I happen not to be of the opinion that every minute of your life should be filled with doing. Sometimes the most productive thing you can put on your plate is just sit, chill and recharge. On the other side of the coin, though, efficiency in your regular workday matters, if only because it frees more minutes to be yourself later.
Working online can be a particularly bad time suck, ironically because so much to learn and do is at your fingertips. So I’ll pass along the best productivity tips I use when on a digital device like my laptop or tablet.
Limit your open browser tabs to no more than three.
I know it’s easy to go down the rabbit hole and click links until you can’t see straight. But since the brain technically doesn’t multitask well anyway, all you really need is one tab for searching, one tab for communications (e.g., Slack–a dashboard can keep multiple tools in one place), and one tab for online notes (e.g., Google Docs). Navigate to social media through the communications tab only when you have a designated break so it doesn’t distract you.
Consolidate as you go.
Part of the reason people have eight million browser tabs open is that they follow their train of thought and get scared they’re going to forget. Instead of constantly clicking and veering off into left field, dump everything into your notes tab.
For example, when you get to a good Web page, copy the URL into your notes so you can come back to your source with ease and know what information to attribute to which site. At the end of each paragraph on the page, pause to reflect, which will help you remember the information you’ve just exposed yourself to. Then ask yourself if there are relevant takeaways from that paragraph and write them below the URL. It’s always good to summarize in your own words to make sure you understood concepts, but if you think you’ll use a direct quote later, copy and paste.
If you think of related or relevant data you should look up or retrieve from previous communications as you research (e.g., a good stat), just write a line about it in your notes, highlight it, and grab the extra data when you’re done reading. This way, you can remember what you need but still stay focused on the data you’re immediately working with. And at the end of your research session, you’ll have all your sources and information in one place that you can access across devices and offline if needed.
Keep a non-priorities to-do list.
The last consolidation point above applies to related tasks you think of to do, too. For example, if you read about something related to money and you suddenly remember you need to send a bill, unless it’s a true emergency, put it on your non-priority to do list. Items on this list should not distract you from the priority agenda items you’ve already set for the day. You should have a designated time of day set aside to handle those jobs so you don’t have to be anxious about them not being finished.
Set your status.
One of the consequences of platforms like chat clients and text is that people often have been conditioned to expect others to respond rapidly–in minutes, if not seconds. The underlying fear is that we won’t seem accommodating, prepared or like a team player if we don’t drop everything to answer. But research also shows that it takes significant time for your brain to refocus after a distraction, and unexpected communications fall into that category.
Setting your status, including in your email signature or auto response, is a simple way to draw a respectful boundary with those on your team. It allows others to see at a glance where you are, what you’re doing and when you’ll be available again. Unless you truly are prepared to respond to a message in depth, keep your status as away or offline. Then respond to all messages in one scheduled session as you’re able.
Do email last.
Saving non-urgent email for the last part of your day ensures you can clock out without having too many responses grow back to bury you overnight. But I also save email for last because every message seems to literally have something else more time consuming or complicated attached that virtually guarantees the growth of my non-priority to-do list, such as the need to download and read a file or update a spreadsheet. It ensures those things aren’t mentally distracting me as I try to tackle what’s actually most important.
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