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Unplug, and go lead instead

5 min read


After logging on your email in the morning, do you ever find yourself falling into a rabbit hole of reactions and responses that rob you of a good hour of your day — every day?

What about your texting, social media, Googling, or online gaming habits? Have these behaviors been slowly and steadily growing in frequency over the years? If yes, how does that make you feel about your performance as a leader?

Lately, I’ve had a lot of conversations with people who are struggling with these and other distractions. Consequently, they’re stressed out and are having trouble getting things done — or done well. Yet in spite of all this, they constantly check their texts, emails, social media pages, etc. It’s like what Nicholas Carr writes about in his book, “The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains”: “When we are overtaxed, we find ‘distractions more distracting.’”

Distractions aren’t just about time management

Digging deeper in conversations with these same people, they often tell me they’re struggling with time management. Then they usually realize it might just be that they’re too easily absorbed in, or even addicted to, their online distractions.

For leaders and countless other professionals, habits around such distractions can become highly problematic. When you repeatedly get caught up in this intricate web of distractions, you can lose time that could be devoted to what’s vital in your job. But also by giving in to the distractions, you may also give up some degree of self-control, allowing yourself to follow and succumb to wherever the distractions are leading you. What gets sacrificed is the ability to maintain full awareness, clear purpose, and a focus on what really matters relative to your goals. This behavior flies in the face of disciplined leadership, which is all about consistently and consciously applying the right mindsets and behaviors that are vital for success.

How the Internet amplifies habits around distraction

Distractions aren’t new. But the onslaught of online media and Internet-based technologies has certainly raised the impact of multi-tasking to new heights. It’s also elevated an understanding about how it can make us more ineffective as leaders.

I’m not saying technology is bad—because it’s not. But when multi-tasking with anything, including technology, becomes more of a distraction and less of a tool that supports our success, then it’s cause for concern. And something’s got to change.

Here’s how to reel in distractions and stay focused on what matters:

Credit: Pixabay

Conduct a time study.

During an average week at work, record how you’re spending your time. Learn exactly how many minutes you’re spending on vital versus non-vital activities, relative to your leadership values, vision, and goals. Clearly identify the timewasters, noting those that are pure distractions.

Create a new routine.

Get a game plan for how you’ll handle and commit to changing your distractions. For example, you may want to limit the time you spend checking email or doing other online activities. Replace that with a new activity, such as managing by walking around. Instead of emailing your team to check in on a project, “unplug” and go ask them in person instead. Use this strategy to build a deeper level of connection and learn more than what an email response might provide.

Minimize multi-tasking.

Research shows that when we multi-task, IQs fall by 10 points while risk for error rises 50 percent. A study conducted by Realization, a project management software company, found that multi-tasking costs organizations $450 billion every year. One of the most common scenarios in which people tend to multitask — or fall into habits around distraction — is in meetings. Because attendees lose focus (or the meeting lacks focus from a planning or management standpoint), people turn to checking email, texting, Facebooking, etc.

Regardless of the reasons, these distracting and multitasking activities are contradictory to the goal of the meeting, which is to focus on the agenda’s subject(s). Setting up game rules around what is and isn’t acceptable in term of distractions can help. Some companies create greater engagement by putting a basket on the center of the meeting table and asking all attendees to throw in their iPhones and Smartphones. This and other simple efforts can have a big impact on limiting distractions and building greater focus and participation.

Lead by example.

One of the best ways to minimize workplace distractions and multi-tasking is through leading by example. This means that, in the meeting scenario just mentioned, you are the first one to put your phone away. This is about leading by example. Another example: If someone comes into your office with something to share, make an effort to turn to that person, look that individual in the eye, and keep your attention on him or her rather than on your computer screen, iPhone, or something else.

This may seem like a common courtesy, but it’s an effort that has benefits beyond good manners. With practice, you can be fully present and come to better ignore distractions — or what is taking you away from the important issues or people before you.

John Manning is the president of Management Action Programs, Inc. (MAP) and author of  “The Disciplined Leader: Keeping the Focus on What Really Matters.” MAP is a general management consulting firm headquartered in Los Angeles, CA. Since 1960, MAP has tapped its talent and expertise to help 170,000 leaders and 15,000 organizations nationwide create breakthrough results. For more information, visit

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