A Productivity & Time Thief at Work

Stop splitting your attention – get more done in less time

  • Do you know what sneaky distractions are?
  • “Half-work?” What’s that?
  • Beating the culprit one task at a time

Whether you are experienced in working from home or you were thrown into it because of the pandemic, there is one thing we all have in common: distractions. We all encounter them; we all have to deal with them. Some people struggle to keep distractions at bay, some seem to manage them more easily.

What’s the difference between the two?

I’ll hazard a guess and say, the ones who struggle the most and fall prey to distractions are the ones who may not even know what distractions they are prone to give in to.

Before you tell me that it’s perfectly obvious that your kids are the biggest distraction, I won’t argue with you. Having kids around and trying to work is challenging, to say the least. But truth be told, that’s only partially true. Even if you had the perfect working conditions you might fall into a far sneakier trap, splitting your attention between various tasks. It’s a major productivity and time thief and is called “half-work.”(1)

I call “half-work” a sneaky distraction because it is by no means an obvious one like checking Facebook, searching for something non-work-related on the internet or having to deal with cranky kids. We may not even be aware of this drain in productivity and squandering of time.

Let me explain.

James Clear, author of the book Atomic Habits, coined the term “half-work.” He writes in his blog:

“In our age of constant distractions, it’s stupidly easy to split our attention between what we should be doing and what society bombards us with.”(2)

Instead of being fully engaged and focused on the work at hand, or any activity for that matter, we are prone to dividing our attention. Here are two examples to clarify what this means:

  • You start writing a report but stop randomly to check your phone for no reason or open up Facebook or Twitter. (3)
  • Your mind wanders to your email inbox while you’re on the phone with someone. (4)

Because we’re not fully engaged in and, therefore, not fully committed to and focused on what we are doing, it “takes twice as long to accomplish half as much.” (5)

The situation changes tremendously the moment we have a firm deadline. Think of the last day at work before going on vacation. I’m sure I’m not the only one who has experienced it, but we get an awful lot accomplished that last day. Why? Because we don’t divide our attention between tasks, we eliminate distractions, and we’re 100% focused on getting done what needs to get done.

“This complete elimination of distractions is the only way I (Clear) know to get into deep, focused work and avoid fragmented sessions where you’re merely doing half-work.”(6)

But working fully engaged, focused and committed isn’t always easy because we are so used to splitting our attention.

Some days I find it hard, and I have to remind myself to focus and finish the task at hand, only the task at hand and nothing else. To make it easier I turn off my phone, close my email app and set a timer for approximately 30-45 minutes. During this time I’m not allowed to do anything but work on the task I set for myself. I’m not even allowed to go to the bathroom or get a coffee. After these 30-45 minutes I’m allowed to take a short break, but quite often I just keep working and finish what I’ve started. I only take a short five-minute break when I feel stuck or nature is calling. If you take a break, don’t check emails or look at any electronic device! The temptation to “quickly” answer a few emails is simply too great, and you’re back at square one.

Thankfully, some days it’s really easy, and the reward is a feeling of accomplishment and satisfaction and/or some spare time to go for a walk or play with my cat.

Just imagine what it would mean for you to focus and commit your attention to the work at hand instead of allowing your mind to wander?

Give it a try. Just make sure that you focus your full attention on the right work aka “important work.” If you need a refresher on what defines important work, jump back to my blog Urgent – Busy – Important Work and read it here and you’re well on your way to beating this sneaky time and productivity thief.

As a reward use the “extra” time to meet with a friend, physically distanced of course, play with your kids, exercise, go for a walk, read a book, you name it. Or use the momentum and dive right into your next important task.

Let me know what you think. There is always room for a note in the comments below. See you next time,


(1) (2) (3) (4) (5) (6) James Clear, 3 Time Management Tips That Will Improve Your Health and Productivity

2021 – A New Year, New Opportunities, New Decisions

If you followed my Advent Calendar, you know that I shared some tips and food for thought for you and your business. The last one will be this blog: setting you and your business up for a successful 2021.

We all are happy that 2020 is almost over, and we can move on into a hopefully better year. There are things that are beyond our control, but there are also many things that will be up to us to make 2021 a good year. As you may know, I’m a big believer in planning. The reason being, without a plan you don’t know where to focus your energy and discern what is important. You may start projects because they appear interesting, only to find out that they are not the right move for your business at this point in time.

It takes some reflecting and strategizing to determine what your business needs right now, what projects to start, what projects to continue, and what projects to abort to reach your business goals. By the way, the same is also true for your personal goals.

Around Christmas and before the start of the new year is my “quiet time.” Most people and businesses take a break. It’s the perfect time for me to take stock and have a look back. I invite you to do the same.

Looking Back

The first step is looking back at what has happened the last twelve months, or whatever your chosen timeframe may be. What has happened, and what impact did it have on your business. Write it down.

Finding the Truth

Especially in cases where I haven’t achieved my goal(s), I dig deeper and ask myself WHY and WHAT happened. Be like Sherlock Holmes and find all the big and little things that have led to the current situation.

Please don’t fall into the trap of making excuses such as no time, no money… that’s not what we’re after. You may not have had the time, but there is often an underlying reason for that, the real reason. That’s what you’d like to uncover. You may not have had the money, write down why. The insights you’ll gain will guide your decisions for the next year or the time period you chose.

Maybe the cost for an assistant or a new team member is outside of your budget and you have to rely on the resources at your disposal. It means you’ll have to plan without having the additional help. Maybe a project went south despite a promising start. Figuring out why is essential for avoiding the same mistake(s). Maybe you haven’t reached the number of subscribers you had aimed for. Analyzing what happened will inform your next steps.

