How to Get it Done

Posted December 13, 2012 by Ellen Hunter Gans in On the Ladder

If I had a marketable silver bullet for focusing on projects and avoiding distractions, I would be writing this post from a gilded chair, using a pile of money for a footrest.

That’s because focus and distraction avoidance are some of the stickiest issues in any job — and, as I said in my last post, this is perhaps doubly so for the self-employed lot and those who work at home.

I don’t have a marketable silver bullet, but I do have some tried-and-true strategies built over my own career and the careers of my friends.

Tip 1: Easy does it

It’s often said that you should tackle the hardest tasks first. Let’s be honest: If I always had to approach my desk knowing that the scariest thing on my to-do list was waiting for me first, I’d alphabetize my cleaning supplies first.

That’s why I always try to start with a short, easy task that makes me feel brilliant and accomplished. Call it a gimme. Maybe it’s as simple as firing off an email; maybe it’s a post for my blog (shameless plug: Whatever it is, I try to limit it to 30 minutes lest I fall down the rabbit hole and wake up having spent the last two hours on Reddit.

Let this gimme task be your warm-up for the tough project ahead. Once you’re done with the gimme, start right in on the toughie. This makes you less likely to avoid work altogether, and you’re killing two projects in one session.

Tip 2: Be a clockwatcher

Try this: set a kitchen timer for 45 minutes. You can’t check email, surf the web, return that phone call, or change the laundry until the timer goes off. When that timer goes off, you can set another one for 15 minutes, and during this period you can do whatever you want. Do cartwheels. Make tea. Play tug-of-war with Fluffykins. Whatever it is, it had better be worth it — because you only have 15 minutes. Then repeat the cycle.

There’s actually a timer out there that is built for this exact purpose. It’s called the Pomodoro Technique. I like the concept, but the 25-minute work maximum on their timers is a major drawback, since I find it takes a few minutes on either end of the work cycles to get up to speed, and with Pomodoro you’re just getting into the swing of things when you’re cut off.

Tip 3: If that doesn’t work, try an Internet blocker

If you fail at tip 2 because you can only make it five minutes without checking Twitter to see what Ashton Kutcher had for breakfast, you may need a stronger dose of focus. There are several apps out there that will allow you to temporarily block Internet access. Most of them, like Freedom, cost a nominal fee ($10), but the value-add can be tremendous. Google “block online distractions” to check out your options.

Tip 4: The reward system

There is a reason that parents of young children resort to bribery when things get desperate. Sometimes you just need to dangle a carrot in order to make things happen.

While the obvious carrot in this example is in fact chocolate cake or something similar, I hesitate to advocate food as a reward. Instead, perhaps it’s getting to read the next chapter in the book you can hardly put down, or catching up on your DVR, or going for a run. (Don’t look at me like that; time to exercise is the best kind of reward.)

When you accomplish a pre-determined task (or set of tasks), you get the reward — and not a moment before.

Tip 5: List it

Oh, how I love lists. Sometimes I write something on a to-do list that I’ve already accomplished, just so I can cross it off. There is something so satisfying about crossing it off, even if things are being added to the list faster than you can get rid of them (which always seems to be the case).

Make it visible. If you have a white board in your office, put it there so it can’t be hidden. If you’re faced with a mile-long to-do list, is it really worth it to watch Gangnam style on YouTube one more time?

No magic bullets here, but a combination of these might just work for you. If you have your own ideas, post them in the comments or contact me at I’d love to hear them!

About the Author

Ellen Hunter Gans

Ellen Hunter Gans is a freelance writer and communications strategist. She's also a marathon runner, an Ironman triathlete, a wildly untalented cross-country skier, a newly minted Crossfit junkie, a yoga devotee, a wannabe culinary genius, a voracious reader, a grammar snob, a world traveler, an outdoorswoman, an oenophile, a mediocre gardener, and a secret fan of awful television. Her blog is at, and her business website is at