Today’s working environments are riddled with interruptions and distractions. Just when we get focused on one task, a new e-mail arrives, the phone rings, or someone stops by and off we go on a new tangent. Later, when we return to the original task, we need to get back up to speed before we can make any progress. The net result is lost time and greater anxiety.
Unfortunately, interruptions or distractions are a part of the workplace. Consequently, we must understand the nature of each to better manage them.
Dissecting Time Bandits
Productivity saboteurs originate from one of three sources – You, Them, and It. Let’s examine the role of each source in diminishing our productivity.
You. The most insidious time bandit is yourself. We each allow, even create, distractions that reduce our productivity and cause our workloads to pile up even higher. A classic example of this is flitting from task to task or place to place during the day. The act of just “touching” your work is a distraction you create rather than actually doing anything substantive on any one task. For example, does this sound familiar? You’ve got to get a task completed, but you find yourself incessantly checking your e-mail Inbox, your Twitter account or your Facebook updates. Nothing is getting done, but there’s a whole bunch of activity going on! The most productive way to manage this type of self-inflicted distraction is to sit quietly in front of the work you need to do. Yes, just sit there. Quietly … maybe with a blank screen or pen and paper in front of you. Let your mind settle down and allow yourself to think just about what it is you need to get done. Resist the urge to dart off to some other perceived exigency. As your brain settles down and begins to focus on the task at hand, you’ll discover the path to completion for this project.
Them. Everyone in your workplace is a potential time bandit. Without warning, these folks can pounce on you, delivering up huge interruptions. Some of these interruptions are substantive – they actually require your assistance. However, many of them are unnecessary and do nothing but cause you to veer away from your well-intended and productive efforts. Moreover, keeping an “open door” and managing by “walking around” are highly lauded management practices that must be considered when seeking to manage unnecessary interruptions for fear of communicating an unwanted message – leave me alone! The best tact is to divide your time physically between periods when interruptions are “acceptable” and periods when they’re not. Thus, during “acceptable” periods, make yourself available via the open door, etc. When the interruption occurs, quickly determine its priority and manage accordingly – deal with it right now, schedule time with the interrupter (in the future) to deal with the issue, or stand up (to indicate closure) and accept any physical manifestation of the interruption and place it in the Inbox for future consideration. Conversely, during “unacceptable” periods, make yourself unavailable via a closed door (with or without a note on the door asking not be disturbed) or simply by leaving – go to a place where you’re unlikely to be found such as a conference room or empty office.
It. The “it” to which I refer is most often technology. We are bombarded by various interruptions and easy-to-access distractions via modern technology. For example, take new message alerts! “You’ve got mail” became the banner of the Internet age. Today, busy workers deal with tens, if not hundreds, of e-mails every day, with a corresponding “Ping” and screen flash every time a new one arrives. What’s the point of knowing every time “You’ve got mail”!? If it’s so darn important, why aren’t you calling me or coming to see me? You get my point. The same goes with the onslaught of social media – updates to Twitter and Facebook and their progeny are bombarding us with largely unexamined and generally unimportant information. The best way to handle this particular productivity saboteur is to take command of the technology and drive it, instead of being driven by it. Specifically, turn off all new message/update alerts and visit each technology source as often as necessary to remain in control of the information being delivered via that channel. Thus, you can turn off your new e-mail alert and check it every 20 to 30 minutes to make sure you’re remaining responsive. With social media, check it on your breaks – they’re “social” by definition, so treat them as such!
Doing What You Can With What You Have
In short, interruptions and distractions can never be eliminated from our days. In fact, some matters are truly urgent and require an interruption. However, if you realize that these emergencies are in the great minority of events and construct mechanisms to efficiently attend to the rest of the productivity saboteurs that come at you during the day, you’ll find that your focus goes up and, along with it, your productivity and sense of accomplishment!