Picture this scenario: You come back to your desk after a meeting. You sit down. You start doing something on your computer. But what, exactly, do you do?
Chances are, you go through some sort of transition ritual. You probably check email first. If there's a link to something interesting in there, you follow the link, then go from there to a few other favorite sites: a news source, Twitter, or maybe to check sports scores. After that, you finally settle into real work.
There's nothing wrong with these rituals per se. Human beings need a way to transition from one activity into the next. The problem is that we get interrupted frequently in the modern workplace. Rituals become habits, and that means we run through the transition cycle every time we stop doing what we're doing. One famous 2007 study found that when people responded to email or instant messaging alerts, it took them 10 to 15 minutes beyond time spent on the interruption to really get back into their original tasks. Those 10 to 15 minutes of headline checking add up.
So how can you get a grip on it? The first step is to be aware of it. Next time you find yourself in the midst of your transition ritual, write down its steps.
That way you can analyze how you might shorten the cycle--either by skipping one of the steps (hiding social media alerts, for instance) or starting a time-tracking app, and thus forcing yourself to watch the seconds of your life ticking away as you scroll through the same blog comments you already read 30 minutes before.
I like that as a defensive strategy. But at work, as in sports, you really need to play offense to win. The two best ways to avoid getting lost in transition are to avoid the indecision trap, and do work you really want to do.
On the indecision front, the usual problem is that people have long to-do lists, but no idea what they intend to tackle after that 10 a.m. meeting. Transition rituals give the brain something mindless to do while it makes that decision.
But if you already know what you intend to do because you have assigned your priorities a spot on the schedule? Your brain won't need the same processing time. I know that I'm scheduled to write this post right now, so when my sitter stopped by my home office because of a home maintenance issue that required immediate attention, I was able to fix the problem and then plunge right back into this. I didn't need to go read about the unseasonal snowfall in Washington D.C. while I figured that out.
Of course, I also really like writing about productivity. That leads us to the biggest driver of transition rituals: they're often more interesting than the work we're setting out to do. Formulating a witty comment on a favorite blog is more exciting than double checking the numbers on a spreadsheet pertaining to a project you're pretty sure will be canceled anyway.
In the short term, there's nothing you can do about that. But in the long term, life is too short to spend big chunks of it on work you don't want to do. If you find yourself constantly lost in transition, it might be time to think about what sorts of projects you'd find as enjoyable as looking at friends' vacation photos on Facebook. Work can't be all like that, to be sure, but the more hours of it that are, the more productive you will be.