The Best Productivity Tool You're Not Using

Last Updated Mar 11, 2011 1:13 PM EST

It's not just you -- most knowledge workers seem to have a low-level case of ADD these days. You come in ready to work, only to spend hours responding to emails and phone calls, and drifting between meetings where people check their Blackberries to respond to emails from people in other meetings. According to a late 2010 Workplace Options report, 42% of workers say they come in early or stay late in order to avoid distractions (a practice which makes people think they're working more hours than they are). After all, you have to do your actual job at some point.

Unfortunately, spending the whole day reacting, and staying late just to catch up with your job description, doesn't leave much time for pondering the future. What projects would you like to tackle? What challenges will your organization face three years from now? Thinking about these questions is the difference between treading water and zooming ahead. So how do you create the time to focus?

One approach is to emulate Trista Harris, the executive director of the Headwaters Foundation for Justice in Minneapolis, Minnesota. When I interviewed Harris for 168 Hours, she told me that she carved out a few hours on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays for "strategic thinking time.” This is time with the phone and email off, the door closed (or some other physical separation from distractions), spent pondering long-term important questions.

Sound impossible? Don't be so sure. Here's how to try it.
  1. Figure out what you'd like to think about. On your commute or during a quiet patch at night or on weekends, think through what are the big questions related to your career or organization. Choose one to start with.
  2. Gather any material you'll need in advance. You do not want to search through your email to find a report... and then answer 10 other emails and follow a link to an interesting article your colleague sent and then, hey! Is it noon already?
  3. Seize the time. No one is going to say "Hey, here's an hour where nothing else will happen!” You're going to have to take the lead on this one. If you can leave your office during the day, go somewhere nearby and quiet. Do a work-from-home day or morning if that's possible for you. If you have an office, shut the door. If you're in a cube, reserve an empty conference room. Don't bring your phone to be "available” if someone needs you. The point is to be unavailable.
  4. Start small. The hardest part about strategic thinking time is actually maintaining your focus. So you may need to take baby steps. For your first session, aim for 30 minutes truly focused on the question at hand. Set your watch. If your mind wanders, bring it back.
  5. Make it a habit. If you make it through 30 minutes, congratulate yourself. Then try again later in the week. If you manage to do three 30-minute sessions a week for several weeks in a row, aim bigger.
When I interviewed her, Harris was regularly up to 5 or more hours a week of focused time. That may sound like a lot, but in the grand scheme of things, spending one-eighth of a workweek thinking about the future isn't radical.

It's smart.

How do you carve out time to think?

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Photo courtesy flickr user, KellyK

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