Dealing with distractions

Hey, did you read that email from marketing? Have you checked your voicemail lately? Isn’t it time for a coffee break? I think I just heard your Blackberry go off, and your daughter’s on line two—she needs you to pick her up at school. If you leave now to pick her up, you can probably make it back in time to sit at your desk and be distracted instead of doing any real work for another half hour or so!

 Distraction is a large part of any working day—or perhaps we should say that work is a decent–sized (one hopes!) part of any distracting day. The average North American office worker is interrupted—by the phone, an email, a conversation, or the realization of an immediate need for a water cooler trip—once every three to five minutes during a typical workday.

As if that’s not alarming enough, a full one third of tasks fall by the wayside after an interruption, either forgotten permanently or not returned to until later that day, week, or month. Even this article could be distracting you from more important work—how many times do you pick up an article just for a break and end up reading half the issue?

As with any office problem, there are small changes and big changes you can make to rid yourself of distraction. We’ll focus on some small but effective changes that may just whet your appetite for even bigger changes in the weeks and months ahead.

Email isn’t everything…
How many times do you check your email each day? If you’re like most people, the answer is almost certainly in the double (dare I say triple?) digits. Ask yourself if constant email or Blackberry checking is really making you more efficient. Most likely, it is instead confusing the urgent with the important and distracting you from the tasks that really do need to get done.

Decide to check email only at certain times of day, such as first thing in the morning, before lunch, after lunch, and at the end of the day. Perhaps send an email to your colleagues and clients informing them of your new policy. If something is really important enough for an immediate response, they can always call you (in the case of clients) or, in the case of colleagues, even amble over to your desk for a face–to–face chat.

Also on the topic of emails, set up folders in Outlook or another mail management program to sort your emails by sender or subject. A one–time investment in a good sorting system will save you lots of time and distraction later.
…and neither are phone calls.

Answering the phone is also not as important as we make it out to be. If you’re in the midst of drafting an important letter or just about to finish an estimate for an important client, consider letting your phone ring through to voicemail. The advent of caller I.D. makes it easier to determine whether immediate action is required or whether this particular caller could wait and receive a call back later. Check your voicemail at predetermined times throughout the day—frequently enough that you’re up to date, but not so often that it’s interfering with the rhythm of your work.

The important things are most important
Almost all of the tips above come back to one central issue: the elevation of the urgent at the expense of the important. When we allow distractions to rule our lives, we are most often elevating urgent matters—a phone ring, an email beep, a Blackberry buzz—over important ones, such as finishing a project well and on time.

So the next time you’re tempted to check email just in case, to answer the phone in the midst of an important face–to–face conversation, or to volunteer to clear the table after dinner just so you can sneak into the kitchen and check your Blackberry (don’t laugh, it’s a true anecdote), consider whether what you’re doing is truly important, or whether it is merely urgent. Don’t let distractions rule your life.
Catherine M.A. Wiebe