You know that swift glide-y feeling you get when you walk on an escalator. You’re moving faster than you normally would with the same effort. That’s the feeling we all want when we work. Instead, it often feels more like running in an exercise wheel. We spend lots of energy and break a sweat; we are working hard. However, when we exit the wheel at the end of the day, we find ourselves in the same place we started.

Hamster Exercise Wheel


Many productivity tools help us manage what’s on our plate. I’ve looked through my books and have found a few techniques that – instead of simply moving things around on your plate – will help you reduce your serving size. These are… Create Focus, Purge Time Wasters, and Unplug Things.

Create Focus

Distractions and interruptions are part of our workday. The ringing phone, pinging e-mail, and pop-in visits from co-workers can break your work flow. To be a responsive employee most of these need to be answered… But not necessarily at that very instant.

Recovering from disruption inevitably will take you a few minutes to re-focus and pick-up where you left off. These breaks chip away at your productivity.

If you don’t have an office door to close to indicate, “do not disturb,” (most of us in cubicle-world don’t have that luxury), create a “sign” that indicates you’re in a flow and prefer not to be interrupted. This could literally be a sign, or perhaps you don headphones or pull a piece of tape across your cube entrance.

If your company has a culture where co-workers have been trained to expect an instant answer via phone or e-mail… Change your voicemail message and e-mail auto-reply to indicate that you’ll be able to get to their messages as soon as you take a break in your workflow.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting you halt business, be irresponsible, or ignore important customer issues because you “have trouble focusing.” It is just that more times than not, if given a few more hours, questions get answered and resolutions get discovered. (How many times have you caught up with e-mail after being on vacation or out sick… and when following the e-mail chain see a problem in the morning find a solution by the afternoon?)

Adopt an “80/20 Hour.” Work without interruption for 48 minutes (80% of an hour), and then take a 12-minute break. This helps keep you focused for a solid period, and the break prevents burning out on what you’re working on. You can use that 12-minutes to address real issues, or simply get away from the computer screen and stretch your legs. I use a countdown timer on my computer to track my time. (It’s amazing how much you can get done when you don’t let yourself get distracted.)

Timothy Ferriss in his book The 4-Hour Work Week spends a good chunk of his book focusing on how to eliminate unnecessary and unproductive activities.

A few of his recommendations for gaining focus include…

  • Turn off the audible alert on e-mail.
  • Turn off the automatic send/receive.
  • “Check e-mail twice per day, once at 12:00 noon or just prior to lunch, and again at 4:00 p.m. 12 noon and 4 p.m. are times that ensure you will have the most responses from previously sent e-mail.”

One of the best suggestions I’ve ever heard…

  • “Never check e-mail first thing in the morning. Instead complete your most important task before 11:00 am to avoid using lunch or reading e-mail as a postponement excuse.”

Purge Time Wasters

Karen says of time wasters…

“If Time = Money. Time Wasters = Money Wasters.”

How true.

In his book The Obvious James Dale writes, “Most business takes too long.” He offers suggestions, including…

Eliminate the meetings that you can. If you have to meet, make it shorter. Taking longer to prepare meetings makes them shorter.

Write an agenda with…

  1. your objective,
  2. the points you need to make to accomplish it, and
  3. the questions you should answer.

Now cut out the parts everyone already knows, the parts people don’t need to know, and the summary. Set a time limit. (Never more than an hour, usually twenty minutes.) When time is up, stop talking.

UnPlug Things

The Operations team at Starbucks had a rule. Before you can add something new for the baristas to do in-store (new beverage, new program, etc.), first you had to unplug something. When trying to do too many things, there is a chance you may be able to do all of them, but probably not any of them well. UnPlugging is about providing quality, not quantity.

Karen Salmansohn in her book Ballsy suggests “Don’t Just Create To-Do Lists, Create Un-To-Do Lists.” She adds, that we need to UNDO…

  • Unimportant meetings
  • Unclear assignments
  • Energy-sapping people

These tips will certainly help you get off the exercise wheel and obtain that glidey escalator feeling. Your co-workers will pick up on your behavior… and while they may need to learn how to adjust to your new style, more than likely you’ll find them also adopting these work habits.

What other techniques work for you?