As I sit here on the airplane, I’m in a sort of cocoon. There are no phones, no internet (not on this flight), and no one to take me off task. It is probably the most productive space I find myself in these days. It’s interesting that I know what the conditions are that allow me to do my best writing, but in my office, I have to work so much harder to discipline myself to create the ones that work. Ironic, isn’t it? That we have to sometimes get away from work to get work done. We are victims of the universe’s distractions and it’s making us crankier, less effective and more overwhelmed.
Research shows that on average we check our email inboxes about 40 times per minute. It also shows that we have about 70,000 thousand thoughts per day, all of which have the potential to be the next shiny penny we go chasing after. Add to that evidence that points to office distractions like phone calls, pop-up emails, colleague interruptions and unscheduled meetings*, and we have an elixir for the new ADD – abundant distraction disorder. Hundreds of executives ask me each year if they have the “real” ADD – attention deficit disorder. I’m not a physician and I tell them to seek out qualified help on that. However, you can begin with what many physicians will recommend first in their quest to determine if you really have ADD: “discipline” your environment. I know that I greatly needed it when I wrote my first book (my current book benefitted from the insights I’m going to outline for you). I thought I had the real ADD when I stumbled upon the things I’m going to suggest to you. I was able to go from a few pages of writing a day to entire chapters.
The following list isn’t exhaustive, but it will get you on your way. At least try the things on it for a period of time. None of them are revolutionary by themselves, but when you are disciplined about using them in order to manage the abundant distractions flung at you all day long, your life will change. Experiment with what works but do something.
- First, turn off your pop-up email alerts on your computer AND your smartphone.
- Turn off your Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, news and any other alert that pulls your attention to it, if even only for a moment (this one is difficult – we love the pleasure of people paying attention to us on our social media).
- Unless you need your browser on for research, turn that off too. If the browser is open, only have tabs showing that are pertinent to your work at hand. Do not have your bookmarks menu showing.
- Keep “office hours” in the office. If you have an office with a door, teach your colleagues that when it is closed, you are working on a priority and you will surface when you are finished. Only true emergencies are exceptions. If you are in a cubicle, find an empty office to hide yourself in. Tell only one strategic person where to find you in case the boss gets an urgent need for your services.
- Do emails at set times throughout the day. To the degree you can, stick to about the same times (for instance, early morning, before and after lunch, mid-afternoon, before leaving for the day). Unless you are saving lives or closing a deal and need to pay close attention, get into the habit of NOT looking at your email for longer periods of time. Teach your colleagues that if they have something that needs your attention right now, to come find you or call you. The residual benefits of face-to-face or ear-to-ear meetings are enormous.
- For me, writing in a coffee shop is like writing on an airplane. Lots of white noise and enormous focus.
- Give yourself two focused periods per day to do the above suggestions. Spend about 50 minutes in each of these distraction buster sessions.
So, you see, I’m not suggesting you go on a crash diet of unavailability. I’m just suggesting you become more available to the work you are there to do in the first place, at least twice a day. Carve out more deliberate time to do YOUR work. Watch what happens when you take back some of your day from the abundant distractions. You owe it to your company, to yourself and to your family (who will wonder where that cranky person went). Good luck.
Suggested research: Victor M. González and Gloria Mark. “Constant, constant, multi-tasking craziness: managing multiple working spheres.” In Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. (ACM, 2004): 113–120