How to Get Things Done

December 19, 2012 Katharina Lochner

Getting Through What Needs to Be Done

Another day in the office is over. You’ve been incredibly busy all day and you are feeling exhausted. But when asking yourself the question which of the tasks you wanted to do when you came to the office you actually got done, the answer is rather depressing: almost none. Does this sound familiar to you? In a TED Talk, Jason Fried gives advice on what you can do in order to get things done. Jason Fried’s surprising insight is that people don’t get things done at work. If you ask them where they get work done, the answers will usually be: in places other than the office (like at home or on a train) or in the office very early in the morning or very late at night. The reason for this is that your working day consists of bits and pieces and you can’t stay with a task for an elongated period of time. But you need long, uninterrupted stretches of time to get things done. Distractions are not a problem if they are voluntary, at the point of time when you decide to follow a distraction. What is the problem are the involuntary distractions: managers and meetings (M&Ms).

Consequently, Jason Fried makes three suggestions:

  • Introduce no talk periods, for example one afternoon per month. They will give people quiet time in the office where they can work without interruption.
  • Switch from active to passive communication and use for example instant messengers, project management tools or email instead of talking to each other. With this, everyone can choose the point in time at which they want to be interrupted.
  • Cancel meetings. They interrupt people and consume their time, whereas they don’t have any benefits.

His insights are in line with research on flow, the mental state in which a person is fully immersed in the task currently performed, stops thinking about the self, and completely forgets about time. This is the state in which we are extremely productive, but we can only reach it when we have elongated phases of uninterrupted time. We reported on how to get into a state of flow in everyday life in one of our posts on the European Conference on Positive Psychology in Moscow. It is also in line with what Susan Cain suggests for introverts to do in order to perform optimally: take time to work by themselves.

Jason Fried’s opinion is rather extreme. Sometimes meetings might make sense just so that everyone is up-to-date with the project they are currently working on. Also, having the feeling that one can influence decisions (which are often made in meetings) enhances people’s commitment for a project. And surely not everyone is happy with a completely quiet office, they need oral communication to be satisfied with their work. But even if we don’t follow his extreme position, it certainly makes sense to find ways of giving people long stretches of uninterrupted time for their work. There are many ways of doing so. Allowing employees to work from home, using email and instant messengers for communication or introducing quiet days are just a few ideas.

About the Author

Katharina Lochner

Dr Katharina Lochner is the former research director for the cut-e Group which was acquired by Aon in 2017. Katharina is now a researcher and lecturer at the University of Applied Sciences Europe in Iserlohn, Germany. In her role at cut-e, she applied the research in organizational and work psychology to real-world assessment practice. She has a strong expertise in the construction and evaluation of online psychometric tools.

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