Four Tips to Unclutter Your Life

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Like just about everyone else I know with an office job, a couple of kids and something that passes for a personal life, I do a lot multitasking. Unlike most folks, however, I've researched the subject, having now written two big articles on multitasking, including this week's cover story. That doesn't exactly make me an expert (heck, no, for at this very moment there are 147 unread e-mails in my inbox). But I'm probably more conscious than most people about the pluses and minuses, the limits and excesses of trying to do too many things at once. And I'm happy to share a few tips that I know I should be applying more assiduously myself.

No. 1 Create uninterrupted time for concentrating. If you are trying to do something serious — writing an article or report, interviewing an applicant for a job, or talking your teenager through a crisis — devote ALL of your attention to that task. So, step away from the cell phone and/or BlackBerry. Turn off the alert sounds on your e-mail. You can always turn on an "away" message that explains you'll be back in an hour, or whenever. Doing this will make a huge difference in your productivity, and you'll also discover just how much you've fallen out of the habit of uninterrupted concentration. It's pretty frightening!

No. 2 Manage your inbox. Don't let your e-mail inbox fill up with undifferentiated stuff — unread mail, read mail, flagged-for-follow-up mail, etc. Daniel Markovitz, senior associate at IBT-USA, a time-management consulting firm, teaches clients to apply one of the "4 D's" to e-mail, snail mail and just about everything else:

— do it (now),
— delegate it (to a colleague),
— designate (for later by putting it in your calendar), or
— dump it (use that delete key).

The "designate it" tactic is a great way to deal with tasks that take too long to do immediately. You just pick a reasonably empty spot on your calendar and schedule the task for that spot — preferably with a reminder alert. Markowitz also suggests bundling non-urgent tasks together at one time, so they don't preoccupy you when you are under the gun. Another tip that's obvious but underused: unsubscribe to useless mailings.

No. 3 Plan on face time. Research shows that the No. 1 cause of interruption and delay in a workday is a colleague stopping by. That's because we are a social creatures and we crave human contact and connection. Psychiatrist Edward Hallowell calls this Vitamin C. If we have a deficiency, we wander the hallways seeking human connection at inopportune times for ourselves and others. The answer: schedule a coffee break or water cooler rendezvous. Schedule some lunches. You need it. It will fortify you for the less social parts of the workday.

No. 4 Desktop management. Research by Mary Czerwinski at Microsoft indicates that a very large computer screen can be helpful in keeping you focused, especially if you keep your main task in the center, your e-mail to one side and a secondary document or task to the other side. If you arrange it right, you can scan to see who's sending you e-mail and decide whether you need to read it right away or wait for later, lessening the interruption. Managing your old-fashioned desktop is a good idea, too. Having some uncluttered space around you actually makes it easier to unclutter your mind.