Are interruptions stealing precious time and taking your attention away from what you want to get done? Do you feel irritated and tense as you struggle to regain your focus? If so, you are not alone. Dealing effectively with the intrusions that disrupt your flow is a battle in a chattering continuously connected world. A common problem is how best to tackle the daily avalanche of email and other written communication. Then there are the meetings. Ah, meetings. Great when they are focused on specific outcomes, and there is a clear agenda with responsibilities allocated for follow up. But often they can become an excuse for inactivity as if talking is the same as acting.
Your focus can also be disrupted by not being prepared or having difficulty in accessing the relevant information necessary to complete a task. Sometimes you may lack boundaries. The result is that your time leaks away as others choose to spend it. What about your team members and others? Are you actively managing relationships and communicating your goals, or do you allow your day to unfold according to whatever drifts by and snags attention?
The sheer effort of dealing with the constant disruptions to your day can be exhausting. Like fighting on all fronts at once: it can feel overwhelming. It need not be this way. This article sets out some simple ideas to help you regain control and manage your day better:
Identify the interruptions and consider their importance. Jot down the disruptions that occur throughout the day so that you understand where the time leaks happen and why. Try to do this for a week although even a few days will be insightful. This self-audit will help you classify the key areas that cause the most disruption to your productivity. Look for patterns and themes. When and where do these occur? Who is involved? What is the nature of the interruption? Is it habitual or a one-off? How did you respond? How long did it last? By answering these questions, you can assess the nature and extent of the interruptions and plan how to best deal with them.
Beware the attraction of distraction. Your brain loves novelty. That’s why there are 2 billion people on Facebook. Interruptions can be self-made when you become distracted by bright shiny new things on social media, email chains or chatting with co-workers. If you are using the Internet for work research, then practice self-discipline. Remember the purpose of your study and remain focused. If you come across an interesting article on another topic, bookmark it for later.
It can take 25 minutes to get back on track after an interruption, so learning how to manage disruption is vital to productivity. Shut down your email, turn off social media, put your phone on ‘do not disturb’, ask colleagues to come back later. Keep a notepad to hand to write down any stray thoughts such as ‘I need to ask Josie to ….’ This will prevent the self-sabotage that occurs when you charge off to do random tasks and helps you maintain your focus on the job in hand.
Pay attention to attention. Check that what you are doing matters. It can be easy to fall into the trap of paying attention to tasks because they are immediate rather than because they are essential. Find out what matters most in your job and give your full attention to those things. Be open about your priorities, and this will help prevent random requests and needless interruptions. If you don’t communicate to others how you are spending your time and why you need to give it your attention, others will decide for you.
Avoid multi-tasking which is an insidious form of self-interruption. You might think that you are saving time and achieving more by jumping between activities. Switching focus between different tasks drains energy from your working memory which is the information held in your mind while deciding what to do. So, what we think of as multi-tasking is just toggling between one thing and another. It ruins your focus and quickly depletes your energy. A smarter way to work is to purposely focus on one task at a time with regular planned breaks. It is vital to remember this when tackling any task and allow your rational mind to work at optimum level – one job at a time.
Schedule blocks of uninterrupted time so that you can think, plan or work on important tasks. Try using time chunking methods such as the Pomodoro Technique which focus your attention on a job for a sustained period, for example, 25-minutes, followed by a short 5-minute break to clear your mind by doing something else. You can stretch, take a short walk, have a healthy snack or a drink of water. Just don’t be tempted to check email or social media. You will return to your task refreshed with higher energy levels.
Batch, hatch and dispatch email. It is tempting to think you are productive by dealing with email as it arrives. Sadly, this is not usually the case. A whole day might pass without progress being made on essential tasks because you have been distracted by email traffic. Endless grazing at email can induce a trance-like state as you wait for your inbox to fill. Being in constant reaction mode is unlikely to result in creative problem solving or help you develop new insights.
Fortunately, there are steps you can take to tame email and reclaim your time. First, tell your colleagues and others that you are experimenting with the batch handling of email so that you manage their expectations. Then just close your email and turn off notifications on your tablet and phone. Schedule blocks of time each day for sending and responding to emails. Try once an hour to start. Meantime set up folders and rules in your email account to automatically filter and file email messages. Always read email with this thought in mind: ‘what’s my action?’ Decide what to do and do it! Then you can give proper attention to other more demanding tasks.
Taking back control requires thoughtful planning, a structured approach and a generous dose of self-discipline. After all, everyone has the same amount of time. The difference is that productive people know how to use time efficiently by managing their attention and finding strategies for handling interruptions.