7 Steps to Getting Unstuck and Becoming More Productive

Be honest. You’re distracted, right? In fact, that’s probably why you are reading this blog post instead of working on that project you should be working on now.

Businessman Working on a Busy Street - Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/urbancow, Image #4776338

Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/urbancow

Maybe you’re like my friend, Justin, who told me a few weeks ago that he was having real trouble making progress on his book. “The deadline is looming,” he admitted. “But I can’t seem to get focused.”

I know the feeling.

If that describes you, I have good news. Here are seven steps to getting unstuck. They are not that revolutionary on their own, but practiced together, they are like a defibrillator for your productivity:

  1. Create a to-do list for today. Many people keep lists, especially those who have been inspired by David Allen’s GTD method. They have scores—perhaps hundreds—of tasks, neatly divided by projects, contexts, or areas of focus. But they don’t know what they need to get done today. So create a simple list for today with 5–7 actions on it. Keep the list short.
  2. Turn on some inspiring music. You need music that is not distracting. For me that means instrumental-only selections. I have built a playlist in iTunes called “Soundtrack Favorites.” In it, I include some of my favorite tracks from Bobby Jones: Stroke of Genius, Searching or Bobby Fischer, The Horse Whisperer, Finding Nemo, Dances with Wolves,” and others.
  3. Turn off the social web. Shut down HootSuite, the tab in your browser with your Facebook account, and email. If you don’t have the discipline to do this, use a program like Anti-Social (which I use and love). It allows me to keep those programs open, but cuts off my connection for a specific time-period. (If you use a PC, use Freedom.) It also allows me to keep my browser open for research.
  4. Do one task at a time. Multi-tasking is, at best, over-rated. At worst, it is a myth. Instead, you need to focus. Starting, stopping, and switching tasks before you finish costs you time, energy, and productivity. Instead do one discrete task from beginning to end. Check it off your list and then go to the next task. After a few of these, you will feel the momentum build.
  5. Group similar tasks together. This is the value of GTD: do tasks that require a similar context. If you need to run an errand, run a bunch of them while you are out. If you need to do a financial task, do several. Why ramp up to do one? Leverage your effort across several.
  6. Take frequent breaks. This is one of the secrets behind the Pomodoro Technique. Work intently for a defined period (say, 25–48 minutes), then take a break. Be as rigorous about the breaks as the work. You’ll find that this actually increases your concentration and productivity. (I use the same method for running. It’s called the Galloway Method.)
  7. Rinse and repeat. Go through several cycles like this each day. The main thing is to surge and then rest, surge and then rest. As you do so, you will learn the best length for your own optimal cycle.

Productivity is like any skill. The more you practice it, the better you get. Don’t get discouraged if you don’t initially make as much progress as you want. Stick with the process and expect to improve. You will!

Question: What works best for you when you find yourself distracted? You can leave a comment by clicking here.
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  • http://twitter.com/MariePulliam Marie Pulliam

    To be honest, I have the opposite problem. I stay focused on something long past when I should give up and move on. Not every invention was successful. Trial and error are part of the learning process, and there are times I need to let go and try something else, or another tact. It is all balance, which is hard to achieve. Any posts for the ones who hate to give up, even when it is in their (and others’) interest that they should? Thanks Michael.

  • Joe Lalonde

    I never realize it until it’s too late but I always find myself getting distracted. Spending much of the work day in front of a computer screen can make it so easy to click on a new tab and open a new website up. Before I know it, I’ve wasted plenty of time that could have been productive.

    One thing that helps keep me on task is to take care of a task in the order hits my desk. It helps me to not forget about it and keeps my schedule fairly clean. I know there’s more that I can improve upon and you’ve given some great ideas.

    I can see these helping out -

    Creating a to-do list
    Do one task at a time
    Take frequent breaks

    • http://www.jeffrandleman.com Jeff Randleman

      I find myself looking at the same three things…

      • Joe Lalonde

        You might find a fourth if Google+ catches on…

        • http://www.jeffrandleman.com Jeff Randleman

          We’ll see ;)

          I’ve intentionally stayed away from that one right now.  I have too much on my plate at the moment to learn it right now.  maybe this fall…

          • Joe Lalonde

            That’s a good plan Jeff. If you like Facebook, I’d really recommend staying away from it. Very similar but has some new and different features.

