Have you ever gone into a room of your house looking for something, only to be distracted by something else, only to realize a half hour later that you are four projects deep and never got what you originally came in that room for? Yeah, me too.
This happened to me at work yesterday. I'm actually fairly good at time management, so it doesn't happen to me very often. I've had people ask me what my "secret" is, or how I manage to be so efficient. I never knew the answer! I just show up, do the work, and move on with my life. There's no secret. When I found myself four projects deep with nothing finished yesterday, I suddenly understood the secret.
Here's what happened. I got an email from a co-worker asking to work a different shift one day next week. I had the schedule in front of me, and I opened to the wrong page. On that page, I realized that I hadn't yet found a sub for a day during spring break week. I opened up the sub list to send an email to see who could work. Opening my email, I saw a response to a whole different email that I had been waiting for. Oooh! I need to see that first! But I couldn't respond back without opening a spreadsheet for some data, which I did. Looking for that spreadsheet, I saw a different spreadsheet in the file where I keep statistics on use of one of our online services (Zinio), and was suddenly inspired to see how we're doing this month compared to last month.
In the space of 15-20 minutes, I had an unfinished schedule change, an unfilled sub shift, an un-responded email, and an incomplete statistics spreadsheet. Wow. I felt very frustrated. Most of those things were on my to-do list, and normally I go down my list and cross things off without getting distracted by other things. If I see something along the way, I just add it to the to-do list. For some reason, I was distracted yesterday and had multiple open but unfinished projects in front of me. None of them would take more than a few minutes each to finish, individually. All together, none of them got finished before I had to be on-desk.
I guess part of my secret is finishing one thing before starting another. I feel like everything gets done faster, more completely, and with more focus and energy if it gets its allotted time. I am also an introvert by nature, which is another part of my "secret." I don't get easily distracted by outside conversations or activity, and I can focus easily on individual tasks that require attention to detail. Even when I get interrupted, which I don't mind, I can usually re-focus fairly quickly. I'm not sure what to tell extroverts, who get their energy from interaction and activity. It seems like extroverts would be constantly fighting distraction.
One more thing: I think of each part of a project as an individual to-do item. Rather than "set up webinar for staff," I write "register for webinar," "book computer lab for webinar," "email staff about webinar" and "put audio speakers in computer lab for webinar." Those are four things I can cross off, and each one takes about a minute. I know where I am in the webinar project and what still needs to be done. You don't want to spend more time creating the to-do list than doing the work, though, so don't get sucked in by the list-making. Just jot things down as you think of them and move on.
I find crossing things off of my list to be cathartic. There is real relief for me in knowing I did something and that at the end of the day I know right where I stand with each project. You still have to commit to doing the work and minimizing your distractions, but hey - it works for me.
I'm not sure what the heck happened yesterday! Just an off day, I guess.