officeI recently spent an interesting half an hour talking with a very successful businessman who has bipolar about how to get his office work done even though he has periods when he is depressed, and his thought processes are slowed down.

One of his big issues is that when he is depressed he finds himself staring off into space rather than working his way through his inbox.

This is a topic that I have discussed with many people, and I had some ideas.

When we looked at the problem, here is what we found —

In the morning, he would go through his inbox and get rid of things that he didn’t need to pay attention to. He would be left with a stack of things that needed some kind of action, and he would distribute them across his desk and start to work on them in a somewhat random fashion.

The problem of getting distracted was particularly noticeable when he had to work on a project that was not particularly urgent or compelling. He would find himself daydreaming rather than focusing on writing a letter or reviewing a document.

When he had something that was urgent, he was able to get himself to focus on it pretty well.

I proposed a couple of changes:

  1. When he went through his inbox in the morning, I suggested that he have a stack of Post-its at hand. While going through the 2014-05-18_7-45-46stack, I suggested that he not only discard the items not requiring attention, but also stick a Post-it on the remaining items and make a note about two things: The next step that that project required (a couple of words about what to do) and a rating about the urgency and importance of the task. This meant that the second time through the stack he would already know what needed to be done and also that he could organize the tasks that needed action by priority.
  2. I asked him to make a serious effort to limit the amount of time he spent on the things that were not important and not particularly urgent, because this was a group of items that could easily distract him while working his way through the other items. Routine items can suddenly became much more complicated or lead to long periods of daydreaming if we are feeling a bit depleted. What I proposed was that he set aside 30 minutes to get through the not important, not particularly urgent group, and not allow himself any more time.
  3. I felt confident that the important and urgent things probably would get done that day, and that he didn’t need to do much to change the way he responded to those items. These things tend to be pretty easy to stay focused on.
  4. I suggested that the important but not urgent items, things that really required some thought and had long term significance, but weren’t urgent enough that they would necessarily get that kind of attention, be put aside and dealt with at the time of day when he found his thinking was clearest. For him, this was in the morning after he had done some exercise and mindfulness meditation.

You can read more about this system of prioritizing things by importance and urgency here.

Two excellent resources on this topic are Getting Things Done by David Allen and a series of books by Steven Covey.