Do you ever feel like you’re barely making progress on your to-do list, even though you have been at your workstation for three hours? Struggling to get stuff done does not equate to laziness. There’s a good chance your productivity quagmire actually stems from a combination of three issues:  Lack of Focus, Lack of Prioritization, and -Hey can I talk to you for a minute about signing up for our newslett- External Interruptions. Specifically targeting these elements of un-productivity will reduce your mental workload and build a few key habits that help you enjoy a more successful, stress-free day. Here is how you do it:

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HOCUS POCUS, FIND YOUR FOCUS

Heavy multitasking not only results in lower quality work, but also eats up more time in total than doing each task individually. What you should do is work on one thing at a time. Just one. You will tackle each item much faster if you give it your full, undivided attention, rather than also thinking about the six other things you need to complete before lunch. The increased focus you have will result in higher-quality work and a deeper level of insight while problem solving.

Pictured: Your neural lobes during a period of intense focus. Speaking of focus, Try not to look at that bulge.

This is not to say that sequentially grinding away at your to-do list for eight hours straight will yield promotion-worthy results. To the contrary, prolonged, intense focus will likely burn you out within an hour. Instead, you should only work for 25 minutes maximum before taking a 5 minute break. Physically leave your desk to walk around, grab a drink of water (or a beer), or use the restroom. Come back and do another 25 minutes, and repeat (but stay on the same task until it is done!) This repetitive pattern of working in short bursts with frequent breaks is called the “Pomodoro” technique and it is the secret weapon of the world’s most productive people, such as IBM’s elite software development team, editors for the Wall Street Journal, and the namesake of the technique himself, Pomo Pomodoro. If you think I made that name up, you’re right. Fortunately, the science behind it is not made up.

PRIORITIZE

This is the critical underlying foundation to the Pomodoro technique, so picture this: You’re working diligently on a marketing analysis of beef exports to India (why can’t anyone seem to nail down this market!) when *bing* an email or text message pops up. You quickly read it, glance at the attachment, maybe start to draft a reply before getting back to the analysis. Good job, you’ve just flipped the bird to your to-do list and killed whatever momentum you had going on the original task at hand. Why should an email which just arrived arbitrarily gain higher priority than your current task? It shouldn’t, is your answer, because you were paying attention when we talked about FOCUS. Ignore your damn phone/inbox/mail slot while you’re working on other stuff. Time sensitive issues may arrive throughout the day and you’ll have to be willing to adapt, but for the most part, whatever just came in can almost definitely wait the 25 minutes until your next break.

STOP EXTERNAL INTERRUPTIONS IN THEIR TRACKS

Say it with me: “Hey, sorry I’ve really got to finish this right now. I’ll stop by your office in about 15 minutes to talk about that missing TPS report cover.” It is easy to ignore your email and phone since they are digital devices that can be silenced or minimized into the task bar. But trust us, trying to switch a human colleague to “vibrate” mode usually results in a messy lawsuit and will make your workday even longer. You’ll have to get good at kindly yet firmly turning people away and deflecting requests until you can give them your full attention. It may feel awkward at first, but eventually, your coworkers (especially those who are used to walking up to you at any time and getting answers immediately) will eventually learn to respect your new schedular boundaries. No, “schedular” is not a word, but if you want to talk about it, please come back in about ten minutes because I’ve really got to finish this article right now.

SO? IS THERE A LESSON HERE?

Will doing all this suddenly make you a genius at work? No. Will your output skyrocket and inspire your boss to let you leave three hours early every day? Not a chance. What WILL it do then? For starters, your coworkers will respect you more since you’ll appear to be taking your work more seriously, and your boss will notice you consistently finishing tasks on time. You won’t feel drained or burned out at the end of each day. And most importantly, you will never again feel that age-old emotion, “OMG I have 1,000 things to finish before lunch and HECKING JANET keeps bugging me for help with her stupid Powerpoint.” Pomodoro can’t help Janet stop sucking at making slideshows, but it can help you get more done. Go get ‘em, tiger.

 

Then after you get ‘em, take a 5 minute break.

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