Go ahead and scan the subheadings, you know you want to. You probably expect to see the usual suspects… spending too much time on Facebook, pinning too many recipes.
But this list is a little different. These are productivity suckers of the worst kind because they are things we have to deal with every day. So while you can take a “just log out of Facebook” approach to those other kinds of distractions, the ones I want to talk about are in front of you whether you like it or not.
And it’s easy to let them get out of control.
So if you want to be more productive, have more time for working on your business and in your business with some leftover for living your actual life… listen up! Here’s what’s stopping you from working at your best right now.
1. Your Insane Downloads Folder
Do you know what’s in my download folder right now? Nothing.
What’s in yours?
If you’re like most people I know, your download folder is filled with… well, whatever you downloaded. Ever.
And while this may not seem like such a big deal (who really checks that folder, anyway?) it becomes a big deal when you download something and then can’t find it because it’s lost in the hundreds of other things taking up space in there.
I was working with someone recently and as we were doing a screen share, I watched her download a file then open her download folder where there were quite literally hundreds of files. And she scrolled and scrolled and clicked and scrolled then decided she couldn’t find it and downloaded it again.
Now she had hundreds of files… plus two.
By the time she found the actual file I wanted to pull my eyeballs out.
If this is you, you’re wasting time every time you download a file and spend more than one second trying to find it.
If this is you, you’re wasting time every time you look for a file that you need and never took out of the downloads folder to place it in a project folder or client folder or somewhere it might make sense to find it in the future.
2. Not Knowing Where Your Insane Downloads Folder Is
And while we’re on the subject, you do know where your downloads go, don’t you? I’ve also seen plenty of people download a file and then spend the next half hour sorting through folders to find it.
Bad, bad, bad! You can set a preference on your computer so that all downloads go to one location. Figure out how to do that and stop guessing.
3. Your Insane Email Inbox
This is sort of like the insane downloads folder but worse. Have you heard of “inbox zero”? It’s not just a myth, I swear. It can be done.
Remember this: your inbox is not a to-do list. If you receive an email that warrants a reply, then reply. Even if you don’t want to send it immediately then save it to your drafts or schedule it.
If you receive an email that requires an action then move the action to your to-do list and archive the email.
If you don’t know what to do with an email, it won’t decide what to do with itself no matter how long you leave it in your inbox. Stop and think about it.
It’s amazing the things you learn about people when you screen share… once I watched someone sift through her inbox for a specific email. And as she scrolled, there was everything from jokes from her mom to emails from clients to coupons for Macy’s… from 2013.
It made me want to cry.
If you have anything in your inbox that goes back weeks or months, let alone years, you’re wasting time.
If you’re not archiving emails and keeping your inbox clean so that you can actually process incoming emails, you’re wasting time.
If you’re using your inbox as a to-do list instead of organizing your tasks then guess what? You’re wasting time.
4. Keeping Your Insane Email Inbox Open
The concept of inbox zero actually has less to do with the number of emails in it than the amount of time you spend thinking about it: zero.
But chances are that in order to stop thinking about your emails, you either need to archive them, act on them or organize them.
But there’s another concept related to inbox zero, which is shut the inbox.
It’s a 21st century addiction. We can’t stop checking our email. There are days I check my email one last time before shutting my laptop for the evening then I pick up my phone and ten seconds later I check my email.
We can’t help it. The email chimes every time it comes in. The little badge pops up telling us how many we have. If you’re really insane, you have one of those floating notifications that drift across one corner of your monitor every single time a new message comes in.
Unless you’re in customer service and your job is to monitor emails in real time and respond or assign them to someone who can… then stop it!
We are Pavlov’s dogs. Pop an email in front of us and we salivate. Or, in 21st century terms, we stop what we’re doing and divert our attention to our email. Even if we don’t respond, that constant distraction sucks a ridiculous amount of time out of our day and messes with our productivity in horrifying ways.
Repeat after me: nothing is on fire. If I don’t respond to that email for an hour, the world will continue to spin.
It’s harder than swearing off ice cream, but trust me. If you close your inbox and then do actual work you will get a lot more done. You may even start to feel less stressed, less pulled in every direction.
Control your email. Don’t let it control you.
