Arresting time thieves & business bandits in the home office

Jeff Zbar

So I’m sitting here in my home office on a Thursday morning. I have a half-dozen Word windows and just as many Firefox tabs open – each representing some project in varying stage of non-completion. No serious business being done here.

I should be working on the project(s) or doing some research. But I’m sending an email to a school teacher, or waiting for a call back from the mechanic, or surfing the Web for the latest tech or news or [insert non-work related topic here] headlines that will add nothing substantive to my day – but will certainly steal precious time.

Time thieves – they’re all around. Laundry. Cooking. Cleaning. A trip to the grocery store or the vet. Volunteering at pre-school or for high school DECA.

Home-business and telework pundits warn us that non-work errands and time poorly managed often drag us off task and sap our productivity.

Sure, household chores are common culprits. When there’s laundry to be done, many of us say “Damn the torpedoes and pundits” and full steam ahead to the Whirlpool.

But what truly sucks our time into that whirlpool of lost productivity? If chores and out-of-home errands are the felony robbery of efficiency thievery, it’s the misdemeanor offenses that often result in that “It’s already 5 o’clock – what the heck to I have to show for my day?” realization.

 • Unexpected phone calls and emails that drag you off your mission. Even as I was writing this, a call came in from a reader who wanted contact info for an organization I profiled. Mr. Nice Guy stopped what I was doing, opened the document, and gave the gent what he sought – plus some other contacts. Time lost: Five minutes or so. Loss of focus? Invaluable.

• Life’s details and Honey-Dos. With a wife who’s a practitioner in a busy doctor’s office, the details of life fall to my home office desk.

• Listening to iTunes in the background. When my brother bought me an iPod for my 40th birthday, he unleashed a long-dormant audiophile beast within who now downloads and listens to tunes on a whim. Much as I enjoy it, even music playing quietly can send focus astray.

• Writing blogs and other non-paying projects during otherwise billable time. This blog itself (which will deliver exactly $0 in income) wasted the better part of 90 minutes to write.

These little time-leeches bleed productivity dry. Think of it as death by a thousand cuts – home office productivity style.

Where the pundits have it right is to parse the day or find appropriate justification.

• If non-billable outreach requires an email, send it before of after the workday. I often awaken at 5:30 a.m. and spend the next hour in bed with my BlackBerry, surfing sites and sending emails – even to myself, as ticklers of stories or other to-dos.

• Spend the first 30 minutes of the workday making phone calls for billable and non-billable tasks or projects alike. That way, you won’t be distracted making them throughout the day, and when return calls will come in, you can act on them.

• Tell that caller seeking [insert non-work related stuff here] to send you an email. You can respond after hours, off-peak or once your crush has subsided.

• Use caller ID and trust voicemail. Don’t recognize that number? Trust voicemail to handle it. Recognize the caller? Take a ring or two to reset your bearings, even open the associated contact or document. Seriously, this three-second stall can help refocus your mind on a new task (assuming it has to be handled at that moment).

• Keep a list. I’m no adherent to “list making.” But lists made early or late, then addressed late or early in the workday, help ensure tasks are handled – and you don’t drop everything to make that call you just remembered.

• Facilitate keeping a list. I keep a whiteboard on the wall and a spiral pad beside my keyboard. Deadlines-at-a-glance are great reminders of what’s important. If some task needs doing, I quickly write it down – and get back to my task at hand. Some people use Outlook or Google Calendar Tasks or Evernote. Paper is my repository of choice. It’s a personal thing. Do what works for you.

As for justification, I like my music and I really like writing commentary. I just know my personal rhythm and bounds. Music can help foster creativity, but when it’s distracting, I feel it – and close iTunes. If blogging interferes with deadlines… Well, it doesn’t. I’ve been at this gig long enough to know how to triage those patients. Paying work comes first.

Besides, 5 o’clock will come soon. Callers, clients and editors will pipe down. Then I can return to work – even if it steals family time.

But that’s another crime altogether…

Jeff Zbar is The Chief Home Officer®
Copyright 2012. Author retains ownership. All Rights Reserved

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