Stay Focused and Avoid Distractions: The Next 3 Things

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I sometimes struggle with staying focused on the most important tasks, and this is particularly important during the stressful holiday times. My love of fun side projects is a big part of the problem for me — I always have to be careful not to let those projects take too much time away from the client work that actually pays the bills. I’ve been doing a pretty good job of managing my time and staying focused using some of the techniques that I’ve described in previous posts: working in chunks, scheduling my time and maximizing productivity without burning out. However, I’m always looking for other ways to increase my productivity and manage my time more efficiently.

We are all distracted by different things. Some people who work at home are distracted by household chores, TV, food or other personal distractions. For some reason, the personal chores around the house aren’t really a distraction for me, but I have plenty of distractions of my own. My significant other also freelances and works at home, and he can be a distraction if I forget to shut my office door or decide to work from some other area in the house. I’m also distracted by side projects, Twitter and other tasks that are slightly work related, but non-revenue generating. It’s amazing how much time these social media tools and other websites can consume without realizing it. I’ll occasionally follow a link from Twitter or my RSS reader for what I think will be a quick read, but before I know it I’ve been sucked into reading something interesting and 30 minutes will have passed.

Recently, I realized that I was getting distracted and spending too much time in an unlikely area: my task list. Wait, aren’t task lists a good thing to spend time on? Yes, to a point. However, I realized that I was spending way too much time re-reading my task list to decide which task to tackle next. It isn’t unusual for me to have 10-20 items that I would like to finish, and those items vary in priority and urgency.  Every time I completed a task, I had to go back to my task list to pick my next task. I decided that this was an inefficient use of my time to do this after every task. I still work in chunks and schedule my time, but I’m getting more organized about how often I go back to my task list.

The Next 3 Things

I now have a little document that I keep open called “The Next 3 Things.” Starting in the morning, I look at my task list to pick the next three things that I need to work on, and I add them to the document. I don’t go back to my task list until those three things are finished. When I finish a grouping of three things, I go back to my task list to pick the next three things.

I combine it with working in chunks by combining items that span several tasks in my task list into a single item in my “Next 3 Things” list. For example, four individual tasks for the same client will probably be grouped into a single item in my next 3 things list to work in a chunk of time focused on that client. I also cheat sometimes by adding a section at the bottom for tasks that I want to do at a particular time. For example, I might want to write a specific blog post while I eat lunch or go to the bank before it closes to deposit checks.

This is just one technique for prioritizing your work to stay focused on the right tasks while avoiding distractions, but it has been working for me.

What are your tips for staying focused and avoiding distractions?

Photo by Flickr user Martin Kingsley used under Creative Commons.

7 Comments

Bambi Gordon

Anoher suggestion is to put down the estimated time it will take to complete the task, on the to-do list. I like to do a list first thing in the morning (using the one from the day before – which hopefully has had some things crossed off), number the top 5 (regardless of the order that I have written the list) and put an estimated time to complete next to each item. This will often help show why you aren’t getting 20 hours work done in 8 to 12 hours each day!

Sabrina Beaudin

Great blog post! My fiance and I are in a similar situation (both work from home) and I’m the type who gets distracted by household chores. I have taken the advice of my better half and reward myself for completed tasks – example, I can go to the grocery store when I finish task X.

Deb Pierson

Scheduling time on the calendar with automatic reminders helps me focus on what is important. Actually shutting down email, twitter and IM and putting my phone on Do Not Disturb is a good tool when I need to focus. Great tips in your post, thanks!

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