6 Rules For A Teflon Mind

Use technology (and smart office politics) to accomplish more – and save your sanity.
Posted September 5, 2007

Mike Elgan

Mike Elgan

Distracted people rarely achieve great things. And multitasking is a myth.

Unfortunately, people interrupt you all day by drop-ins, phone calls, IMs, texts. And these interruptions clutter your mind and kill your power to accomplish.

It's an extreme problem that requires extreme solutions. If you really want to stop people from cluttering your thoughts with constant interruptions, you need a Teflon mind. Achieve that by following these six rules.

(Warning: Some of these rules seem drastic, and violate the normal, expected practices in most offices. But that's why they work.)

Here are six rules for a Teflon mind:

Rule #1: Reject all requests that don't come via e-mail

Every office has someone who accosts passers by and foists requests on them. Annoying co-worker: "Hey Mike! Can you send me a list of example Web sites you mentioned in the meeting yesterday? Thanks -- 'preciate it."

Tag! You're it, sucker! Now your Zen-like focus has been shattered, and you've got an action item you need to carry in your head all the way to the break room and back to your office, where you need to either do the task or write it down. Just say no to this kind of distraction. The solution? Interrupt people and order them send you e-mail.

Annoying co-worker: "Hey, Mike, can you..."

Mike: "Send me an e-mail. If you didn't tell me via e-mail, you didn't tell me. Thanks -- 'preciate it."

Don't explain. Don't apologize. Don't even stop walking. Your goal is to train them to stop accosting you as you walk by (I use that last bit -- "If you didn't tell me via e-mail..." as a mantra. Try it!)

Rule #2: Never answer your phone

Phone calls hit your mental clarity in three ways: 1) they interrupt you; 2) they put you at the mercy of the caller -- if they blather on and on, you're forced to listen; and 3) being interrupted and listening to blather fouls your mood and wrecks your state of mind.

Turn off your phone ringer so you can't hear it. Better still, use CallWave's free voice-mail-to-e-mail service, which not only saves you from wasting time on voice-mail and delivers the recording right to your inbox, but it also summarizes the message. It turns a five-minute voice-mail into 5 seconds of reading.

Then reply via e-mail.

Rule #3: Answer e-mail only twice a day

Process e-mail twice a day -- first thing in the morning, then again at 1pm. By batching your e-mail and getting through all messages, you won't keep people waiting too long, and you'll do far more -- and far better -- work because you won't allow e-mail to interrupt you.

Rule #4: Never give interrupters what they want

When people drop by your office, what they're doing is hijacking your prioritized task list, putting their item at the top of your list simply because it's theirs. It's an act of violence against your productivity. Punish them.

Tell drop-by hijackers that you're in the middle of something, and to send e-mail. "If you didn't tell me via e-mail..." If they tell you they're dropping by because you haven't done their task and they're still waiting, firmly tell them that you prioritize all your tasks according to importance, not urgency, and you'll do it as soon as possible.

And don't put a "guest" chair in your office or cubicle. If people are going to interrupt you, let them stand. A chair is just an invitation for them to plunk themselves down, get comfortable and avoid their own work by chattering away in your office.

Rule #5: Whack IM "buddies" who chat too much

If you use instant messaging (IM) at work, blacklist anyone on your "Buddy List" who abuses this access. All the major IM applications allow you to block another user, which usually makes it appear to them as if you're not "online." Take advantage of this.

Rule #6: Automate Teflon processes

Set up a range of automated defensive blocks against productivity-killing interruptions. Start with voice-mail.

The typical voice-mail sounds like this: "You've reached Mike Elgan of Vandelay Industries. I'm either away from my desk or on the phone right now. Please leave a message at the beep with your name and number and I'll get back to you as soon as I can. Thanks!"

Here's a better one: "You've reached Mike Elgan, of Vandelay Industries. The quickest way to reach me is to send a short e-mail to melgan@vandelay.com with your request in the Subject. Thanks!"

Notice that you're not inviting them to leave voice mail. They've probably used a telephone before, and know that they can leave a message at the beep. But that conspicuous omission is strong encouragement for them to send e-mail (which is easy for you) rather than leaving voice-mail (which is easy for them).

I also recommend using a challenge-response anti-spam e-mail service. I use SpamArrest, and I love it. The service forces e-mailers not on your whitelist to jump through the hoop of entering in a string of characters, both to prove they're human and to make it a little harder for people to easily mass-mail stuff. If objectionable people or companies approve themselves, you can easily over-rule that, and block them forever.

Best of all, they let you write your own message for the challenge e-mail. I recommend taking advantage of this by writing some direction for e-mailers, urging them to send only a short message with concise information in the Subject line.

These rules, when combined with a great productivity system, aggressive meeting management and a solid work ethic will enable you to get much more done in less time, and -- more importantly -- improve the quality of your work.

Tags: rules, efficiency, time management, personal improvement, teflon mind

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