Keep on Track by Designing Your Transitions

Even if we are good at focusing when we need to, it’s hard to keep on track when switching activities. Here’s how to make it easy to keep on track.

Stever Robbins
5-minute read
Episode #240

Keep on Track by Designing Your Transitions

Life is simple when I keep on track. Most of the productivity training says to keep on track, just block out the time you need to do stuff and do it then. But if you really want to keep on track, the secret lies not in the big blocks of time, but in the milliseconds between them. When we transition in or out of an activity is when we risk getting swept away to the desert of distraction. If you want to be Super You, get good at your tasks, but also get good at your transitions.

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Distractions Start Immediately

It starts when I get to work. I want to keep on track, but distraction lurks behind my office door, ready to pounce.

I arrive at the office, sit down in front of my computer, and place my hand lovingly on the mouse. I scan the colorful, glowing desktop, looking for icons to click. Sometimes, I click the prettiest icons first. Oh, look, a web site! I read the first three sentences and furrow my brow in deep, reflective thought, for about two and a half seconds. Then I click on an ad with a picture of an Abercrombie & Fitch model. An hour later, I am the proud owner of six new pairs of jeans (that will magically give me washboard abs), a fabulous pre-torn T-shirt, a lifetime subscription to the A&F catalog, and a permanent case of body image insecurity. What I am not is any further along on my work for the day.

Keep on Track During Transitions

In this (hypothetical) example, what I’m missing is a good habit for how to transition into work so I get useful stuff done. A transition is a ritual that’s so ingrained, it keeps me moving smoothly between tasks.

Inside a task, I’m fine. While planning my conquest of the cheesecloth market (mwah hah hah hah!), it’s easy to keep going. But getting into the groove and getting back out are another matter.

Keep on Track When You Transition to Work

When you get to work, you need to figure out what to work on, and then start doing it. Given your job and personal habits, design a ritual you will do every day that moves you smoothly into work.

Arrive. Drop your stuff by your desk. Scan your calendar, task list, inboxes, and any emergencies that absolutely positively need to be dealt with right now. Tell them to wait. Get a sense of what’s on your plate. Scan for a high-level overview, but don’t deal with stuff, yet. Then head to the lunch room to whip up a tasty beet, celery and whey shake. My pal Bernice swears by them; she says they “get things moving” in the morning. No comment. While you’re blending, decide on today’s priorities. Leave the blender in the sink for someone else to clean (that can be their keep-on-track morning ritual) and return to your desk. Then immediately do 5 minutes of work on your top priority.

Design your own arriving-at-work ritual. Make sure it’s deliberate, and starts the day off on the right foot.

Keep on Track During Interruptions

It is inevitable that just as you’re getting into a groove, someone will interrupt you, especially in a workplace where you’re always putting out fires. This is the most dangerous territory. Keep on track by having an interruption ritual, a transition into an interruption and then back again.

No matter how eager the person is to have you fight their fires, always say “One second.” Time stands still. Everything moves into slow motion. In that pleasant pause, notice exactly where you are in your task. Decide exactly what the next step will be when returning from the interruption.

But do you trust memory? Of course not! Memory might not survive an interruption. Look closely. There’s a small pad on your desk, perfect for jotting down your next step. Jot, take a deep breath, turn to your co-worker, and say “May I help you? And by the way, that Halloween costume is awesome. The fire looks very realistic and the smell of burning hair is a nice touch.”

Keep on Track When Returning from an Interruption

After dealing with the interruption and wiping the fire extinguisher goo off your hands, return to work. This is where you need a ritual to transition right back where you left off. Do not sit down at your computer and start surfing your favorite web comic. Do look at the note you jotted before the interruption. Jump right back in where you left off.

Keep on Track With a Default Activity

Eventually, you’ll finish your task. You’ll breathe a sigh of relief. Your mind will be as clear as dishes washed with Calgon dishwashing soap. In this moment, your mind will be tempted to reach for your default activity. Your default activity is what you do when you don’t immediately know what else to do.

My mind usually reaches for my email. Or a web browser. This is one reason I advocate divorcing your computer. If you always return to your computer between tasks, it’s just too easy to get sucked into DailyDoseOfCute.net. I mean, c’mon, who doesn’t need more cute in their lives?

A better choice is to reach for the daily task list that I created while watching Bernice whip up her smoothie. Review the list and grab a high-priority task to do next.

Transitioning Away from Work

Your final transition of the work day is transitioning out. Rather than just grabbing your stuff and running down the stairs yelling, “I’m free! I’m free!” use your end-of-the-day transition to set up for an easy transition into work tomorrow. Close your cubicle door. Spend 2 minutes putting away the stuff on your desk. Think about what still needs doing, and jot down on your little pad what tomorrow’s priorities should be. They may change when you arrive tomorrow, but for now, listing them will help your mind feel safe and secure that nothing will be forgotten.

Turn off the light, and head home.

Transitions are where we often get distracted. Make them explicit and practice them. Critical transitions include arriving at work, dealing with interruptions, and leaving work. If you want to keep on track, rehearse these transitions explicitly and you’ll find yourself being more productive than ever, in no time at all!

Work Less, Do More, and have a Great Life!


Man on Computer image from Shutterstock

About the Author

Stever Robbins

Stever Robbins was the host of the podcast Get-it-Done Guy from 2007 to 2019. He is a graduate of W. Edward Deming’s Total Quality Management training program and a Certified Master Trainer Elite of NLP. He holds an MBA from the Harvard Business School and a BS in Computer Sciences from MIT.