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The Yellow List: Improve Mental Clarity and Time Management

On Father’s Day 2008, when my first son was two, he and I concocted a surprise for Daddy. We filled a giant basket full of specialty cigars, whiskey and milk chocolate with almonds and hid it in the trunk of our car. We shopped and planned all day. Then we picked up Daddy and headed to a favorite restaurant. Upon arrival I whispered to the valet to please store the basket and then bring it in at dessert time to surprise my husband. My son and I had reviewed the timing of this plan approximately 12 times that day. The moment we were out of the car- the second his feet hit the ground, my sweet son turned to my husband and blurted out “THERE IS A GIANT BASKET FOR YOU IN THE TRUNK FILLED WITH BOTTLES AND CANDY!!!”

For years we’ve laughed at the beauty of his developmentally normal lack of any shred of impulse control. But the truth is many of us are not so far ahead of him.

A Skill for Grown Ups

Impulse control. It’s the ability to stop yourself before taking action on an immediate desire. It’s the cool head of reason that by adulthood we should have acquired – but it’s not an easy discipline to nurture – especially in our over-stimulated, jumpy and demanding culture. I sat down to write this blog twenty minutes ago. Since then I’ve been tested by three text messages, two staff questions, fourteen emails and a box of maple bars making its way around the office.

This pecking away at our attention is commonplace now. 95% of us are interrupted by emails, messages, notifications, or other distractions over five times every hour. After we’ve been derailed by an interruption, it takes, on average, an additional twenty minutes for us to regain our momentum. These normal workplace interruptions can cause us to take 27% longer to finish a task while experiencing twice the anxiety and making twice the errors. It’s hard enough to get on track, but these days it’s even harder to stay there.

Many times we are on the receiving end of interruptions and temptations. And they are sure fun to complain about with our spouses or at the water cooler – but the truth is most of us play even roles of recipient and culprit to this draining behavior. Not only are we tested to try to concentrate amidst interruptions and time temptations but often through our lack of impulse control, we are in fact, the cause. We peek into closed doors with our questions. We text before thinking. And with email we allow an unchecked flow between brain and keys to be the source of myriad interruptions flying from our send button.

Consolidation V. Fragmentation

But you can strengthen your impulse control and cut down on unnecessary communications with a tool called The Yellow List.

Named simply for the notes icon on the IPhone where it was born, The Yellow List is a little document you keep in your phone or computer, anywhere easily accessible, where you collect all your non-time sensitive questions, ideas and issues for people you connect with frequently. You can keep one list per person, or a master Yellow List separated by first name tabs or headings.

To begin using the list, add a tiny bit of WhiteSpace at the moment of a desire to communicate through email, text, IM or physical interruption. Ask yourself if the communication fit’s better in an immediate medium or if it can be shelved onto the Yellow List for the next time you and your colleague have a moment together.

Yellow Lists limit our daily interruptions by delaying those unnecessary interactions, which cuts down on our overall email and messenger traffic while minimizing the impact of daily interruptions.

Yellow Lists create one of the few circumstances where I would advocate scheduling a new meeting- but it’s worth it. When your Yellow List gains a bit of length schedule a few minutes to digest it with the appropriate person. This consolidated use of time will be far more productive than a constant barrage of tiny interruptions.

Questions, hot ideas and interruptions are always going to be a part of our day to day engagements. We can choose to let them overrun our productivity, driven by whim and desire. Or with a bit of Impulse Control and the Yellow List, we can take back our work day and streamline our exchange of information.


Juliet Funt, CEO of WhiteSpace at Work



(323) 525-0144

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