Noise, distractions, disorganisation and clutter. They are part of the every single day. If you’re of those people who thrive in chaos, I applaud you. In this truly chaotic world we live in today you are well positioned to excel. If however you’re like me, you find noise, clutter and disorganisation truly distracting and a detriment to your productivity. Trying to work on a single task when there are conversations happening around you, interruptions about completely obscure questions, feeling disorganised because of the environment you’re working in, or not knowing what’s truly important and deserves your attention right now can lead to a significant amount of time your time being wasted. And time is an incredibly valuable resource – it is why we strive to become more efficient and effective at everything we do.
Here we will dive into the three main areas of “noise”: clutter, lists hygiene, and literal noise, and find simple ways to overcome them in order to gain more focus on your goals and achieve a sense of calm.
I am a firm believer that a healthy environment nurtures a healthy mind. To that point, a cluttered, or disorganised workspace creates a state of mind that is unable to focus on what needs to be done at the micro level in the context of what’s important at the macro level. Personally I used to work in a very messy and disorganised state and thinking back about that point in my life now I know that I could feel the anxiety within me. I know now that this anxiety was a direct result of being so disorganised. Then, one day, it just hit me – “why do I need all this stuff around me? Why do I need so much ‘stuff’ sitting on my desk?” When I then began this very simply act of cleaning up my desk I could immediately feel the anxiety weaken it’s hold. I am sure you know this feeling too – the feeling you get after a spring clean for example – things are in order in your environment, the old has been removed, and what’s left over is exactly where you need it. Make this small act of keeping your workspace contained and tidy a quick and easy one by doing it regularly instead of letting old habits return.
Tip #1: Allocate 15 minutes once per week to de-cluttering your workspace and maintain a productive environment.
There is clutter in more places than just your workspace. Your mind is a brilliant machine. However, despite what your boss may think, it cannot multi-task and generally has very poor accuracy for long-term memories. If your mind were a machine, it would be blazingly quick, but have a terrible hard drive. Every day your mind will conjure hundreds, if not thousands, of thoughts. Deciding which to keep and which to dismiss is one thing; being able to accurately remember the right ones is another. When my mind is ticking away, generating a flood of ideas and thoughts, and creating an abundance of mind-clutter, I make sure to get them out of my head and into something safer as quickly as possible. Doing so means I can come back and review them later when I have more time to dedicate to focusing on one thought and evolving it, or removing it. Personally I use Evernote to capture my thoughts. Simply creating a new text or audio note, capturing the thought and saving it for later is enough. You could do the same with many other apps, or even go old-school and jot your thoughts down on paper. However, using paper has the potential to create desk clutter, or could just end up lost. If you’re using paper, be sure to use a small pocket journal – something you can always have on-hand. The key to eliminating mind-clutter is being able to capture thoughts as soon as they happen.
Tip #2: Capture your thoughts as soon as they happen and focus on them separately, when your mind is more at ease.
If you’re a list-maker like me you’ve probably created many lists for many things. Often these lists are focused on what you need to get done – a “todo” list. You might even have separate lists for each project you’re working on. Applying Tip #2 to these lists means you can quickly capture something that you know you need to do, as soon as you think of it. However, what often happens is that these lists build up and build up until you suddenly realise there are hundreds of things on a single list and have no idea what’s important anymore. A simple regular review of every item on every list will help you to keep your things manageable and allow you to focus on what’s most important. It works like this: Once a week set aside an hour of your day – I use Friday afternoons. During this hour systematically go through every list you have. Whether it’s related to your job, things you have to do at home, or even those nice-to-have items on your wish list. Review them all. For each item on each list ask yourself these questions:
- “Is this something I still need to take care of”
- “If so, do I need to get it done this week and what is the next thing I need to do?” – If you do need to do it in the coming week set aside some time in your calendar to at least start work on it.
These two simple questions will help you keep your lists to a size that you can better manage and help you actually make progress on them. Anything that you find that is no longer relevant can simply be deleted.
Tip #3: Eliminate list clutter by regularly reviewing them and ruthlessly deleting things that are no longer relevant.
Even with a todo list it can often be difficult to schedule the action that needs to happen. Spending just 5 minutes either as the last thing you do at night, or the first thing you do in the morning (after coffee, coffee must *always* be the ultimate morning priority) to plan your day will pay massive dividends to what you get done and how you feel. This is really easy when you’ve been doing the regular list reviews since anything that is still important will be higher in your lists. To plan your day take three – yes, just three – items on your list and determine what the next action is to get them done. What this means is to really get granular and plan what actions you personally will take today to make progress on those three tasks. Do you need to “Call the Accountant”? Or, “Pickup bread on the way home”? Or perhaps “Generate charts for monthly sales report”? Whatever it is, make sure you give yourself no more than three of these items that you absolutely must get done today. And more importantly, get them done that day! You can absolutely do four, six, or even twenty-eight tasks that day, as long as the three you picked out get done.
Tip #4: Pick three tasks per day and focus on them to get them done!
Every day is wrought with its on uniqueness, it’s own unpredictability. This creates a challenge for anyone that is trying to focus on working through a particular task. I work in a big open-plan office space. No cubicles. The focus is on collaboration. I’m all for collaboration, but not for continual distractions. At your desk people know where you are. You’re easily hunted down for a wide variety of questions at any given moment. Distractions… they lurk around every corner. Simply relocating yourself when you need to focus on getting something done can be a very effective way of eliminating distractions from colleagues either looking for you or from conversations happening around you. It’s even more effective if you can take yourself out of the office environment to a quiet and slower-paced area. When you find this place, whether it be a café, park, library or anywhere, you must also disable email alerts. Email alerts are the enemy of many and will always distract you from what you’re trying to get done (unless you’re “doing email”). When you’re ready to get back into the office simply switch the alerts back on.
Tip #5: Escape to your quiet-zone when your environment becomes to chaotic and disable email notifications.
I sometimes need ambient noise to help block out whatever is going on around me. It gives my ears something to focus on and encourages me to move into a state of mind where I can focus on doing. If you’re going to go for something to listen to in order to eliminate other noisy distractions there are some considerations. Avoid anything with lyrics. When you hear lyrics you’ll often want to start singing (silently) along. Like I mentioned earlier, your mind cannot multitask. So when you attempt to remember the lyrics to a song and work on something at the same time, what your mind is really doing is very quickly jumping back and forth between the two (working and remembering the lyrics). And every time that switch happens your mind has to change gears – this takes time and energy. Another tip is to use sounds which can draw your mood into a focused sense of creativity. A creative mind will produce amazing results, no matter what you do. Many video-game soundtracks (yes, I realise I’m showing how nerdy I am) are actually designed to create this sense of creativity without distracting you. If you’re not into video-games, try finding a couple of movie soundtracks with orchestral pieces, or find a classical radio station (I prefer a solo piano – simple, clear and highly effective). Another option I highly recommend is background noise services such as noisli.com. Noisli let’s you create your own ambient sound mixes that loop forever, creating an atmosphere that helps you work the way you want to.
Tip #6: Eliminate the world around you with the right sounds and music.
With these six tips you can start to eliminate clutter, disorganisation and distractions from your world, freeing your mind to focus on exactly what you need to get done so that you can get them done quicker and more effectively. As a result you’ll end up with more time back in your day.