According to a study conducted by UC Irvine, the average office worker is interrupted or switches tasks every three minutes and five seconds. That’s 19 times every hour and over 150 times in a typical workday.
Going through your day in this sort of fashion can be absolutely devastating for your productivity, not to mention your energy and your mood.
The ability to stay focused is becoming an increasingly rare and valuable skill in today’s distracted, fast-paced world. Greater focus helps you achieve more in less time and with less stress.
In a prior article, I shared three tips on how to manage external interruptions- the ones that occur due to co-workers, clients, or friends and family. In this article, you will learn how to manage internal interruptions- the ones that you bring on by yourself.
Why internal interruptions are dangerous
Imagine that it’s 10:30 a.m. on a Tuesday morning. You are focused on a project at work. Seemingly out of nowhere, an idea pops into your head about another project. What would you usually do in this situation?
For many people, the natural response would be to switch tasks and dive into the new idea. This might seem harmless. It’s not like you are taking a break to scroll through Facebook, right? However, there are consequences.
As written here, shifting gears like this leads to an effect known as attention residue. Every time that you switch tasks, part of your attention remains with the prior task. Constantly switching tasks throughout the day, leaves you with a very thick residue. This reduces performance and can also make you more tired, more stressed-out, and more irritable, especially as the day wears on.
“Small ideas” vs. “big ideas”
Ideas will pop into your head throughout each day. Some ideas will be related to work, and some will be related to life outside of work. This is inevitable. The way that you deal with these ideas has a profound impact on your productivity, energy, and mood.
In general, there will be two kinds of ideas that will surface. Let’s call them “small ideas” and “big ideas.”
“Small ideas” can be completed quickly. They are usually tactical. Examples might include following-up with a co-worker on a project or scheduling an appointment with your doctor.
“Big ideas” are very different. They cannot be resolved quickly, they are more strategic, and they are usually composed of many separate tasks. You will usually need hours or days or maybe even longer to completely resolve them. For example, you might have a “big idea” for a new way to market your business, or you might have a “big idea” for a new personal challenge that you want to tackle.
“Small ideas” and “big ideas” need to be handled differently. Let’s look at that next.
Handling “small ideas” later that day
When a “small idea” pops into your head, it can be especially tempting to deal with it immediately. “It will only take a few minutes,” you might think to yourself. In reality, it will often take longer than you realize, and it could lead to a series of subsequent tasks, emails, text messages, etc.
Even if the “small idea” seems like it could be dealt with in minutes, it is usually still better to store it somewhere, deal with it later, and stay focused on the task at hand. Otherwise, you can burn up a lot of your time and mental energy on random “small ideas.”
Where you store an idea depends on when you want to deal with it. Some ideas you will want to deal with later that day, just not right away. Others you will want to store for the future.
Each day, I work off my daily planner called The Work Stronger Day Planner. I explain this tool in Work Stronger, and it’s included in The Work Stronger Workbook, which is one of the free bonuses with the book. If you are not familiar with my day planner, it includes a separate column for “Reminders and Fast Tasks.”
Whenever a “small idea” pops into my head at work and when that idea is something that I want to deal with that day, I write it in the “Reminders and Fast Tasks” column on my day planner. I only work on that column at the end of the day, or whenever there is a few spare minutes during the day.
Whether you use my day planner or not, the main message is to store “small ideas” (and other “quick reminders and fast tasks”) separately from your main priorities for each day. Don’t just lump everything together in one random to-do list, or it will be harder to prioritize.
Storing “small ideas” for the future
Let’s talk next about how to store “small ideas” that you don’t want to deal with that day. I’ll share my approach again as an example.
When I’m at work and have a “small idea” that is not related to work, I email it to my personal email address (if I don’t plan to deal with it that day). I usually review and organize my personal email during evenings and weekends, and it basically serves as a personal to-do list.
If you don’t use your personal email the same way, you might want to store your personal “small ideas” elsewhere. Whatever you decide, designate one place for storing them.
When I have a “small idea” that is professional, and when I don’t want to deal with it that day, I add it to my “Master Planning List.” This is a running document that stores all of my work ideas and reminders and tasks that I eventually want to complete. It’s a simple word document that is divided into separate projects and categories. I review and organize it at the end of each week in order to plan and set goals for my upcoming week.
My approach is simply intended as an example, not as the only plausible approach. The key message is to have one place for storing “small ideas” related to work and one place for storing “small ideas” not related to work. If you have too many places for storing your ideas, you will waste time and energy trying to retrieve them later.
Storing “big ideas” for the future
You will almost always be better off filing “big ideas” for future review and planning. It’s usually not wise to jump into them right away, or to even handle them the day that you have the idea.
This is true for two reasons. First of all, you may find that an idea does not seem as great a few days later. In that case, waiting a few days before taking action will have saved you time and energy. On the other hand, if you still feel strongly about a “big idea” a few days later, it’s better to handle it when you are in a clear state of mind. That is not when you first had the idea and were right in the middle of something else.
When I’m working and a “big idea” for work pops into my mind, I follow the same approach as for a “small idea.” I add it to my “Master Planning List.” Then, I return to the task at hand, knowing that I’ll be able to review that “big idea” at the end of the week- during my strategy and planning session for the next week and beyond.
Summary and final thoughts
Ideas will pop into your head throughout each day. Do you have a simple, smooth system for dealing with these ideas within 30 seconds or less?
If not, create one as soon as possible. Identify a place for storing ideas related to work, and identify a place for storing ideas not related to work. Beware of having too many places for storing your ideas, or you will waste time and energy trying to retrieve them later.
Just because an idea pops into your head during the workday, that does not mean that you have to explore that idea immediately. You are usually better off filing spontaneous ideas away for future review. Stay focused.
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About the author: Pete Leibman is a consultant, speaker, and author who helps leaders and companies thrive. He is the creator of StrongerHabits.com and he’s the bestselling author of Work Stronger; Habits for More Energy, Less Stress, and Higher Performance at Work. Before writing Work Stronger, Pete worked as an executive recruiter at Heidrick & Struggles, a leadership advisory firm who serves the majority of the Fortune 500. In his free time, he teaches one of the largest group exercise classes in the Washington, D.C. area. He has also competed in the Obstacle Course Racing (OCR) World Championships.
References for this article:
- Leroy, Sophie. “Why Is It So Hard To Do My Work? The Challenge Of Attention Residue When Switching Between Work Tasks.” Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 109 (2009) 168-181.