If you’re the kind of person who thinks outside the box when it comes to work (as most WorkAwesome readers are), then you probably know all sorts of tricks and techniques for getting the most out of the working day. Whatever your “top tips” for time management are, there’s one element which underpins them all; one fundamental ingredient which determines whether you stick to a program of time management or slip back into chaos or procrastination.
If you’ve ever read a list of tips or even a detailed manifesto like David Allen’s GTD system, you were probably sold on the principles instantly. You’d spent a couple of afternoons being productive, but then promptly fell off the wagon and straight under the crushing wheels of habitual routine.
What matters most isn’t so much your system, but rather your state of mind. You might have had days when work just happened effortlessly — like an athlete in the zone — when everything just seemed to come together. Unfortunately, if left to chance, this doesn’t happen so often.
The key to any program of self-management, self- motivation, self-improvement — call it what you will — is to take responsibility for your own brain first.
The Balance Problem
Part of the problem is the way the working day is set up. If you have to be in the office from 9 to 5, often that becomes the primary aim of the day, to spend 8 hours physically present. It’s impossible to focus intensively for eight hours straight, so you’ll find other things to distract you throughout the day.
What happens is we end up in a kind of half-on/half-off distracted state, physically at the desk, working in the background, but with countless other things going on at the same time. Web surfing isn’t quite relaxing…and it’s not quite working, either. Email as a semi-legitimate delaying tactic is nothing more than poison for the soul.
The question you need to ask yourself at any given time is, “am I on or off?”, and commit to asking it whenever you’re not sure. If I’m on, I’m focusing intently on one task and it gets done. If I’m off, I’m away from the desk.
The aim is to get stuff done, not to spend time warming the seat.
Just 30 minutes till lunch…
One of my worst habits used to be finding pointless stuff to fill up time until some predetermined break. My focus was just on “getting through” until then… checking email, news websites, whatever. I was thinking about the time I had to fill, not what I had to do; neither on nor off.
Working like this is tiring, boring, demoralising and ineffective.
My new absolute, shiny golden rule is to avoid any kind of pseudo-work until I’ve decided what I need to get done. If I can’t be bothered to do it yet, or need a break, I stay away from the desk and do nothing. I’m on or off.
This is probably why systems like The Pomodoro Technique are so effective, because they use a natural On-Off structure. If you stick to it forever, great. But I think at a fundamental level it’s important to recognize what state you’re in: on, off, or somewhere in between.
Cultivating the “On” State
What you do (or rather don’t do) when you’re “off” is vital. Prior to work, it’s about conscious preparation for action without any incoming distraction. Arriving half-asleep at the desk every day is no way to spend your life. So here are three simple tips:
- Get fired up. Take responsibility for your own mental state and get ready to crush your work.
- Know what you are going to do before you turn on the computer.
- Don’t make email the first thing you do.
That’s all there is to it.
(Image courtesy of .reid. under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 generic license.)
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