger. People are far less likely to interrupt you from across the room with tiny questions that can easily wait when they see you wearing them, and if they do approach you, either you won’t hear them or you can act like you don’t hear them. Focus is that important. Let them know that.

3. Schedule meetings with yourself.

For some reason an Outlook calendar is sacred in the workplace. If your calendar is free, then people feel they can walk all over it. But if it’s booked, they don’t even think about trying to schedule something. The moment I started scheduling meetings with myself to work on meaningful projects was the moment I actually started getting real work done.

Title these meetings so that it looks “official” (i.e. Complete Budget or Finalize Pitch with Jeff). Pick your 1-3 most crucial things to get done that day and schedule those as “self meetings”, ideally in the first part of the day. If you can, have your meetings in a conference room. Enjoy your own company — and get to work.

4. Decide when you’ll be interrupted.

Not the other way around. It’s fine if you want to check Facebook or email here and there but do that when you decide to. Don’t do it when someone else tells you that they want your attention. This means shutting off chat and email notifications; these are the silent killers of productivity. Just because someone has something to say to you does not mean that’s the best time for you to hear it — often that’s the exact opposite case.

Do the work you care about, then decide when you’ll open your browser and kill some time. Take control of your distractions instead of letting them take control of you.

5. Don’t check email first thing in the morning.

I know every one of you have heard this one. So why do so few of us actually do it?  Email is a genuine addiction; it gives us immediate short-term satisfaction and the huge sacrifice of long term fulfillment with any type of work we have on hand. Very little gets done over email.

Waiting on checking your email will change your life. It feels terrible to know we’ve spent a couple hours refreshing and going in and out of email without really getting anything done. I assure you that if you do check it first thing in the morning, you won’t be able to help yourself and you’ll stumble face-first into the worm hole. Don’t convince yourself otherwise. In fact, don’t even open it until you have a few hours of focused action under your belt (this is at least 11am for most people). If you have to, keep your computer turned off for those first hours if you’re having trouble resisting the urge.

Do your work that matters first.

It’s simple. Extremely simple. But in today’s environment, it’s far from easy. The good news is that it’s on you to make it happen — and if there’s one person that you have control over, it’s you.

(Image courtesy of blinkingidiot under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 generic license.)

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Scott Dinsmore is a Personal Freedom Coach and writer at ReadingForYourSuccess. Grab his free Finding Freedom eBook to start doing work you love, or follow him on Twitter.


  1. TrafficColeman on the 16th February

    Time is everything..and once its gone..its gone..you must use it wisely and get things done..

    “Black Seo Guy “Signing Off”

    • Mike Vardy on the 16th February

      Just wanted to give you a “shout out” and thank you for all of your engagement here at WorkAwesome. It’s much appreciated!

    • Scott Dinsmore on the 6th March

      So true! Thanks for the thought. I’ve been in Patagonia the past few weeks, hence the uber-delayed response. Awesome to see all you’re responses.

  2. Alison Rowan on the 16th February

    I really enjoyed this article! I think that the idea of scheduling meetings with yourself is brilliant. I don’t work in an office environment, but I can still see how this would apply to me. I work freelance outside of my school hours, so it’s easy for people to think, “Hey, you’ve got free time! Let me steal it.” You can tell people of your commitment (to yourself) the same way you can put it on your Outlook calendar. It’s just a matter of making that commitment to yourself, as you explained.


    • Mike Vardy on the 16th February

      Thanks for the comment, Alison!

      I’ve made a habit of scheduling meetings for myself on urgent stuff, but not so much the important — or meaningful — stuff. Time to get into that habit (and avoid having stuff get to urgent in the first place!)

      Keep working awesome!

    • Scott Dinsmore on the 6th March

      The funny thing is that scheduling meetings with yourself might even be more important when you’re on your own than in a big office. There are just too many distractions. Hope you get on well with it Alison!

  3. Bryan Thompson on the 16th February

    Scott, I love the “schedule meetings with yourself” approach! That’s brilliant. I can become easily distracted as well and can relate to what you said about working best when alone. I had a friend who is a lawyer in OKC – a VERY busy lawyer – and yet he has written a ton of books, too. I asked him when he has the time and he said, “I come in at 5 AM when no one else is in my office so I can have three full hours to write uninterrupted. Brilliant.

    • Scott Dinsmore on the 6th March

      Those 3 hours can be like gold Bryan! Amazing things happen before the world wakes up.

  4. Chris on the 16th February

    Well, it’s a really great article, but I somewhat have problems to transfer them into my real life 🙂

    1. That’s kind of a problem, because I tried and I noticed that it just meant, that I work longer than everyone else. You can’t come up with a reason on everyday basis. There are meetings in the afternoon.