          • http://www.jeffrandleman.com Jeff Randleman

            I’m interested in trying it.  I read a blog about it the other day stating that it may be the next big thing, or it may not.  FB has 750 million users.  It may take a while for those people to switch to something new. 

            But the article said, things change.  Remember AOL?  AIM?  MySpace?  They were all big.  But not so much anymore.  Things change.

            So… I’m interested in looking it over, and giving it a shot later this fall.  If it catches on, I want to be in it.  If it doesn’t, no big deal, I still have my FB account.

          • Joe Lalonde

            It’s worth a look when you get a chance. One of the coolest features is the “My Circles” feature which lets you put people into circles. Then you can share updates with specific circles. I think that can make things less messy for some people.

            And yes, I remember all of those… Have some very fond memories of those. But times changed.

          • http://www.jeffrandleman.com Jeff Randleman

            I know I will eventually.  I just need to get through the summer first.

  • Editing

    Love these suggestions as well as the ones below about short, manageable to-do lists and the 50/10 work hour with break. I’m an editor and work better with these short lists and breaks. Thanks everyone!

  • Wendy

    Thank you!  Needed this one  today.  I do take breaks and think it is a wonderful way to remain focused. At one time, my breaks were non productive though I had to specify certain “rules” if you will for the breaks.  This time is reserved for doing a short, inconsequential task that I know I can end abruptly.  You see, I’d break to check out Facebook and end up in an on going conversation, like passing notes after  recess was over.  

    I now allot specific time slots for the socializing, nonsense reading, etc. at the end of the day.  I think of them as a reward for completing all that can be accomplished on my to do list.  It makes the accomplishment sweeter and spurs me forward throughout the day.  See an article you want to read? Save it, print it, make sure to set it aside, and look forward to it!

  • http://twitter.com/GinaConroy Gina Conroy

    Great post! Right now I’m on #6. Usually, I’m a distracted mulitasker, but today I’ve been on task with #4 and I’m getting it done! I need to try this more often!

  • http://www.gospellab.com Gospel lab

    and #

    8.  Don’t forget to set your tomato timer for the Pomodoro Technique.

  • http://www.BartLeger.com Bart Leger

    Multi-tasking has been the bane of my existence. This is definitely a list worth implementing.

  • http://www.noahlomax.com Noah Lomax

    Wow! This post was written for me today. I’m typically organized, motivated and disciplined but lately been very distracted and subsequently unproductive. Timely post!

    P.S. The Finding Nemo soundtrack is also kn my list to play when trying to get things done!

  • http://sevensentences.com Geoff Talbot

    Literally I decided to read this blog instead of doing work. Are you inside my head Michael Hyatt?

    These are great points. I believe I may have a social media addiction? So that program sounds perfect. I have just begun the Pomodoro Technique that your guest blogger shared so well on Friday.

    Thanks again for sharing your wisdom with us all. Everyone benefits.


  • http://twitter.com/mattplynn Matt Lynn

    For me, I’ve gotta get out of the house (and sometimes even out of the office) if I have to work on a project that demands 100% of my attention. I tend to write my best stuff amidst the noise of a busy coffee shop.

  • http://twitter.com/HRwritergalinOH HRWriter gal in Ohio

    When I get distracted, I start writing down everything that’s laying heavy on my heart; because internal issues are usually my biggest distraction. Once I’ve written them down, I start crossing things off, one by one; which ones I can control, which ones I can not; which are urgent & important; which are not. This really helps me get things in perspective, and it also helps me feel better.

  • http://beckfarfromhome.blogspot.com/ Beck Gambill

    I laughed out loud at your opening sentences! You caught me, I was totally putting off working on my project! It was a good distraction though. I find with practice I’m getting better at breaking down my day in manageable sections.

  • Anonymous

    We have the 20/20/20 rule we educate patients on in the eye care field. Every 20 minutes of a near point task, stop and take a 20 second break and focus on a target 20 feet away. This is to help alleviate/prevent eyestrain (especially with computer use). Seems like this this would work for your brain too….with a little longer break.