5. Your Insane Desktop
Here is my reaction 98% of the time when I screen share with someone and see their desktop: “Holy crap!”
Right now there are four things on my desktop: one I’m working on which will be trashed by the end of the day, one I’m working on for this week and want to keep front and center, my main organizational folder and the draft of this blog post.
When this blog post makes it to my site, the document will go in the trash and I’ll be down to three.
Your insane desktop is not that different than your insane downloads folder. You may use it as a catchall to keep stuff. Or maybe you drop stuff there that you don’t know what to do with.
I’m guilty – sometimes I drop bookmarks there. Sometimes I make notes and save each one in its own document. Sometimes I download things and because I want to keep my downloads folder clean I drop the thing on my desktop to remind me to clean it up. Weirdly defeatist, I know.
But that can’t be the norm. There are bookmark toolbars for websites you want to remember. There are folders for notes. There are dropboxes for files you need to keep but that you don’t need in front of you every day.
Because every time you stop to sort through the junk on your desktop… you’re wasting time.
6. Answering The Phone When It Rings
If you call on my office phone right now, there is a 100% chance that I won’t answer it. Do you know why?
Because the phone is unplugged.
Also, if you call on my cell I won’t answer it either, because the ringer is off (kind of a nightmare when you lose the phone in the couch cushions and can’t call yourself to find it, but that’s another story…)
Right now I’m writing, and as awesome as you are, I don’t want to talk to you.
And when you’re busy, you shouldn’t want to talk to me. Or anyone else.
The phone is just a louder equivalent of your inbox. It rings, you salivate.
When you’re working on something, especially something that requires creativity, attention or brainpower, the phone can be a huge distraction. Even if you don’t answer it, the ringing alone triggers that Pavlovian response and takes you off task.
Besides, it’s a lot more productive to collect your voicemails at once then schedule a dedicated time to speak to someone when your attention is on them 100% – not still mulling over the unfinished sentence in your blog post or whether you added those two line items right on the invoice.
7. Your To Do List
I saved the worst for last.
I’m a bit of a list junkie, so I admit to having notes and apps and stickies everywhere with to-dos. And that is the worst possible thing for productivity.
This is an entire topic unto itself and Ralph is going to talk more about GTD (Getting Things Done) in a future post so I’ll save that for him.
For now, suffice it to say that most things on your to do list are not to do items at all. They are projects.
Take my list, for example.
- Write blog post.
Looks like a legitimate to do, right?
But break it down: I have to choose a topic, write the post, compose a title, draft it in WordPress, output a feature image, write SEO titles and descriptions, write an excerpt, set up a promotional email, record the audio, edit the audio, tag, bag and publish the audio…
I’m exhausted before I get started!
I bet if you broke your to-dos down like that you’d see you have a list of projects instead, each with their own to-do list.
And that’s why to-do lists make us feel so overwhelmed. It’s why we look at the clock and say, “It’s 5PM and I only got one thing done today!”
When your to-do list overwhelms you then you start bumping things down to the bottom. You put them off or you freak out and your creativity and productivity suffers. Maybe you miss deadlines or stay up all night meeting them.
And until you understand that this is why it’s happening, you are always going to feel like you’re behind the eight ball. You’re always going to waste time “catching up” instead of getting ahead.
Now you have some homework. Give yourself an hour today and start cleaning up that insane inbox, desktop or downloads folder. Do that until you’re an organizing superstar. When you’re deeply engaged in a task, shut the phone and focus. And tomorrow, check your email in the morning then close the program. Go divide up your to-do list into project lists and then itemize out all those to-dos and be as granular as you want to be. Because honestly, other than inbox zero, not much is better than looking at a long list of stuff that’s crossed out because you’ve completed it.
Join the discussion 37 Comments
So much truth here, Carol-Lynn. My desktop is relatively empty, but my downloads folder – oy! Sometimes I think it would be easier – and more productive – not to download anything, because even when I move things to other folders I don’t have time to look at them. I feel another virtual spring clean coming on.
Messy stuff on my computer drives me nuts! I’m ok with some clutter in my life but seeing all those icons… and never being able to find what I want in that sea of stuff. It makes me a little crazy. Once in a while you really do have to go through everything and decide whether it should stay or go. And if it stays, where should it REALLY be kept? It does make life easier!
