The positive side of Distractions

Everybody hates distractions. They annoy the crap out of busy people. Just yesterday I had one person telling me that he is falling behind with his work schedule because of distractions. “How do you do it?”, he said, “I just stopped you doing what you were immersed in. And still you don’t seem angry about it.”

Let’s step back.

You are working on an important task where other people depend on. The phone rings. You pick it up, some one has a problem and thought you were the best person to help. 10 minutes later you pick up were you left your task. It takes some time to get back into that train of thought. A knock at the door. “Excuse the interruption”, the person says, “I’m looking for Joe. Has he moved office?” You slowly get annoyed. Even these brief 2 minutes cost you much more than that. You look at the watch and at your calendar, 15 minutes until the budget meeting starts. You are not going to complete the current task before that. No point of starting again. You check your emails instead and add another 3 distraction tasks to your list. Just enough time before the meeting to tell your boss how busy you are.

Sounds familiar?

Feels bad?

It’s like everybody holding you back, 2 steps forward and one back. Right?

Let’s take a different view.

I’m working on an important task where other people depend on. I know when this piece has to be completed by. The phone rings. I decide to leave it to the answer machine and continue with my task at hand. A knock at the door. “Excuse the interruption.”, the person said. Before he continues, I switch mentally my attention to the person and away from the current task. “How can I help you?”, I say. We have a brief conversation. The other person is fully aware that he interrupted my work, no need to tell him. He still feels good as I gave him my full attention. I switch back to my work. It takes me time to pick up my train of thought again. Although it’s less time because I don’t waste time on being annoyed and I just had a pleasant conversation rather than a stressful one. I finish the task before the budget meeting and ensure I have the necessary information before I go.

How does this work?

For me, it’s a question of being prepared for and accepting that there are disruptions. I have a plan for the upcoming week which contains big blocks that fill up about 60% of my calendar. I know by heart what these blocks are for and if they can be moved. Minor things are kept in a task list where they may have due dates and notes. Routines and habits help me to keep organised. For example, I follow – albeit loosely – the Inbox zero approach for email management. That way emails are not a distraction just one of my Information Management streams. The same goes for phone calls or visitors.

Principle Approach

  • make time for every task and do just that
  • for every distraction take control and decide how you handle it
  • plan your day to a degree,
    • know the importance and urgency of your current tasks
    • leave time for distractions
  • distraction management
    • can you control it?
      • make time for checking your Inbox, don’t react to any incoming mail immediately (unless that’s your job 🙂 )
      • put your phone on answer machine when in meetings, important tasks, or having a visitor
      • pay attention to the distraction you can’t control
    • can you answer it in 2 minutes? -> do it.
    • what is the urgency of the problem? -> not urgent -> park it.
    • are you the best person to do this job? -> no -> delegate
    • more important than your current task? -> no -> park it.
    • change priorities and inform other stakeholders.
  • review the parked items (Inbox zero type approach) and
    • file
    • delegate
    • respond
    • schedule
    • do

Does it work?

It works most days pretty well. I sometimes find myself on the phone and answering emails or continue reading an article on the web. I’m not good at “multi tasking” and catch myself missing something from the conversation. Good reminder to focus the attention on item at a time. It makes a difference and that being a big difference whom you are talking with. It also makes a difference when picking up a task again because I made a conscious cut.

How do you deal with distractions?

2 comments on “The positive side of Distractions

  1. Ady says:

    You’ve highlighted an important point here – that a lot of productivity / time management methodologies are at loggerheads with – interruptions happen, and there’s nothing (much) you can do about it. It is true that one’s most productive when you’re “in the zone” and interruptions take you out of that place, but, given that they are inevitable, your analysis of how to deal with them is spot on; you mustn’t let them get to you – accept them and re-focus.
    Of course there are ways to minimise the distractions – only open your email client 3-4 times per day, silence the phone, shut the office door, etc. I currently work in an open-plan environment but, when I had an office, I operated an ‘open door’ policy: if the door was open you could come in and interrupt me; if the door was closed you couldn’t. This worked really well for me and I think I did my best work back then.

    I’m also a massive fan of Inbox Zero and the GTD way of working. Your bullet list is a great checklist for working out what you should be concentrating on.

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