By Kate Frachon

How to Get a Lot Done When You’re Distracted at Work


Life gets in the way of work sometimes. It just does. Whether you’re struggling with personal issues outside the office or you’re feeling under the weather with an ongoing illness or condition, there will inevitably be times in your life where your output at work just isn’t what you’re used to. Of course, even when […]

Life gets in the way of work sometimes. It just does.

Whether you’re struggling with personal issues outside the office or you’re feeling under the weather with an ongoing illness or condition, there will inevitably be times in your life where your output at work just isn’t what you’re used to.

Of course, even when we’re struggling, we all still want to be good at our jobs. So how do you get things done and shine at work when the rest of your life is impacting your normal abilities?

Here are some of our best tips for still being amazing at work, even when your capacity is limited.

Be realistic and plan the hours that you can spend

A lot of the most successful people I know got there early on by working harder than everybody else. Brute force can take you a long way — when you put in a lot of hours and you’re good at what you do, you will get a lot done and people will notice.

However, this is not the only way to be successful.

Actually, having limited time and energy for work can make you more effective overall by forcing you to be smart about what you work on, instead of simply powering through every single item on your list.

When you don’t have time for everything, you have to be selective. And people who are selective about what they work on tend to spend more high quality time at work — you do more of the work that matters in less time, because you aren’t distracted by simply putting hours in.

Here are some ways to do more with less time:

  • Make a note of any unchangeable deadlines. Some things aren’t flexible and can’t get pushed until later, no matter how much you wish they could. Note these things early and often so that you can avoid having to do last-minute pushes that will drain you of energy and time, and so you can pick and choose what other work to do effectively.
  • Identify the most important (not most urgent) places where you add value. Are you a manager? Then making sure you get all your 1:1s with your team done this week might be more important than finishing coding on that one big project, even if the project feels urgent. Think about your job and what your boss would say matters most; what is the most important bullet point in your job description? Drill down on that and delegate or delay what else you can.
  • Underestimate what you can do in a day. We tend to think that we can do more than we really can; this is especially true when our capacity is limited. Don’t think about what you wish you could do or what you think you should be able to do. Be honest with yourself. You might only have energy for one big task every day — that’s okay as long as you choose it wisely and give yourself adequate time for getting it done. Better to get one really important thing done than to half-finish ten things.
  • Restructure your hours if necessary. Just because you’ve always done things a certain way doesn’t mean you have to keep doing them that way. Can you change up your schedule to better suit your needs? If your energy peaks in the morning, can you reschedule your morning meetings to free up that time for creative deep work?
  • Communicate about changes to your schedule. If you’re usually a superstar, it can be scary to take a step back — what will people think? Well, if you are open and communicate proactively about why you are taking a temporary step back or slow down at work, then people will think exactly what you want them to. The more you can do to set realistic expectations for people, the less frustrated they will be by times when you are not as available to them. Instead of pretending nothing is different, be honest and upfront, and most people will be willing to work around your needs.

Set up systems to help you track information

I am normally someone who can hold a lot of information in my head; I actually got by without even writing my to-do lists down for years and years.

But when I am struggling with focus or low energy at work, this is one of the fastest ways to get myself on track and ensure that I will be successful.

What systems can you put in place to make it easier for you to track information and keep things from falling through the cracks? Here are a few ideas:

  • Lean on your calendar. Record every possible appointment or reminder — no matter how small — you might need for the week in your planner or electronic calendar. The more you have written down, the less you have to manage in your head (and the less you will forget).
  • Create a place for your ideas. When you’re not feeling like yourself, your mind can feel fuzzy and ideas get harder to track. You need a place to put your ideas when they come to you (which might be at unpredictable times). Keep a running note on your phone or designate a few pages in your planner for taking notes when ideas appear.
  • Take notes in every meeting (even small ones). When you’re struggling to focus, the more you can write things down to reference later, the less likely you are to forget things and look flakey. Even if you normally take fairly simple notes in meetings, bulk up your note-taking style to include more details, including things like who said what, so that you can refer back to them later and remind yourself.
  • Plan your week. Look at your priorities, goals, and possible tasks every week. Write them down in your planner, specific tasks for specific days, so that you have a clear picture of what you need to accomplish every day. Don’t leave your schedule up to chance, or else other people’s demands will naturally fill in all your time.