I had the crazy idea of getting rid of everything I’ve ever downloaded and starting again – don’t know if I’ll do it, but it’s tempting.
Do it, Sharon! Do it! Then we’ll have a celebration. 🙂 I’ve thought about doing the same. I haven’t looked at some of those downloads in years ::embarrassed to admit::
Exactly – maybe a good middle ground – delete anything that’s more than a year old. 🙂
I usually throw stuff into a folder called “sort” then at least it’s out of the way. Then a little at a time, however much time you want to devote in a day, move or delete. Just in case you find something you don’t want to delete!
Yes, I suppose occasionally you might regret deleting something. But you can always not empty trash for a while, then if you miss something you can get it back. If not … permanent deletion here we come. 🙂
true! Just beware of what I do which is fill my trash so much that I run out of space on my computer 🙂
OK, you win, Carol Lynn. That hasn’t happened to me since computers started having sensible amounts of storage.
Don’t trash folders get emptied automatically, Carol Lynn? Mine does. Then again, maybe (a hundred years ago) I set it up to do that.
Sounds good, Sharon. Reminds me of a rule I have about the clothing hanging in my closet. If I haven’t worn something in two years, it gets donated to the Goodwill. Probably hanging on to downloads that are more than a year old (unless it’s something super duper you can’t live without!) is foolish.
When computers had less storage, you had to decide whether to keep or delete something. Now we have the option of being lazy about it, which isn’t always a good thing. 🙂
Yeah, “lazy” is a danger zone. 😉
Sorry, I don’t have any time to read this article. I am far too busy being busy!
Ah, so you’re a wise guy now 🙂 I see how this works! Ok, go get busy! I want to see those to-dos crossed off!
Tuesday = Blues Day
However, now I can go from singing the blues about time wasters and productivity suckers to singing a happy tune. Great tips! 🙂
But first …
That insane download folder needs my attention. Like Sharon said, “OY!” I will give myself an ounce of credit, though. Normally when I download something (like an e-book or report), I read it right away. Not always, but usually. Because otherwise there’s a really good chance I’ll NEVER get back to it again … as in, not even if hell freezes over. I bet I’m not the only one guilty of this.
You have just described my husband lol. Especially with a cluttered desktop and the many files he downloads and don’t know where they are.
I guess I have a bit of OCD, but I like things clean and clear. There is just a few things I’m working on on my desk top and when it is done, it is put away in the proper folder. Emails? Ha…Once a day is fine with me. I like to keep my email box clean, so I do unsubscribe to certain things I don’t need anymore.
When it comes to the phone, I too am unplugged. I may hear a buzz, glance and see if it is a family emergency but that’s it. The rest I call back when I have time. (I do have a designated time for that) Crazy hugh?
You did save the best for last and that To Do list is one thing that can easily be organized. Although I’m a big to do person, I like to Eat The Frog every day, doing the most important task first so it frees my mind to handle everything else.
Lists are great but it takes little baby steps to accomplish a goal, and sometimes there are many. I do have a white board and sketch it out there for longer term goals and the steps I have to take monthly, weekly, and daily in different colors. I must sound like a crazy woman, but I call that board my brain. Once it is there it is off my mind.
When things are insane, I feel insane so that’s why I do have to be super organized.
YOU, Donna, are a rare gem 🙂 Not many people are so organized that they put their toys away immediately after using them. It’s such a great habit and I bet you spend a lot less time searching for (and losing) things.
It’s funny about the phone because my husband was sitting next to me as I was recording the audio for this post and when I got to the part where I said the phone was unplugged he shot me this look like “HOW CAN YOU SAY THAT!” Bad customer service and all.
But honestly, I think it makes BETTER service. When I answer the phone I know I am attentive to it. If I pick it up in the middle of a task then I’m not really focused. I would rather schedule a call in five minutes than be caught cold now with my brain elsewhere.
And it does help you get stuff done instead of being distracted.
Our desks may be neat but our digital lives are a mess. And it does make us a little crazy. Time to take back our sanity!
Clearly, my life is screwed. I am guilty of each one of these misdemeanors!