    2. That does work on occasion, but I get distracted anyway. At least by phone & I can’t refuse to answer clients.

    3. People in my office do not look into others calendars. They see: He’s at his place and walk over … Anyway: I’d rather not planning meetings when there is none and try to make it look official – that makes others suspicious you have Boreout, ’cause it’s one of the symptoms (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boreout)

    4. I have to answer mails, simply that. It’s expected to answer in two hours. I already slowed that down.

    5. See 4.

    Anyway, I’ll try again! 🙂

    • Mike Vardy on the 16th February

      Chris…thanks for the comment.

      As for your first point, you may want to see if your boss would be open to you changing your working shift to accommodate this. When I was working outside the home and my wife was ready to go back to work after having our first child, I simply went to my boss (well in advance, of course) and explained that in order to facilitate daycare that I’d have to leave earlier each day but would be willing to start earlier as a result. I discussed the distraction angle from their vantage point and explained that I’d get more done for them by being around when fewer workmates were. By taking that approach, my boss agreed.

      If your boss isn’t flexible (either partially or at all), you may want to take hat as a sign that you begin looking for new employment (or create new employment by venturing on your own) that suits you, rather than keep working for someone that expects more but gives less.

      This isn’t going to work for everyone…but it is definitely worth a try.

      Again, thanks for reading!

    • Scott Dinsmore on the 6th March

      I definitely agree with Mike’s thinking here Chris. The key is to get your boss and those around you to realize that this is to the benefit of everyone if you can have time for yourself–then maybe teach them to do the same! Good luck with it and have some fun testing things out.

  5. shaun on the 16th February

    Point #2 can turn you into a social outcast if you are not careful. I worked in an open office environment so ‘went about my business’ as best I could by using headphones to block out the noise and generally tried not to get sucked into workplace banter. Result = loved by the boss, disliked by the staff.

    Fine with me really, I don’t go to work to make friends, but it can make working with others difficult at times. My tip is to balance it out by working in blocks and allowing some time to shoot the sh*t with others. It might be meaningless and a waste of time, but it helps promote a closer team environment.

    • Scott Dinsmore on the 6th March

      Budgeting some time with others in the office is definitely something worth spending some time on Shaun but it’s certainly secondary to you getting your meaningful work done. Maybe you plan to spend a half hour a day “bonding” with your coworkers, but only after you have done what matters.

  6. Thera on the 16th February

    Point #3 would only work in large enough companies where no one would check because in smaller ones, they would know that there was no such meeting and could even think you schedule fake meetings to slack off (whereas the intention was just to be able to work in peace), better be careful :/

    • Scott Dinsmore on the 6th March

      One solution is to be very clear about the meeting title (which you should do no matter what). If you need to prepare your pitch for a client then label the meeting “finalize pitch and discussion points for xyz client”. Be honest. If someone questions you just let them know that that’s how you reserve time for things that must get done. It’s not about tricking people. Just about being efficient.

  7. Jenn Nickerson on the 17th February

    How I wish I had had this article 5 years ago when I did work in an office! I work from home now, sometimes with an “active” 4 year old in the next room. I tend to have a lot of projects on the stove at once and one technique that really helps me is to focus on the less demanding “chore” tasks while the 4yo is around the house (answering email, invoicing, little fixes here and there) and save more focused work for when she goes out with Daddy or (finally) falls asleep at night.

    • Scott Dinsmore on the 6th March

      Sounds like you have a pretty solid system worked out Jenn. Hats off to what you’re balancing. Just be sure to take advantage of that rare quiet time when it comes up!

  8. AE Thanh on the 18th February

    Besides all the great points so far, one thing I want to add to #3 is to schedule those times when you know you are most productive. Most people tend to be sluggish somewhere in the afternoon, between 2-5pm. If you work in an office environment, best times to schedule those times for yourself is before noon. Preferably the whole morning you have it yourself.

    For people who can work from anywhere (especially from home), the mornings and late in the evening tend to be very productive hours. So schedule the important tasks for those periods.

    • Scott Dinsmore on the 6th March

      Right on. For me that time is first thing in the morning but it may be a different time for others. Be honest with yourself and look back on your past week to see when you were really productive. Make those times sacred. And yes, generally right after lunch is not one of them ;).

  9. Cassie on the 20th February

    I totally agree with the first point. I’m essentially the “go-to” person for my bosses. Anytime they have a question, they ask me, even if I am not the person responsible. What this ends up meaning is that I get interrupted a billion times when I am sitting in my cubicle. Even when I am clearly working on something (important) for one of my bosses, he may still come and ask me a simple question like can I help decipher a voicemail message.

    Thankfully, my bosses let me leave early. They know I will check email at home and if something is needed last minute, I’ll do it at night. I like it because I can actually do work without being interrupted. Even if I am watching tv and working, it still is (somehow!) better than trying to work while coworkers chatter about. Also, because I leave earlier than the majority of people, traffic is less of a nightmare.

