Oct 11, 2007

Distraction Management

When it comes to time-management and boosting productivity, the greatest challenge is “distraction management.” People continuously interrupt me, asking for signatures, asking for advice, asking for feedback. Then there are the phone calls. Plus the pop-up reminder on the taskbar informing me that “I’ve got mail!”

People don’t realize that interruptions, no matter how small and minute, are a major time waster. When I am focused on a particular task, be it a letter I am composing, a presentation I am crafting, or a document I am reviewing, I get into a certain rhythm. Everything clicks. It’s like a natural high. At this point, any intrusion breaks that rhythm. Even a small knock on the cubicle divider, a simple “Excuse me,” causes me the concentration to lapse and it will take some time to get back into the groove of things. I look back at the document, wonder where I left off, wonder what was my train of thought, and then I need to get back into the thick of things. Sometimes it takes up to a minute. It is like a car trying to get back into speed from a dead stop.

So one trick in boosting your productivity is to minimize distractions. If you are blessed with an office, then all you have to do is close to the door to prevent people from barging in. If you are even more fortunate to have an administrative assistant, he or she can screen any visitors. But not all of us have that advantage.

So here are three tips that anyone can use to manage distractions:

1. Make a to-do list and prioritize

A to-do list is an essential tool. It does not have to be anything fancy. You do not need any sophisticated software. A simple notepad will do. Before the end of every day, I make a to-do list. I review this list first thing in the morning, adding things that I may have forgotten. I do this before I even begin to open any email or any envelope on my Inbox.

Then, with the to-do list in hand, review and decide which will be the first tasks to tackle. I decide which tasks are considered Immediate and those which are considered Important. Get the Immediate items out of the way pronto, otherwise they can appear while you are working on the Important items, further distracting you.

2. Do Not Disturb.

One trick I learned to manage distractions is to signal to everyone that I do not want to be disturbed. One way is to hang an obvious “Do Not Disturb” sign. Another is to point people to your “In” and “Out” box. I tacked a simple note to advise visitors to leave in the Inbox all documents that needed my signature and that any document that was placed before lunch would be signed before the end of the day.

3. Learn to use your voice mail

Phone calls are another source of distraction. To manage your incoming calls, you need to make full use of your voice mail. Record a greeting that advises all callers that you are busy and that you will get back to the caller as soon as possible. Avoid any message that gives the caller any impression that you are out of office; if he or she drops by, it could result in a loss of credibility on your part. If you absolutely need complete focus, then forward all your calls to your voice mail so that the shrill ring will not break your concentration.

4. You’ve got mail

I schedule about two sessions of “email time” during the day—one at 9:30 am and another at 3:00 pm. These are scheduled in my Outlook calendar so that any person who wants to book a time with me will not eat up on my email time. This email time is the time I use to clean out everything in my inbox. I turn off all pop-up alerts that inform me that I have incoming mail, otherwise you will see a mail that looks interesting and your concentration will break.

5. Invasion management

From time to time, a couple of people will drop by my office and not heed the instructions visibly tacked on the wall. Most of the time they need my signature. Often they come for advice. They loiter around my area like hungry vultures. Unless he or she is your boss or a senior executive, I have learned to totally ignore the invader. I don’t even cast a glance at them. If I do that, then they will take that opportunity to speak. Don’t be fooled into thinking that this is just a harmless document to sign. Some times the request has to be evaluated, maybe even rejected. You may need to ask questions and it will take some brain bandwidth to process the request. Here’s what I have learned: if it’s important, the person will wait; if it is damn critical, he will call his boss, who will then talk to your boss.

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