Managing Distractions

In our Vistage group last month we processed an issue that every executive faces:  DISTRACTIONS! 

It is important to take ownership of our time.  Others can interrupt, create distractions or take away our focus.  But we can fight back and set the tone for getting things done at work and home.  By not managing our own time we are not respecting others time.  Distractions cause us to work late and miss family time.  Distractions can make us to less productive that lead to stress and burnout.  If you don’t manage your time, it will manage you.

Our group came up with a list of common distractions and some best practices to minimize them.

1)    Interruptions - Most people are capable of focusing on a task.  But what many do not realize is that if we lose focus, it can take up to 10 minutes of uninterrupted time to regain focus. 

2)    Noise – I would bet that when you get an email your phone, iPad or computer makes a “ding”!  Why?  Other noise issues include your workspace, noisy neighbors and co-workers and music.

3)    Location – Some have offices, some have cubicles and others work in an open area.  Wherever you work distractions can abound.

4)    People – We all love our people!  We certainly need good people to succeed.  But let’s be real, most distractions come from people.

5)    Multitasking – You may have two ears, two eyes and even two sides to your brain but none of that makes you more effective when you do two things at once!  It can’t be done well and the reality is you do both tasks poorly.


So what to do?  Here are some practical things to try:

·      My time - Set aside a time of day without the door open.  Let others know this is “your’ time.  Use the time wisely and focus!  Select tasks that need focus and concentration.  Schedule the time on your calendar and go as far as closing the door or hanging up a “do not disturb” sign.

·      Turn off the noisemakers!  No dings for email.  No alerts when someone posts on your Facebook wall, tweets to you or it’s your turn on Words with Friends.

·      Control your email by stopping automatic send and receive.  If something is critical tell people to call you.  Plan time on your calendar to read email.  For example 30 minutes first thing in the morning, 11 AM and 2 PM.

·      Share your calendar with others.  For the most part, people will respect that you have time blocked off on your calendar.  Use a shareable calendar system like Google Calendar and show “free/busy” time to others.

·      Work somewhere else.  Find a corner, a balcony, a sofa, the kitchen or even a Starbucks.  Figure out where you work best and spend some time there working on things that need your undivided attention.  Remember, if they can’t find you, they can’t interrupt you!

·      Use noise reduction devices.  Headphones work great.  There are also “white noise” devices that work great and even an iPhone app that creates white noise.

·      Ask why.  When you are interrupted help your coworker understand the importance of uninterrupted work time.  A gentle question like, “How would you deal with this?” or “Is this something we could discuss at 3:30 today?” will do the trick.  Teach that there is a time and place for focus.

·      Focus on focusing.  I know this may seem obvious but we need to be aware of distractions.  I often ask my group members to journal their time and activities for a week.  They find that they are more productive when they are aware of their time.  Set out visual reminders, use your calendar and make it a priority.

·      Read during your ‘reading’ time.  I set aside reading for certain times of day, just like I do for email.  I utilize Instapaper (a read later app) and other tools to create a virtual reading folder.  I also carry a blue folder for articles to read during down time.  Use your least physically productive time of day to read.  I also listen to Audible books and podcasts while driving to increase productivity.

·      Don’t fall into the online trap.  Facebook, Twitter, Zynga games, messaging and on an on.  Being online can create distractions so turn it off.  Use it when you have time, schedule it if needed.

·      Prioritize to do first things first.  I know task lists are outdated but they work!  Start and end your day by knowing what you have done and need to do.  Be sure you create the habit of doing first things first.

·      Use meals to meet.  Meetings are important but can become distractions.  Schedule conversations over a meal and treat that time like a meeting.  Have an agenda and outcome.  This makes you more productive and also allows you to get to know people in a different way.

Whatever tips and tricks you use start today and focus on focusing.  Your time is valuable and it can be easily wasted.  Manage it like money.  How we value time may vary from person to person but we all have the same amount.  Choose to manage yours to get the return that has the greatest value to you.

 Tom Cuthbert