But it is equally important to look at the things that went well. Asking WHY in these cases will give you insights into what you should do more of. For example, you may understand what type of projects are a great fit for your company, you may find out which people you work with really well. You’ll learn what triggered people to subscribe to your new service.

Write it all down. The good and the bad.

Planning the Future

Now that you have a clear picture of where you are at with your business, you have to decide where you will go from here. Write down all the ideas, plans, and projects you have in mind.  After you are done, take a close look at them and ask yourself which ones truly align with your business purpose and goals. If all of them pass this test, you need to consider the one or two that will have the greatest impact on your business.

You don’t need to discard the other ideas, projects, or plans. But focusing on one or two major projects will ensure that you stay focused and get things moving forward. It also helps you avoid feeling overwhelmed–at least some of the time–because you have too many balls in the air. A good rule of thumb is to account for problems along the way. Often things appear simpler than they really are. And experience has shown me that everything usually takes longer than expected.

This is it for me for 2020. I’ll take some time off and hope to see you again in February 2021.

I wish you lots of success, and may your businesses flourish and grow.

Reflecting On Your Day

Do you take time at the end of the day to reflect on it? I do, (almost) every night.  Most of the time I make some notes in my journal. I call it my Insights & Actions. I write down what I found hard and challenging, what I am happy about, what I struggled with, if it was a good day and why, or if there was something that I’m not so thrilled about and why.

For me it’s the key to learning and growing, both professionally and personally. Sometimes it’s a quick note to serve as a reminder. But sometimes it’s very specific.

Learning what worked and why is helpful to remember and to keep in my personal “toolbox.” Learning what didn’t work and why is helpful to avoid making the same mistake. It may not work right away, but reflecting on the good and/or bad brings it to your consciousness and gives you a choice: keep it, or lose it.

I’d like to invite you to do the same. Take a moment at the end of the day and ask yourself: what are the things that you found hard, you found easy, you are happy about, you are [fill the blank]. The insights you’ll gain are priceless.

Here are some questions to get you started:

  • Did I accomplish all I’ve put on my to-to list? If your answer is no, dig in deeper and ask why? What can you change?
  • At the end of a project you may want to ask what made this project go smoothly and why? Was it due to a person, a tool, preparation at the beginning…?
  • Or alternatively, why did I run into so many problems during this project? Were these problems preventable? What could I have done differently?
  • Did I take the time to read, relax, exercise, etc.? Your promises to yourself are important for your wellbeing. If you disregard them on a regular basis you may want to find out why and what you can do differently.
  • Or simple things like being more patient with your husband, kids, colleagues, friends also deserve recognition.

Happy self-discovery and learning!

Say NO more more often

Imagine this situation: A friend, family, or team member approaches you and asks you for a favor. It’s a small favor, you think. And without even thinking about it, you say yes.

A couple of minutes, sometimes a couple of hours, later you realize that this small favor is really cutting into your day more than you had bargained for. You start to move your own commitments and responsibilities around to make it all work. You’re angry, and you feel stressed. You wonder why you said yes in the first place.

How do you avoid this situation? Don’t say YES right away. Ask for a bit of time to consider your answer and give it later. This way you can check in with yourself and your calendar what impact this YES will have.

In my blog “Darn, why did I say yes…. I wrote in more detail about it. Check it out. Or have a look at this blog.

Focus Time

In a previous post I explained why multitasking is impairing your productivity and efficiency and suggested turning off notifications on your devices.

I know this may be easier said than done. We don’t want to miss important calls from a prospective customer or an urgent question from a team member. So, how to go about it?

Here are 3 steps that’ll help you work around this problem: 

  1. Ask yourself the question: What is the time of day with the least calls or disruptions? This could mean dealing with kids at home, answering calls from your team or customers, you name it.
  2. This time with the least disruptions is your focus time, time to work on your complex and important projects or tasks. Turn off notifications on all your devices or set them on flight mode, turn off everything that would distract you, and yes, that means TV and radio, and get to work.

Everything that will land in your inbox or on your voicemail will be attended to after your focus time.

  1. Last but not least, don’t allow anybody to “steal” this time from you (emergencies excluded of course). Inform your team, your colleagues, or your family that you’ll be offline for x-amount of time and available afterwards.

I know, it’s far more difficult with kids. But even with kids there are periods in your day during which they won’t need you. Maybe you have to be more flexible. Maybe you have to limit your focus time to 20 minutes instead of one hour. Whatever time you can carve out make sure you use it well.

Remember, there is no such thing as perfect, but there is always the best we can do.

Take a Break to Make Progress

Sometimes the best way to make progress is stepping away from whatever we are doing. It may sound counterproductive, so let’s have a look at why this may be true.

Imagine you are working on a project and have made quite some progress, but all of a sudden you get stuck. You run into a problem and, for the life of you, you can’t figure out how to solve it.

Instead of wracking your brain hour after hour, going for a walk, talking with a colleague, getting your daily exercise in, may be far more conducive to finding the solution because you allow your brain to shift and get a fresh perspective.

How often have you struggled with a task and just because you were called away from it you later realized that the solution was staring you in the face, you just didn’t see it? Or you notice something that has escaped you before?

Don’t wait for someone to call you away. Take the initiative!

Take a break. Do something unrelated. Give yourself some time to look at the problem with a fresh set of eyes. I bet you’ll come up with an answer.

Give it a try and see what happens.