  • Carol

    Time out to re-focus and start again plus chocolate :)

  • Anonymous

    I find deadlines help, even if I need to set them myself. If I am determined to finish a task by a specific time, I tend to filter out all distractions automatically. Though, one side effect of that is it makes it difficult for people in the same room to get my attention. Another is that, sometimes, I’m not very nice to those who interrupt me!

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  • Anonymous

    It seems like you publish the article I need exactly when I need it.  About to put a couple of hours in on an important project.  But first, I’m going to find the soundtrack to Searching for Bobby Fischer, one of my favorite movies of all time.

    • Anonymous

      Just completed an albatross of a project. Your article was just the encouragement I needed. Thanks again. (Also, thanks to Bobby F. and Braveheart:-)

  • Kcmoog

    I work in the IT industry which is mentally challenging all day.  So, I take breaks mentally and do something physical.  It could be a walk around the building outside or even refilling the soda cups and plastic spoons in the office kitchen; just something to get up and move around.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Evelyn-Van-Winkle/683637828 Evelyn Van Winkle

    Thanks for this one; very timely lol.  I would also suggest “get away from it all.”  Whether isolating yourself from distractions by going outdoors to reconnect with God or nature, turning off your phone for a set period of time, turning off the radio or tv, whatever it takes to get away from distractions for the longest period you can sacrifice, do it.

  • Allen White

    These are some great tips. I agree on the myth of multitasking. I keep a piece of paper handy. As thoughts and other t0-dos come to mind, I write them down. That way I don’t have to continue thinking about it, and I have a list for later.

    I agree on instrumental music. I’ve set up a Instrumental Folk station on Pandora that I use a lot.

    A change of environment helps me. If I have a big writing project, it’s good to get out of the office. If I’m in the office, then I make my assistant my ally. She keeps the walk-in distractions away and handles 60% or more on her own.

    Allen White

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  • http://twitter.com/tdyrsmid Trent Dyrsmid

    How do I shut of growl? I hate that bloody thing!

  • http://tangoleadership.wordpress.com/ Poul Andreassen

    It is really distracting when you are working on something and that notification is blinking. Discipline is the compulsory tool to pave our way towards our goals.

  • http://www.dwaynes--world.blogspot.com Dwayne Morris

    Closing my door and closing my email is critical to my workflow. The Pomodoro app has been a great new tool. I’ve got 10 days to prepare for being out of the office for two weeks (Mission trip, speaking at a camp) and I have to use as many minutes as possible to prepare for when I return. Otherwise, my time away will not be enjoyable as I’ll be fretting my return to the office.

  • Kiesha @ Weblogbetter

    Hi Michael,
    Turning of social media is just about the only way I can get anything done, but it leaves me feeling disconnected and like I’m neglecting my friends and followers. But it’s the big picture that I try to keep in mind. Thanks for these insightful tips.

  • http://brevis.me Robert Ewoldt

    One of the best things that I’ve done to increase my productivity is to turn off the pop-up box in Microsot Outlook that tells me when a new email has come in.  That way, I’m not obsessively checking the new emails that come into my box, and I can focus on the task that I’m completing.

    • http://www.jeffrandleman.com Jeff Randleman

      I do the same thing.

  • http://twitter.com/KindleYourLife Ksu

    How do you “turn-off” three squirmy kiddos? ;) Been trying to work on our OSNOVA project lately (osnova.com) with three little ones in the backgroung (I am a SAHM), and I have to admit – it’s been most challenging! Local McDonald’s is my best friend these days, since it offers a fun indoor playground while providing me with free Wi-Fi.

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  • Mnijtnc

    Freedom is amazing! I knew there was a program like that for Mac (a friend has one) but didn’t know about the PC version. Thank you! The internet can be a huge distraction for me, especially when I go on to research a topic during a writing project. I got a huge amount of work done knowing I just couldn’t go online–I just left a space for the info I needed to research, then looked it up later when all the major writing was done. Thanks for that tip, Michael!

  • http://twitter.com/JRandorff James Randorff

    Regarding Tip #2, I’ve found that the “Film Scores” channel in Pandora is a brilliant source of inspiring, non-distracting music.  I like it because I don’t end up getting bored with the same music repeating in my iTunes playlist… I always get something fresh.  For instance, Pandora just pulled up “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time Video Game Score”.  I would have never found that on my own!


