How to Organize Your Life So You Don’t Get Distracted

To learn how to best organize your life so that you aren’t distracted and are highly productive, I spoke to Mark Shead. Shead blogs at productivity501.com, which is one of the most popular productivity blogs in the world. He has worked as a system administrator, network administrator, IT director, and software engineer in variety of industries. Currently, he works with startups and on startup style projects within larger organizations. His focus is on getting better business results by improving software engineering processes–paying particular attention to the human element. This includes helping teams follow Agile principles, using DevOps to drive the delivery of business value, and engineering process improvements. In the following brief interview, Shead talks about creating better work habits, why people have trouble with productivity, his favorite tech tools, how he organizes his desk, and gives us a glimpse at his typical work day.

Dan Schawbel: What are some of your top ways to create better work habits?

Mark Shead: One of the best steps you can take toward making better work habits is to write down what you need to accomplish and prioritize them. So much time is wasted by doing things that aren’t important. Having a clear picture of the most important thing you can be doing right now makes a huge difference in your ability to work smarter. You will never be able to do everything you can think of, but you can make sure that you aren’t doing trivial tasks and skipping over the things that really matter.

Schawbel: Why do so many people have a hard time remaining productive? What do you typically recommend to them?

Shead: A big contributor to unproductivity is not having a clear idea of what is important. Imagine you have a list of 25 things you could work on. Each one has an hourly wage associated with it. So you have a few items that are worth $2 per hour, some that are worth $10 to $15 per hour all the way up to one item that will pay you $2,000 per hour.

Which would you work on? It is easy to be productive when there is an immediate dollar amount attached to your activities. It isn’t that the activities you choose between don’t have varying value–it is just harder to think about what they are when it isn’t stated in dollars.

Write what you need to do on cards and then lay them out on a table or stick them to a wall with the most important one on the top. Take the top card an move it to an “in process” area. Then work on that. When you are done move it to an area labeled “done” or “finished” so you can see what you’ve accomplished. Then start on the next most important thing. Don’t try to work on 10 things at once. Pick the most important thing, get it done and then move on to the next. This system is called a Kanban Board.

One advantage of this is that it lets you easily have discussions with people who might try to hijack your day. If your boss comes in and says, “I want you to work on XYZ” you can easily point to your prioritized cards and ask where their request fits in with the other stuff you are working on.

Schawbel: Can you name some of your favorite tech tools for managing your schedule and staying productive? What makes them so valuable?

Shead: Google Apps gives me a very useful calendar that stays synced on all my devices and integrates with my email. I find Google Talk / Hangouts is especially useful in collaborating with my team in real time because it lets me chat, screen share, talk or video conference. Chat histories show up right alongside my email searches, so I can easily find previous conversations without trying to remember if they took place on email or a chat.

I really like www.leankit.com because it gives you an easy way to implement the Kanban card system I described earlier. It is simple to use and free for basic accounts. Physical cards work great, but LeanKit lets you have a collaborative Kanban board with people who don’t necessarily share physical office space.

Schawbel: How should people organize their desk so they are less distracted?

Shead: A lot of that depends on what you are trying to do at your desk. Right now I’m on a video conference call working with a team for 8 hours every day. So I’ve set my desk and computers up to make sure that video conferencing doesn’t interfere with work I’m doing on another computer. If you are doing a lot of video conferencing and have to keep switching back and forth between the video window and your work area, it is like trying to talk to people that keep sitting in between you and your computer screen. Now not everyone is going to be doing video conferencing every day, but my point is that you have to find ways to set your desk up so it works well for the specific work you do.

Here are a few things that I find that help keep my desk from being distracting:

1. Go paperless – The Evernote Scanner helps deal with the mail that comes in–particularly stuff that I simply need to keep a copy of but will probably never touch again. I use www.expensify.com to deal with my receipts. I take a picture of them with my phone and can then get rid of the paper copy.

2. Keep it clear – Don’t keep a lot of stuff that you don’t need on your desk and make sure that you have a place for the stuff you do need. The desk I have now has some nice storage areas on either side as well as in the upper part of the work surface. In the past I’ve used a glass desk with no storage. Having storage is much better than not having it.