My laptop downloads folder is as populated as my country 😛 My email addiction – which much better than a month ago (I deleted all my emails AND deleted emails AND junk emails AND important emails – OOPS) – continues to run rampant. I have tons of apps for to-do lists – and tons of lists on each one of them – now if only I can remember where in my cluttered phone screen can I find those apps 😛
EEASH – I accept your challenge, lady! #HUGSSSSSSSSSSSSS
OODLES of hugs
PS: I am great with my Desktop though – the downloads folder is clean
DO IT!!! Let me know when you get to inbox zero and I’ll send you the biggest Oreo-covered hug of all 🙂
As for email, just tag and archive stuff you want to keep so it’s not in your inbox. I know it’s easier said than done, my email just proliferated like mad and now I am repenting!
I am ahead of the game.. I ignore my email altogether… I am actually sitting here laughing.. I know.. I admit it.. I am the worst offender of all. I can do every single thing there is to do, but email is my nemesis. I hate it so much that I avoid it like the plague..
I’m so glad I talked about email and now my inbox has exploded to like 50 unanswered emails. UGH! It’s like playing whack-a-mole, lol. I’ll remember not to email you 🙂
Yeah.. I will never get it…lol… Oh.. and, I love the fact that you guys always let me off the hook and make it ok when everyone else says I am just being a bitch. I heard about six months ago that it takes 20 minutes to get back on task when you stop to either answer your phone, check a notification or email that dings on your phone. That day, I turned off all noise on my phone. I still have the whole ticker lining up, but the noise never dings. That way, I can work and when I do take a break, I can look at all of them and respond. My productivity is so much higher during work hours and my life much more peaceful otherwise. I have not missed any emergencies. No one has died without me knowing about. There have been a few people, that believe I should be on 24 hour a day contact that have had to learn that I have a life. I believe it has been good for our relationships. They needed to learn to poop without me…
Totally true!! Half my day gets sucked into the “distraction” dimension. When I stop a task I stop my timesheet and it’s all the “time between” where my day ends up going. How a person can sit in front of a computer for 12 hours and only log 5 of work is always a source of amazement. Less distraction = more work!
You would be disgusted with me! I have kept ‘useful’ emails in a folder that I never look at. I wasn’t very well yesterday, so I sat and spent time going through that folder. They did indeed date back to 2013! But to be absolutely fair, it is partly down to you and Ralph. A LOT of my useful, saved mail was from you two!
In that case, you are forgiven 😉
I’m glad you got around to cleaning up a bit. Here’s the thing about “useful”: it’s only useful if you use it! It’s like my bookmarks folder. I keep links to all this stuff that’s useful but then it gets so crowded that I never go in there and don’t know what’s in there so I don’t use it. Paring down to essentials is good. And when you really, really need something there is always Google!
OMG are you spying on me?? This is EXACTLY what my work day is like. :::scurries off to fix the downloads folder::: I feel like there should be a picture of Susan Powter with this post. (“Stop the Insanity!”) http://juddlyon.com/assets/img/powter.jpg
Yup, that looks about right 🙂 My downloads folder was a lot cleaner at the time of this writing. It seems to proliferate itself when I’m not looking!
Email is a huge time suck. I tell my employees all the time: if an email gets more than 3 deep in the chain, pick up the phone. We actually started using Slack in our company to communicate with each other so that everybody stops asking duplicate questions.
The other thing that usually sinks time is trying to figure out if someone responded or needs to respond. I use MXHero to track opens and see if a client has actually opened the email yet or not; if so, I can make sure to ping them again right away.
At least once every 6 months I perform a digital house cleaning and clean up my downloads folder, too – but I’ve gotten pretty good about removing things immediately once they show up there. I have a few set folders in Dropbox that keep things pretty well organized, too – new ebooks go in one, blog fodder or screenshots in another.
I’m totally guilty of the overly long to-do list though. I often don’t break things down into the requisite 5-minute maximum task limit to make it more feasible. To make up for this, I’ve started writing down at night the top 3 things I want to do the next morning. This helps as 3 is a pretty reasonable number even if the tasks are HUUUUGE.
I tried, for a while, the ABCDE to-do list. I made a huge to-do list, prioritized everything A (most important), B (somewhat important), C (least important), D (delegate), E (eliminate). I ended up placing everything at a B or C. I’d tackle the A tasks with relative ease and then have a billion B tasks to get through. I hated it and don’t recommend it at all.