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  • Gary Judd

    I like your ideas. Ihave a friend who uses the pomodora technique and really likes it. I’m going to try that. I use the SimplyNoise app rather than music…it’s less distracting to me. Thanks for the great insight.

  • Samantha

    I have to lock myself in my home office-turn off home phone ringer, and leave my cellphone in the other room–no opening any internet. If I hand my husband something to proof and have not done these things, he is able to point to the exact spot I stopped and took a phone call– I only hurt myself when I do not follow the above guidelines. Thank you for sharing!!

  • http://www.jeffrandleman.com Jeff Randleman

    Great stuff.  Evernoted…

  • http://www.facebook.com/carina.brunson Carina A. Wyant Brunson

    I love this! I have issues checking my email every five minutes or getting a phone call or being asked a question and I forget what I was working on. What I really need to work on is shutting off the social networks. I kind of stay too tuned in to those things because I want to know about events as soon as they pop up and what the news is covering as well so I can see if it is in my coverage area and maybe I need to write a story about it. I need to lessen my time on those things and spend more time on making the to-do list and sticking it. My husband went to a Covey workshop years ago that went over time management and to-do lists…. I need to go to one now since my plate always seems so full and I can’t seem to finish things….

    Thank you for this knowledge that I can hopefully apply to my work and at home. I think applying it in either area, or both, would allow me more time with the things that matter most – my family.

  • http://twitter.com/alexcforrest Alex Forrest

    Some good suggestions here. Thanks!

  • http://twitter.com/diamondfreddy Barry Holtslander

    Another option for assisting in productivity that I have found quite helpful is Rescue Time. One of the things I like about it is the option to decide what is productive +1 or +2, neutral 0 and unproductive -1 or -2. It has been very useful for me in tracking time and improving my productivity at work.

    • http://brevis.me Robert Ewoldt

      That sounds like a good system.

  • http://BrentFielder.com Brent Fielder

    I am finding that I need to set aside better blocks of  time in my day.  Instead of catching up on current events/blogs all day, I have been working on doing this in 30 minute segments.  

    Also, I like you have to turn things off.  Email is a big distractor for me… If I am not careful, I can reply to email all day and accomplish nothing at all…everyday!

    The only other thing I would add to your list is to “Remove the clutter.”  If I have papers on my desk, I put them in one pile and clean them off.  If my desktop on my mac is not neat, I create one folder called “To File” and put all loose documents in there so I cannot see them during a productive time.  After I complete the tasks or projects, I will go back as a daily clean-up and file/scan all of the loose documents.

    • http://brevis.me Robert Ewoldt

      Email is a huge time-waster for me, too.

  • K-eM

    Cleaning my desk is a great way to break the distraction cycle and get back in the game. As I clean, I’ll put a post-it on each one noting what needs to be done with it then put it in a pile by priority. Once my desk and mind are tidied and organized, I’m ready to go again.

    • http://brevis.me Robert Ewoldt

      I find this, too. If my desk is clean, somehow, I can focus better. It’s probably just psychological.

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  • Gary

    The GTD system is great. I also find http://www.workflowy.com to be the best to do list creator ever. For the big picture stuff everyone needs to get Life on the Zipline to read!

  • http://ashleyscwalls.com Ashleyscwalls

    Glad I read this one. I havent done the inspirational music thing in a long time. I defintely think this is missing. Its also reminds me that I have been working in environments that have hindered me from doing so…..Necessary Awakening.

  • Skarppala

    Email is a biggie for me also. If I check it first thing I can easily spend a good hour and 1/2 on it before I can blink an eye and then ask…”Where did the morning go?!”.  I have found that if I check it only 2x daily, once 1/2 hour before lunch and 1/2 hour before I sign off for the day that works best.  I then have an arbitrary time limit to get it done quickly because I want to get on to the best parts of my day, lunch and homelife.  Say around 11:30 am and 4:30 pm works for me.

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  • http://www.physicianstrategycollege.com/program/ Physicianstrategycollege

    If you are feeling distracted and unfocused, here are seven steps for becoming more productive. They are not that revolutionary on their own.