3. Get a good chair – Some people think they are distracted when really they are just uncomfortable. I use and Aeron that I bought used for a few hundred dollars off Craigslist. A good chair doesn’t have to be super expensive if you are willing to take the time to look around.

4. Get control of your wires – Wires can introduce visual clutter and make it easier to justify keeping a messy distracting desk. In the picture above you’ll see some stray wires here and there, but most of them are hidden away in the desk. There are miles of cable hidden from site in that desk. In fact one of the most important things I was looking for in choosing the Turnstone Bivi desk was the fact that it has a lot of places to run wires. You can’t see them, but there are 16 power outlets built into my desk and I’m using every one of them.

5. Go wireless – Related to #4, but wireless can really cut down on your desk clutter. I’ve had mixed luck with wireless keyboards and mice, but I’m happy with the bluetooth Apple keyboard and trackpad I’m currently using. The wireless Evernote scanner still has to be plugged into the wall, but I have a lot more freedom to put it where I want it without cluttering up my desk now that I don’t have a USB cable running to the computer.

6. Get a big monitor – A lot of times people keep paper clutter around because their monitor isn’t easy to read things on. They print things out to make it readable. Invest in a good monitor. On the right hand side of my desk is a 24 inch monitor that I’m using for video conferencing. I’ve had this monitor for nearly 7 years now. It has outlasted all of my computers. It has been well worth every penny I spent on it.

Schawbel: What does your typical day look like and what actions do you take so you’re able to be as productive as possible?

Shead: My day usually starts around 7 am with my four year old son padding in to announce that it is now morning time. I don’t drink coffee but for me a shower serves a similar purpose in helping me wake up. My wife homeschool’s our two children, so at breakfast I’ll usually try to encourage them to stay focused so they can finish quickly. At 8 am I’ll go down to my office in the basement. I’m currently working with a distributed team of very talented people on a software project for the Federal Government. My rightmost monitor is for video conferencing, so the first thing I do is connect into the video conferencing system.

At 10:15 we have a 15 minute meeting with everyone on the team where we go through the tasks on our Kanban board with all the developers. I will typically take a break sometime after this meeting and go back upstairs to check on how the kids are doing with their school work. Occasionally I’ll spend a few minutes doing flashcards or spelling words with them.

Around 12:15, my dad (who teaches at the college a mile from my house) joins us for lunch. I’m typically back on the video conference around 12:45 and continue to work until 5 pm. At this point, I go back upstairs and spend some time playing with the kids, hearing about what they learned and maybe quizzing them some more. We will typically eat a light supper and if the weather is good, go to the park for a walk.

My wife starts getting the kids ready for bed around 7:00 pm. I’ll usually do some work while she gets them bathed and into bed. Then it is my turn to tell them a story or read them a chapter from a book.

Usually they are asleep (or close to it) by 7:30. My wife and I will exercise while watching a video for about 45 minutes. We will typically be headed to bed around 9:30 and read for awhile before going to sleep around 10 to 11.

Of course like most people we very rarely have a “normal” day, but those are all the pieces.

A few things to note:

1. No commute – Working from home lets me spend less time just moving from place to place and more time actually working.

2. Family – I get to spend time with my family ever day. It is easy to get so busy that a family simple becomes a group of people who sleep under the same roof. Having my office at home means I get more opportunities to do stuff with my kids.

3. Exercise – It is easy to think you don’t have enough time to exercise, but if your work depends on you being alert and healthy, you don’t have time not to exercise. You’ll sleep better and think better when you are getting regular exercise. It is an investment of your time, but one that pays great dividends.

4. Sleep – Most people are perpetually sleep deprived. You aren’t going to get 8 hours of sleep unless you are intentional about it.













Dan Schawbel

Dan Schawbel is the managing partner of Millennial Branding, a Gen Y research and management consulting firm. His new book, a New York Times best seller, is called Promote Yourself: The New Rules For Career Success (St. Martin's Press) and his previous book, Me 2.0, was a #1 international bestseller.

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