Technology is distracting, there's no doubt about it. Instead of allowing electronic gadgets to draw your attention away from more important activities in your workday, use them to sharpen your focus.
Many time management methods require a multiday symposium to master. A simple alternative is Francesco Cirillo's Pomodoro Technique, which is named after the 25-minute kitchen timer in the shape of a tomato Cirillo used to maintain his focus while studying in college in Rome.
In 25 minutes, you can learn most of what there is to know about the straightforward Pomodoro approach to time management. The free Pomodoro Technique e-book (PDF download) takes about that long to read.
In a nutshell, you list each day's activities and determine the number of "Pomodoros," or 25-minute blocks of time, you will spend on each; you can adjust the length of your Pomodoros, but 25 minutes followed by a 5-minute break seems to work for many people. After four Pomodoros, you take a longer break.
As you work, you track the number of Pomodoros each task actually requires to complete. At the end of the day, you compare your estimate with your actual results for each task. Use that information to improve your future estimates.
Talking tomato tracks your workday
Several programs have been written for use with the Pomodoro Technique. The one I settled on is the free Pomodoro Timer, an open-source program that places a tomato icon in the notification area in Windows; the utility is also available for Mac and Linux.
Pomodoro Timer lacks any documentation or help information, so you have to take it or leave it. After you install the program, right-click the tomato icon in the notification area and choose Start Pomodoro. You're prompted to give the Pomodoro a name. Click OK to start the clock.
Choose Settings on the right-click menu to open the dialog box showing options for changing the duration of each Pomodoro, adjusting the program's alerts and sound effects (you'll want to uncheck "Ticking sound" for sure), and naming and tracking your Pomodoros.
As you work, the time left in the current Pomodoro counts off in the notification area in black numbers. Check "Show time counter" in the Settings dialog to display the time left in a small pop-up below the foreboding black number.
Handling time management's archenemy: interruptions
Of course, workdays are often unpredictable. Interruptions are sometimes internal, such as the urge to check your e-mail, and sometimes external, such as a ringing telephone or impromptu meeting with your boss. When interrupted, pause the Pomodoro by right-clicking the countdown and choosing Interrupt Pomodoro. If the interruption becomes a task, record it along with the day's other Pomodoros.
On your Pomodoro log you record how urgent and important each interruption turns out to be, and if it was neither, try to put it off in the future until after you've complete the task at hand. The goal is to improve your ability to predict the time various tasks will require.
When you're ready to go back to work, choose Resume Pomodoro from the right-click menu.
The e-book recommends using paper to plan each day's Pomodoros and record your work progress and interruptions. Of course, you can just as easily use a spreadsheet, database record, or text file to track your work activity. I used my PC's default text editor to create my Pomodoro log (sounds like something you'd see next to the avocado dip at a party).
To view statistics on your past Pomodoros, select Statistics on the right-click menu. The Pomodoros are listed by name, end date, and duration, along with information on interruptions. You can sort the entries by each column, but you can't export the information apart from copying and pasting each entry individually.
I spent a couple of days recording and analyzing Pomodoros. The process didn't intrude on my workday. Since most people plan their work time based on half-hour segments, forecasting the time each task would take was intuitive. I recorded Pomodoros only when I was at my desk and usually on the computer. Other people will use them to plan meetings and many of their business-related phone calls.
Half-hour increments proved to be too short for me. I increased the interval to 1 hour and the break time to 10 minutes. I had been blowing right past the break reminders at 25 minutes, but I was usually ready for a short breather after an hour or so of steady work.
I work from home, so one unexpected benefit of recording my interruptions was the decision to mute the ringer on our landline during the workday. I rely on my cell phone for work, so nearly every call on the landline from 9 to 5 was a robo-call marketing pitch or appointment reminder. (Our home number is registered on every do-not-call list there is, but the unwanted marketing pitches persist.)
Whether you regularly plan and record your Pomodoros or do so for only a short while, you're likely to get a much better understanding of how you actually spend your workday as a result. The information will make your planning more accurate and may also indicate ways you can minimize interruptions and avoid other workday time sinks.