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Dealing with daily distractions

Tips for managing time amid onslaught of calls, e-mails, chatty coworkers

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We've all been there: It's already 3 p.m., and we still have 101 tasks to complete.

Time management is nearly impossible when interruptions and distractions are everywhere. Whether it's the constant stream of e-mails or phone calls or office colleagues wanting to chat about their weekend plans, we never seem to have enough time at work to work.

Browsing online can begin innocently enough, but that five minutes usually turn into 20 minutes. (OK, I admit it, I looked for Suri Cruise's pictures at work last week.)

Dante, a reader from Baltimore, is struggling with similar issues.

"There's so much that needs to be done in a regular work hour," he writes. "Most persons who work regularly, like me, need information on how to get the best out of a regular day."

So, how do he and other workers get the most out of their day?

Time management guru David Allen says workers make the mistake of keeping track of tasks and commitment in their heads. Instead, he recommends recording them on paper, in a planner or an electronic organizing device.

"Your head is the worse place to file stuff," Allen says.

But a to-do list is not enough. Allen says workers need to figure out what steps to take to complete a task.

Allen advises sorting through the tasks that have yet to be completed on a weekly basis. That way, you "make sure your choices and engagement are based on a thorough inventory of all your options," he says.

Kate Zabriskie, owner of Business Training Works in Port Tobacco, says many workers become unproductive because they don't prioritize their tasks. Or they just don't know what assignments they should tackle first.

As a boss, Zabriskie says she may overload her employees with tasks without knowing it.

"Go to the boss and find out what you need to do first," she says.

Another time management mistake many workers make is they overschedule their day with meetings or other tasks without leaving time for interruptions.

"Sixty percent of people's job is interruptions," Zabriskie says. "Don't overbook your whole day."

Here are some other tips:

  • Get rid of Instant Messaging. ("Nothing has been more of a problem than that," Zabriskie says.)

  • Start your office chats with a disclosure: "I could use a two-minute break."

  • Set a time limit on Internet browsing, even if it's work-related.

    From the mailbag:

    Readers seem to agree that firing workers by e-mail is tacky. Last week's column detailed how RadioShack and a Wales body-piercing store fired their workers via e-mail and text messaging, respectively.

    Thomas, of Baltimore, writes, "I think it is rude to be fired by e-mail. The employee had a face-to-face interview to get the job. The employee should be let go the same way."

    Jonathan, another reader, put it this way: "It will be [OK] to fire someone by e-mail as long as the person was interviewed by e-mail, hired by e-mail, receives assignments by e-mail, receives performance appraisals by e-mail, etc."

    And one reader points out that bosses aren't the only ones who can be rude when it comes to technology.

    David, of Baltimore, says he's had the experience of having an employee resign by e-mail.

    "I would add that quitting the job via e-mail is equally tactless," he writes.

    How do you get the most out of your workday? What else is on your mind about life at work? Send your tips, comments and questions to Please include your first name and your city.

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