Marshall Atkinson explains how to achieve more by not getting distracted

Distracted at work? Have you ever wondered how other people and companies seem to accelerate and do so much more than you every day? It seems that some folks veer off the path of what they need to be doing as soon as something interesting pops up: “Hey look, a cat!”, “Wow, balloons”, “Ooohhh, a cat holding balloons”… Joking aside, that doesn’t have to be you. The secret is focus and some time-management ninja habits. So grab another cup of coffee, and let’s breakdown some things that can make an immediate impact on how you get things completed every day.

The ‘not distracted’ game plan

Let’s talk about ‘putting first things first’. In this industry, it is amazingly easy to start racing down the road on some tangent. When you look up, hours have gone by and the important things you had to do today aren’t even remotely started. A good game plan for handling the important things begins with one simple word: Process. Having a solid process removes the flakiness of people from the work. It’s not Billy’s way of doing something, but the ‘company way’.

A good process starts by detailing all of the steps necessary to handle the work. For example, quotes aren’t handled by scribbling the maths on a yellow legal pad. Instead, there is a system in use and any trained person quoting an order for a customer will arrive at the same answer as everyone else. The process defines the maths for the quote and even how and when to follow up with the customer. This should be true for every department, and every task. A good process sets up the rules and expectations for your business to run properly.

Priorities within the process

Another level of planning within your process is how you prioritise the work. Let’s say you have five quotes to send to customers or quotes to send to customers or seven orders that need artwork created. Which one would you work on first? Second? Can you delegate one or two to someone else? Learning how to prioritise work is easy if you set up some guidelines. For me, the one thing that always works is to use the ship date as a keystone marker for work priority. It’s logical. Something that is due to ship in a few days has to have priority over something that is due to ship next week, right? This is why it is crucial to use real dates for your orders.

I know a lot of salespeople and companies like to use padded dates, “just in case”. But that only leads to problems down the road. Let’s face it. Not using the real ship date is mainly due to a lack of trust with your process. Fix that so you can prioritise the work correctly. I like to use the ship date and organise everything with these four ideas:

Rush Rush orders are those that are paid to go faster or have some critical component in them that makes them a priority. These orders are always worked on first in every department. This is true not just in production, but in purchasing, receiving, the art department, screen room, even in shipping. Rush jobs get worked on first. Every. Single. Time.

Late Rush orders have to go first, but after that, anything that is late needs to be knocked out. Late jobs cannot get any later. This happens all the time, especially in high-concept areas like the art department. You can’t simply put tasks off because something better came up, or was tagged important by someone else. Stick to your process, and don’t get distracted.

Today Today’s jobs mean those tasks that are scheduled for today. The rush and late jobs have to go first; after that, anything that needs to be worked on or completed today is handled. It’s easy to cram in that ‘little thing’ for today ahead of another one that may be a rush or late task, but this is how that excuse, “Sorry, we just ran out of time, that rush order didn’t ship”, happens. That’s when the rush job or the late job gets pushed out.

Tomorrow This is critical. You can’t work on future work until the rush, late, and today’s jobs are handled. Too many times that fun order for two weeks from now or that job for the doughnut-wielding salesperson gets jumped in front of everything else. Don’t fall into this trap.

Simply not distracted

Let’s assume you have built some solid functional processes. What’s next on the road to not being distracted? Here’s another clue for you: Keep things simple. Avoid getting sucked into the vortex of distractions by limiting the things you are doing at one time. You cannot multi-task and do good work. You need to be present. Here and now. Your priorities should be:

1. Start a task
2. Work the task
3. Finish the task Simple, right? Instead, what is more common is:

1. Start a task
2. Check your email
3. Get back to the task
4. Look at your mobile phone to see who liked your recent Instagram post
5. Get back to the task
6. Go to the bathroom
7. Stop by the breakroom for coffee
8. Have a conversation about Game of Thrones.
9. Check your email
10. Get back to the task
11. Go to a production meeting
12. Check your email
13. Respond to a few of the emails with follow-ups
14. Get back to the task
15. Forget what you were doing
16. “Oh yeah!”
17. Finish the task

How to keep things simple

If you want to limit how you get distracted, try sectioning oblocks of time into chunks. Try using 30-minute or 60-minute blocks, and colour code them on your calendar. During that time you focus on whatever that scheduled time is about. Don’t answer any emails or take a phone call. Those can be responded to later. When that segment is up, move onto the next thing that is scheduled. That’s when those tasks are handled. Leave unscheduled time on your calendar for those tasks that always seem to come up. For some, a good trick might be to get a cheap kitchen timer that winds up. Set it for whatever chunk of time you need to designate, and then keep your head down working on it until the timer dings. How much work could you do if you worked uninterrupted for 30 or 60 minutes at a time? I know, I know. It seems dumb to have to use a kitchen timer to get work accomplished, but this tip works for those that are easily distracted.