    In the past couple of weeks, things have gotten so busy that I’ve spent 3 to 4 hours a night working (plus some more on the weekends).

    Some coworkers have similar positions to me, and they shift their work schedules to start late, leave late – I am the only one that chooses to start early, leave early. The thing is, some people at work just don’t understand. They think that I’m somehow getting away with doing less work just because I’m not physically there when they are. Or they think that if I am there, I would be able to finish everything during the regular workday.

    It’s frustrating to have to defend myself (thought again, my bosses are fine with my schedule and that’s all that really matters!).

    • Scott Dinsmore on the 6th March

      Good that you’ve arranged something that seems pretty useful for you Cassie. The one thing you have to be careful with, as you mentioned, is starting early and then having to work late because that’s when all the procrastinators get their work to you for you to review, etc. This may mean you let them know that they are simply not going to get a response in the evenings and that you will get to it early the next day when you start your work day long before the rest of them. You cannot be expected to be connect at all times. It’s just not realistic (or healthy). You’re on the right track for sure. Nicely done.

  10. angelee on the 22nd February

    Number 1 is striking cos its so true, and it’s my weakness. How I really wish to maintain a routine of starting early because I find myself really productive when I start early. It makes me feel good to finish a lot things than dragging myself to get more things done. There are really days when my cozy bed is irresistible. :=)

    The fifth one which is about emails, it actually depends on which time is best to check it, but sometimes the urge to keep tracking of the inbox is distracting. “37 Signals” reminds me of ‘Rework”. Love this article.

    • Scott Dinsmore on the 6th March

      Thanks Ange! Maybe you decide to trade off working early with sleeping in a bit. Get up early on Mon and Tues and then reward yourself with another hour of sleep the rest of the week. Before long you’ll have a powerful habit formed.

  11. Steve Spring on the 7th May

    Scot, thanks for these tips on how to actually get work done. I really like the last one. Do your work that matters first. If we can get our most important work done first, before the distractions of the day, we will be much more productive and get the right things done. Thanks for sharing.

  12. Gus Power on the 22nd February

    Hi Scott,

    Some of the tactics you describe are strongly reminiscent of the pomodoro technique – http://pomodorotechnique.com/ – a time management approach which strongly advocates actively controlling interruptions, both external and internal. As a user of the technique for a number of years, I’m pleased if I manage to complete 8 x 25-minute blocks of focused time over the course of a day – only 4 hours in duration! Interruptions do tend to increase over the course of the day so your arrive early-leave early view certainly resonates with me.

    +1 good stuff,


  13. Dora on the 2nd April

    Two things that bother me in this article, mostly because I read them everywhere and everywhere people forget to mention that we are all different and it might just not work for some people.
    The two things are:
    1 – arrive early and do the hardest or the serious work first: not if you are an owl like me and get your “prime” time at 6/7/8 pm after everyone has left.

    2 – Don’t do your emails in the morning: unless your brain is half a sleep and replying easy emails is all you can cope with during the first two hours of your morning (like me).

    A tip to avoid interruptions from colleagues that “just walk over to your cubicle”: ear plugs! A use to use ear plugs to block the background noise in a large open office with about 150 people and I had several colleagues that would say “I came over to your desk but I noticed you had ear plugs, so I didn’t want to disturb you”.it is worth trying!

  14. Noemie on the 1st May

    Some good tips in there, Scott, thank you!

    I think it also really depends on the kind of environment you’re working in.
    Informal chats with colleagues are a great way to bond with colleagues. Oddly enough, it can even be the best moment for important discussions to happen. People are more relaxed and open to share next to the coffee machine than around a table during a formal meeting.
    I think it’s important to not cut ourselves from these interruptions, they can be a necessary evil.

    You mentioned online chat as a potential distraction as well. This can be very true (we recently implemented a chat for the whole team in my company and we do waste some time on jokes and random stuff). But it can also be a good way to manage interruptions. Just ask your colleagues to send you a chat if they need anything that’s not urgent, instead of coming to your desk and tap on your shoulder. And then you can control when you want to read your chat messages.

    Concerning doing work that matters first, I found that one difficult to implement at times. What do we define as work that matters? Sometimes menial tasks can take up a lot of time and be crucial despite not adding a lot of value.
    And sometimes the work that matters is a project that will take several days to complete. The risk there is that if you start your day with such a project, you’ll never get to do anything else and at the end of the day, you’ll neither have finished this task nor accomplished any other which can be quite depressing!

    In the end, I think it comes down to knowing ourselves and understanding when we’re the most productive and what’s the best way to deal with this office life and then set some boundaries.

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