I’ve fixed the phone binge (and hate the phone anyway, it’s a loathsome creation) by way of Google Voice (so I can screen calls) and literally just silencing the phone for everybody except for my wife. Notifications on those smartphone apps are also stupid. I turned ALL OF THEM OFF (except for Slack, cuz those are usually important).
It took forever and a day and every time you install a new app, it begs you to turn on notifications. I get a certain glee from telling them no.
Well Nick, you have certainly tackled all this stuff head on! Funny you mentioned Slack, we just started giving it a trial run this week. I had never even heard of it before but it seems pretty neat.
I’ve been really loving GTD lately as a way to organize pretty much everything. If you have a Mac there is an app called Omnifocus which is really great for organizing stuff GTD style. It takes a little getting used to conceptually but the idea is that you have one section called your “inbox” where you do a total brain dump of everything. Work, life, that thing you have to buy at the grocery store, whatever. And you organize them into projects and contexts. Projects being things with outcomes like…. launch client website. And then you put all the tasks into that project. Context are then groupings that help you classify things and this is very open to interpretation – you can have contexts for phone calls. So like 9AM you can get up, see all the calls you have to make for a day and get them done. Or “5 minute things” which you can fit in between stuff when you’re sitting around.
Anyway this is starting to sound like a sales pitch, lol. I just do find it a lot easier to think of things as projects rather than to dos.
And YES, I’ve turned off ALL my notifications. Everything wants to send me a damn notification. Even Slack! Email, Tweetdeck, Skype… every stupid banner ding is another distraction. I don’t know how people function with those things turned on.
I was working under the pump today but my eye caught, in one of multiple open browser tabs a little red flag signalling Facebook notifications. I ignored it. For ten seconds. Then like an addict I dropped everything to scramble through the tabs, find and open it. Whatever I was working on instantly parked and inconvenient. Maybe fifteen minutes later I reassembled my brain from the amorphous trash it had been gobbling up and returned to the work I had ditched. All up half an hour lost and more for the lack of continuity. Times this by emails and lost downloads and files by maybe five a day and that makes 2.5 hours a day lost to completely nothing.
Thank you for alerting me to the hours I and others can never recover. What better things could we do for our business, our families, our philanthropic interests for the sake of a little discipline and organisation. Great post Carol Lynn.
I try so hard to track my time to see where it goes but some days it just doesn’t matter! Hours slip by and I don’t know how I got from here to there. And nowadays with every app wanting to send you notifications and things constantly popping up on your screen, who can concentrate! I am so much better when all the mental distractions are gone and I can focus on one thing. I bet most people are!
This is a great list Carol Lynn. While I was reading I actually paused, went to my desktop, and removed a bunch of stuff. My download folder does get the occasional spring cleaning. What? It’s spring? Well time to clean it out. I hadn’t really thought about the blog post being a whole series of tasks – will incorporate in the future.
The stuff on my desktop multiplies like rabbits, as they say! So I am constantly trying to tame stuff. But if you stay on top of it, it’s not so bad. I just ask myself WHY is this thing on my desktop? Can I file it? Put it with a project? Trash? So much less distracting!
I used to think it was too much, but it’s turned out to be pretty useful. Mostly I follow someone else’s blueprint 🙂 You can be amazingly efficient when you don’t have to think!
As others have pointed out: social media can be a major time-suck. While it can be necessary for us for networking, it is easy to get lost in the mind-numbing silliness of some of it. Or sucked into debates. [Oh no! Someone on the Internet is wrong! *grin* (Queue the XKCD link)]
Everyone else has made great points: messy desks, messy offices, messy homes.
And for those of us with kids…well, the idea of the work-at-home parent just isn’t as idyllic as it sounds. It’s hard to get work done when you have 5 year olds (or younger) that constantly want your attention. Or need diaper changes. Or are getting into things they shouldn’t. Or need to be reminded to go potty because they are potty training. Or want to come show you their latest art project. Or are now covered in some kind of mess. The list goes on… 🙂
Oh, I can only imagine the challenge of working with kids. It’s interesting enough to work with cats who want to sleep on keyboards and laptops 🙂