A trick that has worked for me for years is to only respond to emails three times a day. Morning, midday and before you leave. I call it the ‘Breakfast, lunch and dinner’ plan. It’s the best way to not let emails distract from the main work that needs to be handled by you. The first thing in the morning is when you respond to anything that came in after hours. Get those handled and any outgoing follow- ups that need attention. If you need to write some outgoing emails, do them now. Then, put your email priority aside and work on other things. Like printing or embroidering shirts. Or making sales calls. After lunch, respond to anything that came in. Write some more and then leave it alone. Get more crucial work handled. Remember, don’t look at those emails. You will do that later. Right before you leave, check your emails again. Get those handled and then that’s it for the day. Then, and most importantly, when you get home leave that work stuff at the office. No matter the temptation, do not look at your work email away from the office. Your family and friends need you too.


“Hey, Marshall I just need a minute to talk about the…” Do you get this type of drop-in interruption on a regular basis? I hate them. You lose focus and it’s hard to get back on track with what you were working on. If you have an office door, let everyone know that when the door is closed it is your focused time. But maybe you work in an open-air cubicle or just have persistent people that need their questions answered. The trick to use a verbal judo move. “Oh hey, Cheryl. I’m in the middle of something. Can I come find you in thirty minutes and we can discuss? Thanks!” This phrase allows you to wrest control of the conversation and lets Cheryl know she’s important. It gives her a timeline on when you are going to find her. Cheryl will walk away happy, and you can finish that priority task you were neck deep in when she stuck her head in the door.

Plan your day

Personally, I like doing the most important things first. As in, it is the very first thing I’m working on that day. Or better, I kicked its butt yesterday. But one thing I’ve learned in running shops all these years is that for me, there are only about two or three major tasks that can be handled a day. These are the gigantic, time-sucking projects that you get saddled with. That’s because there are simply too many things going on in your business. Don’t over-plan by adding too many tasks on your to-do list.

Be realistic

Instead, be realistic about how long things take. Planning a review for your employee’s compensation for next year? Building a pivot table for a spreadsheet that will analyse all of your production data with colour-coded macros? Receiving a floor-loaded truck with inventory for that new client? These things take time to handle. I’ll bet you have big projects on your plate as well. So why do we cram a dozen of these on our to-do list for a day? It’s just not realistic time-wise. Unless you delegate. That’s right. You’ve heard of that before, right? Sadly, most leaders that I speak with feel that they have to own and do everything in their shop. Here’s a tip. You don’t. It’s 100% okay to give your tasks away to other people. In fact, they don’t even have to work in your building. You can outsource office tasks to virtual assistants. Artwork can be handled with a separate creative team such as Pixel’s Hive. HR and payroll chores can even be handled with a service. Is the reason you keep putting some of the things off on your list is because you don’t really like doing them or don’t have the necessary skills? Get someone else to do it and move on.

The importance of breaks

It’s a fact. Your brain needs downtime. This means you occasionally need to go and do something else. Go talk to people. Take a walk. Break a sweat. Want more focus? Take more short breaks. Hey, I’m guilty of sitting in a chair for hours working too. Raising my hand right here. However, after I finish one task and before I start another I will get up and move around. Get some water. Do something different. It really helps me focus my concentration for the next round of activities. You can do it too. To get rid of old bad habits you have to replace them with something else. Be the change you seek….

Marshall Atkinson is a leading production and efficiency expert for the decorated apparel industry, and the owner of Atkinson Consulting, LLC. Marshall focuses on operational efficiency, continuous improvement and workflow strategy, business planning, employee motivation, management and sustainability. He is a frequent trade show speaker, article and blog author, and is the host of InkSoft’s The Big Idea podcast.