5 rules to make your work day sane
The digital age promised to help us work smarter, not harder -- yet it feels like we're not getting anything done. With a little discipline, even a weary wired worker can tame the beast.
By Ellen McGirt, FORTUNE

NEW YORK (FORTUNE) - Clay Shirky can be counted among the lucky few who not only appear to have mastered the wired world (and the wireless one) but get paid to decode it for the rest of us. He teaches graduate courses in interactive telecommunications at New York University. He has a busy technology consulting practice whose clients include Nokia (Research) and the Library of Congress.

Yet faced with the unlimited temptations of a Digital Age -- e-mail, smart phones, killing time in the blogosphere -- Shirky was getting nowhere recently on an important book proposal. Until one day he found himself working on it underground, riding the R train from his home in Brooklyn to NYU's campus in Manhattan. Free from office interruptions, he experienced a breakthrough. "Suddenly I was flying on it," he says. "I thought, Why get off the subway now?" He stayed on the train as it rumbled through Manhattan and into Queens. Thirty-two extra stops later (16 each way), he emerged victorious. Score: Shirky 1, temptation 0.

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Good for him. But if Clay Shirky, professional technologist, needs the imposed digital isolation of the New York City subway to get his work done (and even that won't last, since plans are afoot to bring wireless access to the subways there), where does that leave the rest of us? How in BlackBerry's name are we supposed to get our work done?

By protecting what is fast becoming the knowledge worker's most precious commodity -- their time. To do that, you've got to figure out what is actually worth paying attention to, and when. Here are five tips -- and notice, there's no heavy lifting or rocket science involved -- that can quickly help anyone who embarks on the brave quest to get through their to-do lists with a modicum of efficiency and return home to their families reasonably intact. Happy, even. What a concept.

1) Give yourself a time-out. Devote an hour to uninterrupted thinking and planning every day. First thing in the morning is safest, but anytime that works for you is good. No calls, no e-mail, no chitchat, just quality time. "If there's an emergency, someone will come get you," says organization expert Julie Morgenstern. "Use this time to think strategically about your work."

2) Show your technology who's boss. Constant e-mails and phone calls bring a sense of urgency and importance that's tough to resist, not to mention the thrill of instant accomplishment. But keep your eye on the prize. "Anyone who has his e-mail client notify him anytime an e-mail comes in has already lost," says Shirky.

Most of today's devices and software actually can be set to be less intrusive. You just need to learn how: Switch off the ping that heralds the arrival of an e-mail, create folders into which incoming messages are automatically shunted. When busy, let outgoing message capabilities alert others to when they might reasonably expect to hear back from you.

3) Keep your meetings rare. Surveys show that most people find meetings a major time waster. Use them sparingly, keep to an agenda, start and end on time. And unless someone is expecting a baby (or using technology is part of the meeting) turn off all cellphones and BlackBerries. Intra-meeting texting is rude and counterproductive.

4) Say no. "Sorry" isn't the hardest word -- "no" is. But not saying it to desperate colleagues or harried bosses is the quickest way to overload your schedule and muck up more important goals. Focus first on meeting your stated objectives. Also, consider family and personal time when filling your calendar: Work-centric employees are more likely to report feeling overloaded than those who plan for their personal lives.

5) Delete. Surveys show we waste 20 percent of our day on nonproductive activities. Cut out or delegate anything on your to-do list that doesn't have long-term consequences for your work. Be ruthless. And while you're at it, don't let a stuffed e-mail in-box sap your will to live. When reviewing each e-mail, make an on-the-spot call to delete, file, or reply to each one -- even if the response is, "I'll get back to you on this later."

Read the complete story: Getting out from underTop of page

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Market indexes are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. All times are ET. Disclaimer Morningstar: © 2014 Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Disclaimer The Dow Jones IndexesSM are proprietary to and distributed by Dow Jones & Company, Inc. and have been licensed for use. All content of the Dow Jones IndexesSM © 2014 is proprietary to Dow Jones & Company, Inc. Chicago Mercantile Association. The market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved. FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2014. All rights reserved. Most stock quote data provided by BATS.