Moving Work Forward When Surrounded by Chaos
Moving Work Forward When Surrounded by Chaos

Moving Work Forward When Surrounded by Chaos

10/16/2020 by Kathryn Puzzanghera
How to stay productive amidst your coworkers’ and family’s meetings, interruptions, and priorities.

The past year has been one of unprecedented change both in and out of the workplace for many of us. Covid-19 has forced us to reimagine the workplace and, for many of us, what it looks like to work when we are surrounded by family members or roommates also trying to hold their meetings, take their exams, and get things done. 

For better or worse, many of us have had to figure out new ways to work and keep our projects moving forward when we’re surrounded by a baseline level of chaos. Whether you’re working from an office building or home office full-time like we do at Arkus, these tips apply to staying productive in any circumstance. Now, like all advice, it’s important to tailor your style to what works for you and your family. These strategies have worked for me and I hope some of them might work for you.

Go For Small Wins

At Arkus, we use David Allen’s Getting Things Done methodology and one of the core rules is if you can do a task in less than two minutes, you always do it. It’s a good rule of thumb and I find broadening it can be very useful. 

If it will take you 15 minutes to prep for that meeting or a half hour to finish that documentation… it’s worth it to buckle down and get those low-effort tasks done right away. There are two benefits to this:

1) You are making progress and checking things off without having to put in huge chunks of time or energy and 2) When you carve out time for the larger items, you won’t need to worry about small leftover tasks taking up brain space, you can focus fully on your larger deliverables without worrying something will fall through the cracks.  

Some days your schedule might be too packed to actually dedicate a chunk of time to making progress on a large project, but with this method you will always be able to move forward, even when you have less availability. You can use this approach to break larger tasks into smaller ones. Is there some piece of that item that’s been on your to-do list that you can do now?  Maybe you can’t get it all done right away, but you can move it closer to complete with a small quick action. Don’t let perfection be the enemy of the good.

Guard Your Calendar

This one is harder to implement if your company culture resists it, but try to do what you can.  Many people are under the impression that your calendar, at least during work hours, is public property. This is not true. Own your calendar. 

At Arkus, we don’t take time on one another’s calendars without checking first (and checking doesn’t just mean ensuring there’s no other conflicting meetings, checking means asking, “Do you have time for a meeting on this day?”) and we do our best to minimize standing meetings.  Meetings should only occur when there is a specific agenda that requires a conversation and when you’ve ruled out other alternatives like e-mail.

Don’t be afraid also to block out chunks of time on your calendar. 1–4 on Wednesday? You’re writing that grant proposal. You are not free for a meeting then, you’re working on that proposal. You can be busy at certain times without the reason needing to be another meeting or being out of the office. It’s your time and you have the right, and the responsibility, to allocate it as necessary.  

Coordination is also key. On my phone, I have multiple calendars overlaying each other in the app. I can see my personal calendar, my family’s calendar, my work calendar, and a family member’s work calendar at the same time.  Work isn’t just work when you’re working from home. Scheduling that important presentation when your kids have lunchtime and are shouting at each other or when your roommate has also scheduled their important presentation, probably isn’t the best idea. Finding that give and take to sync up schedules is crucial to ensuring that your plans for work are actually matching the reality around you. 

Work Only When You Really Can

You often hear the advice to “work when you can”, which usually means “whenever you have time, try to fit in work”, but my advice, at least if you’re working from home, is to narrow that to work only when you actually can.  

There’s a lot of good research that now supports the idea of “sleep hygiene”. Our habit of watching TV in bed, using it as a place to fold laundry, all these things are not conducive to ensuring that when we get into bed at night, we actually sleep. Research shows that keeping our beds for sleep and other areas for other activities improves our sleep. I’ve found that the same principle is useful for my office and for work.  

Our attention wanders during the day; it’s just a fact. When I find myself getting too distracted to focus on work, I take a break and walk away…the other result likely would involve me a) checking the news or social media b) scrolling through email to try to fool myself that I’m being productive or c) continuing to stare at the same document because I’m determined to keep working on it even though somehow I can’t figure out what to write next. None of these are good things and I want to avoid them at all costs. So, when I feel my attention wandering, instead of trying to force it into a half-state of concentration, I get up, I leave my office, and do something completely different, often something like doing the dishes or making a call to the doctor. 

When I come back five or fifteen minutes later, I’m ready to give the task at hand full attention again and I’ve prevented my brain from starting to see my office as a place where distraction is normal. Similar to my suggestion above, don’t be afraid to block off times that you know ahead of time that you’ll be distracted for. 

If you know that it’s hard for you to concentrate while your kids are eating their lunch in the next room or if you know that at 3:30 PM the school bus is going to arrive and they’re going to want to tell you everything about their day for 15 minutes, set aside that time. Lying to yourself and trying to half-work through the busy-ness isn’t as productive as drawing the boundaries when you need to, and making sure that when you are working, you’re giving it your full attention.

Lists are Your Friend

My work and personal life consist of many lists. If I’ve thought of something I need to do, it has to be captured on a list. One of my most important is my daily list. We keep complex projects on track in a number of ways, with rigorous documentation, scrums, and OmniFocus. I have found it helpful to also capture all my tasks for the next day at the end of one on a list. This is my own, personal space for organizing my work, separate from collaborative project management and task tracking tools.

The first and most obvious benefit of this is that at the end of the day I know everything that needs to get done is captured and waiting in the morning. This relieves stress and forces a mini-review on a daily basis of what’s outstanding and what’s upcoming.  All of those other lists that I mentioned earlier?  That’s what I can pull from everyday to compile what I should be doing.

The second benefit is related to how the list is limited. I only put items on my list for the next day  that I think are realistic to accomplish in the day. 

Most of us make daily to-do lists that are actually the lists our uber-productive, Wonder Woman alter-ego would get done. They’re more like wishlists than to-do lists. Then we inevitably can’t check off every item on the list, ensuring we end the workday with a mild sense of failure, shame, and stress about what we now think is overdue for the next day. 

I keep my list only to what I think is achievable and try to focus on the few things that will make me feel like it has been a productive day. It only takes a few small wins for you to know you moved the needle. 

If the list really looks short, it can help to draw a line under it and put a few other thoughts about what to do in any extra time, but realistically, my limited, underestimated list is usually plenty. Tasks often take more time than you think they do, and that’s not even accounting for whatever is going to show up in your email tomorrow morning that’s going to need to be addressed. 

I can keep my list to three or four items and still have a very productive day. If your list is over 10 and you’re not counting things like “send quick email to follow up with Liza” then I can pretty much assure you you’re overestimating. There is nothing more important when you plan than realism.

Using these same principles I’ve outlined above, I usually create a weekly list as well. These are often of more high-level tasks, for instance, one that might take more than a day, but again, it ensures that I have documented everything necessary for the week and I have a realistic plan for allocating my time.

In Summary

To wrap this up, my clearest call to action is to be ruthless and realistic. You are the defender of your time, space, energy, and productivity and all of those are exceptionally valuable commodities that should be treated as such. Knowing that, you’ll be empowered to make the decisions that ensure that, no matter what curve balls come your way, you’ll be able to keep your work moving forward.

What are your best tricks for getting work done in a challenging environment? Let me know on the Salesforce Trailblazer Community or tweet at me @KPuzzanghera.