Assess the value of everything you could do

When you’re strapped for time or low on energy, you cannot do it all. This is a time where you will have to practice saying “no” to things — but always say “no” wisely.

Some things are more worth your time than others; not all tasks are created equal.

Tasks worth skipping:

  • Email. Email puts you on someone else’s schedule, which you can’t do when you’re already short on time or energy. Set an autoresponder letting people know you’re only checking your email a few times a day and might be slower to get back to them — and then commit to only actually checking your email a few times a day. You’ll get more done and won’t be distracted by things that sound urgent but aren’t important.
  • Coffee meetings. Casual get-togethers or meetings with people who want to “pick your brain” aren’t a good use of your time when your output it low. Let people know that you’re not able to meet up right now, and suggest a time down the road, even if it’s a few months out, that they get back in touch (so that it’s off your plate).
  • Admin and other tasks you can delegate. Compiling all of your receipts from a recent business trip is important to get done, but it doesn’t have to be done by you. For tasks that need to get done but that don’t use your most valuable skills, look for ways to skip it — either by asking to delay the deadline, or by leaning on an employee or office admin.

Need help identifying the things on your to-do list that you *should* be spending time on? Tasks worth doing will:

  • Move you closer to your biggest goals. Check in with your yearly and monthly goals when you make your to-do list. Which of these tasks will help you make progress on your goals, and which ones are priorities that matter to other people? Focus on the work that will make a true impact for you.
  • Move your team forward. If you have employees who require something from you in order to move forward on their work, then keeping them moving is a good priority to focus on. If your team is asking for help on something that is not mission critical, let them know that you don’t have time to move them forward on that project right now and direct them towards a project that is more important for them to complete.
  • Provide visible value. When your output is limited, a big fear is that your boss or team will think you’re not working as hard as they are. In order to combat this, look for tasks that will make an impact that can be noticed by others. If you’re choosing between a solo project and one that will help a team you’re on move forward, it’s usually a good idea to move the team forward before focusing on your own project.

Prioritize and delegate

Sometimes it’s possible to put things off until your schedule lightens up, and sometimes it’s not. If you’re in a situation where you cannot simply reschedule things until you have more free time, then you need to find other ways for those things to get done.

Letting things just fall through the cracks is not an option. Delegating is the solution.

If you have a team, delegating is something you should be trying to get better at anyway. When you give someone a chance to do something new — to learn a new skill that you already have — then you are improving your employee and building your relationship with them by showing trust.

Even if you don’t normally delegate tasks to other people, this is your opportunity to start. Who is there that can help lighten your load?

You can ask your manager for help in figuring out how to do this effectively. Or if you work on your own and don’t have a team or a manager, then you will have to look outside for people who can help you.

You can also be creative with the way you delegate. If you can’t easily delegate your work tasks to someone else, look for ways you can delegate life tasks like hiring a cleaning service for your house or having pre-cooked meals delivered. The fewer life tasks you are responsible for, the more you can focus on the work you have to do without overloading yourself.

When you’re done, be done

If you’re used to being a high-output person, it can be hard to wrap up your day knowing you only got one or maybe two big things done.

But if you don’t take time to rest or tackle the personal issues keeping you from work, then all the prioritizing and delegating you did all day will be for nothing.

If you have been clear with your team, set realistic expectations, managed your time, and worked on the things that have real value and impact, then there is not much more that you can hope to accomplish in a day. In many ways, you might actually be working more effectively than you ever have before.

So allow yourself to be done at the end of the day. Remember that everyone has a real life outside of work, and everyone will have times where they can’t be the powerhouse that they are used to being. Cut yourself a little slack and take the time you need, knowing that you actually still delivered on the things that mattered.