Posts Tagged ‘focus’

Make a WIP (Work In Process) Board


Your boss has no idea what you’re working on, and he or she is always giving you items that are number one priority, causing you to drop what you’re currently doing (which used to be top priority) and switch to this new item.


Showing status is one of management’s favorite pasttimes.  There are an infinite amount of ways to show or measure progress on a project and it’s your management’s job to find all of them and require you to create a chart for each one this week.

I don’t mean to be harsh.  It’s true that if management’s job is to ‘manage’ what is happening, then they need to know what’s going on.

Well, here’s a simple little tool you can use to not only let your manager know what you’re up to, but to help you actually be more productive and increase your throughput (the number of things you complete.)

Create a WIP (Work in Process) board out of paper, a white board, or whatever material you choose.  All you need are 3 basic categories:

Backlog           |              WIP             |            Complete

Divide your board into three columns containing these categories, then use sticky notes to capture your specific tasks.  Line up the tasks you plan to work on in the near future under your Backlog column, and put them in priority order, with the next one you plan to work on at the top (or you can have a horizontal right to left orientation.)

Put the task – and this is key, only one or two at the most – that you are currently working on under the WIP column.  It is important to stay focused on one item at a time until it is complete.  We think we can work on multiple things at once but all we’re really doing is bad multi-tasking, switching from one thing to another, which causes everything we do to take longer. (See previous post, Carve out Some Focus Time.)

When you finish a task, put it in the Complete column.  At the end of each week, count how many things you completed and try to get better every week.

The idea is to see movement of your sticky notes across your WIP board, so you need to determine the level of detail that is appropriate to capture on each sticky.  Don’t make a task that is two weeks long, because you won’t see it move and it’ll be unclear if it is stuck or if you are actually making progress on it.

Also, don’t make a task so small (like a phone call) that you’re moving sticky notes every 10 minutes.  You need to ‘chunkify’ your projects into reasonable sizes so that you’re showing progress every day or so.

This is a simple tool that actually accomplishes a lot of purposes.  First, it allows you to measure your productivity – how many things you get done – which in turn causes you to want to increase it.

Second, it allows you to place incoming requests in your backlog or queue according to their relative priority.  So if your boss gives you a new ‘hot’ item, you can ask how it relates in priority to these other items that they have asked you to work on.

Third, it helps you stay focused and say ‘no’ to certain requests, or at least have a better prediction of when you can start working on a new task.  People (or customers) may not be comfortable at first having their task in a backlog, but once they see that you will get to it soon, that you will focus on it and not let anyone else interfere, and finish it well ahead of schedule, then they will appreciate your new system of effectiveness and productivity.

A WIP board: An easy thing to make to cause a huge impact (and no whipping involved.)

I’m sure you’re aware of similar methods and tools out there to provide status and improve productivity.  Share them, and let’s learn some more together.

Carve Out Some Focus Time


You’re constantly bombarded with interruptions, requests, action items, meetings, phone calls, emails, etc. that you can hardly get any one thing done.


Don’t be.  In other words, choose not to.

There are two types of interruptions, 1) by someone else, called an interruption, and 2) by your self, called a distraction.

Distractions may still be difficult to overcome, but ultimately they are caused by your own choice.  Just yesterday I asked my daughter to go do something, and 15 minutes later I find her standing there watching TV.  “What happened?” I asked. “Someone turned on the TV” was her reply, implying that obviously it wasn’t her fault that she didn’t do the thing I asked.  How many times do we put the blame on others or on our circumstances rather than our own choice?  “Someone sent me an email.”

What I am suggesting is that emails and phone calls (and texts and IMs) are signals that someone is requesting to communicate with us.  To actually make the communication happen, it is still our choice to respond to that signal.  It is a distraction that is begging us to pay attention to it.

An interruption is when someone actually approaches our physical body, taps us on the shoulder, or makes an audible request for a response.  And there are ways to handle this interaction respectfully, that I’ll mention later.

You may think yourself rude or unresponsive if you do not respond to those digital signals immediately (or that others will think that of you.)  But are there times when it is normally acceptable to not receive an immediate response?  Do you sleep?  Do you go to the bathroom?  Do you attend important meetings where you are heavily engaged?

When people want to get a hold of you, many times they can’t because you are otherwise occupied.  What I am suggesting is that you can have more focus time to complete your most important tasks by just creating more of those ‘otherwise occupied’ times for yourself.

Carve out Some Focus Time

Here’s what you can choose to do.  Schedule a private meeting on your calendar for one or two hours (or whatever you need, no one needs to know what it’s for.)  Turn off your phone, email, web browser, IM, or whatever else could send you a distracting signal.  Some people call this, “going off the grid” which usually means you’re hiking in the mountains somewhere, but you really can create this same effect in your office, wires and batteries can be unplugged or turned off.  If you’re not a virual worker, you’re still susceptable to those in person interruptions.  Minimize those with a sign or signal that in essence says “Do Not Disturb.”  If they ignore the sign, respond to them respectfully, and get the information you need to answer their request later (let them know when you’ll get back to them.)

Set a goal for what you want to have done within that time frame, and then focus and finish.  It might be hard at first (it still is for me) but with practice and discipline you’ll be able to get better at it and go for longer periods.  You’ll feel so good about yourself because you were able to accomplish that really important task, and all the action you missed while you were disconnected will seem miniscule.  Besides, when you emerge from your cave of productivity you’ll be able to answer all those email and phone call requests (or at least put those actions in their proper place in your priority list.)  If you crave attention and love responding to all those emails, it’ll be like Christmas, the longer you wait, the more presents you’ll get to open.

“Where were you?” people might say.  And at least for one of them you can respond, “I was working on your item and it is now complete.”

I promise you’ll get more accomplished.  It’s mathematically proven.

(Inspired by my productive friend, Bodo.)