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How to remove distractors from your workday

In a previous series for SmartBrief, I laid out my five-step productivity process for leaders, which I then turned into a Productivity Blueprint. This post is the first to dive deeper into the third of my five steps, doing for maximal productivity.

Okay. So, we’ve planned our work (Step 1) and put systems into place to keep our people informed and rowing in the right direction (Step 2.) The next step (Step 3) toward increased productivity is to roll up our sleeves and get work done.

The problem with our quest for doing more is that we’ve never been more distracted at work than we are today. In addition to the many “traditional” distractors that have plagued workplace productivity for decades, such as long (coffee and/or smoke) breaks, noisy co-workers and in-person demands on our attention (in the form of “drop in” conversations and scheduled meetings,) newer technologies like smartphones and the internet have added other dimensions to our distractibility.

According to research cited by the Society for Human Resource Management:

  • Workers are interrupted by e-mail, instant messages and other digital distractions nearly 14 times per day on average
  • The average US office worker spends more than three hours each day trying to keep up with work email
  • The average knowledge worker checks in with communication tools every six minutes.

When people transition their attention away from an unfinished task to attend to a distraction, they lose time, and their subsequent task performance suffers. For example, if you interrupt writing an email to reply to a text message, you will need to refocus when you turn your attention back to finishing your email. That little bit of time of adjusting your focus compounds throughout the day. As we fragment our attention, fatigue and stress increases, which negatively affects performance.

So, not surprisingly, the first component of this “do it” step is to remove distractors.

Here are some ways to minimize distraction so that you can get your work done.

  1. Connect at your pace and your time. Don’t permit people to impose on your workday and calendar. Let them know when you’re available to meet, speak, etc. Learn to become comfortable not responding immediately so that you can get real work done without interruption.
  2. Find quiet time. Whether it's early in the morning before everyone shows up at the office, during lunch or at some other time, there are bound to be times when you can work without having to respond to email, messages or knocks on the door or cubicle wall. For me, this time is early in the morning, which is also when I am freshest, most alert and most able to concentrate and be creative.
  3. Close the door. When we close our door, we send a signal that we’re not to be disturbed. But so often, leaders leave their doors open because they want to be available to others on demand. Doing so may sound noble, but we must be able to communicate that we also need to get things done and will be available to our people at the right time
  4. Power down. This includes:
    • Shutting off your phone (or at least setting it to “silent”) while working.
    • Staying off social media and the web unless specifically required by work. (According to a cross platform media study from 2016, about 90% of adult Americans used Facebook alone, spending 15-18 hours per month on the platform. A report from a global outplacement agency suggested that the 15-week fantasy football season costs employers over $14 billion in lost productivity.)
    • Create an email autoresponder that informs people when you will read and respond to email (late morning and afternoon, when energy levels commonly dip, are generally good times to consider), and do the same for your voicemail message. Let people know how they can reach you in the event of emergency, such as through your assistant.

All these strategies are meant to soften the effects of externally driven distractors. But if we really want to get focused and more skillfully manage the distractions of digital life, we must also effectively manage our most precious resource: our attention. “Distraction comes from within,” Nir Eyal has said.

Here are some tips to focus our attention on the work at hand.

  1. Set daily goals. We spoke about goal setting previously. When you set daily goals, you can more easily focus your attention on what needs to get done. Think of it as a streamlined and prioritized to-do list that will help you stay true to your most important tasks.
  2. Set deadlines. An added incentive can be to set firm deadlines with your boss or client. This will add accountability and motivate you to push through. Make sure the deadlines are reasonable and sufficiently spaced out to accomplish the task.
  3. Break projects into manageable chunks. Big projects can be unwieldy and allow your brain to wander. Chunking the work can focus your mind on one area or one subject at a time.
  4. Practice mindfulness. According to one study, practicing mindfulness meditation is associated with improvement in sustaining focus and attention. Even more important, participants had increased feelings of emotional well-being and performed better on tasks.
  5. Set a timer. Train your brain to hyper-focus on a task by using the Pomodoro technique. First, decide on a task you want to accomplish. Next, set your timer for 25 minutes and work diligently for that time. Take a short break (five minutes) when it rings, then reset the timer and go again. After four rounds, take a longer (15-30 minutes) break.
  6. Switch tasks. If your brain “locks up” and just can’t stick with something any longer, try switching tasks to something else for a while. Giving your brain a variety of things to work on can help you stay alert and productive for longer.

 

Naphtali Hoff, PsyD, (@impactfulcoach) is president of Impactful Coaching & Consulting. Check out his leadership book, "Becoming the New Boss." Read his blog and listen to his leadership podcast. Download his free new productivity blueprint and his e-books, "Core Essentials of Leadership," "An E.P.I.C. Solution to Understaffing" and "How to Boost Your Leadership Impact."

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