Dealing with distractions


How easy is it to not be distracted, interrupted or side-tracked when we are working?

How much of a problem is this?


How to avoid distractions

Learn to manage distractions and take control of small events

Time Bandits: What or who steals your time?
Take time to reflect on the ten time wasters listed below.

Time waster
Rank order

  1. Face-to-face interruptions
  2. Lack of planning, goals and objectives
  3. Fire-fighting, crisis management
  4. Attempting too much
  5. Constantly shifting objectives
  6. Telephone interruptions and email alerts
  7. Paperwork and personal disorganisation
  8. Inability to say ‘no’
  9. Procrastination
  10. Lack of self-discipline

The sixty-four-thousand-dollar question
The term ‘Sixty-four-thousand-dollar question’, whilst attributable to a popular game show, actually comes from the memoirs of Andrew Carnegie, one of the most successful entrepreneurs and businessmen of the early part of the twentieth century in America.

He is reported to have employed a consultant to answer the question: ‘How can I become more successful?’  The consultant took on the assignment, charging Carnegie a reported $64,000 for the answer.  This was a huge amount of money at the time, and is not an inconsiderable sum now.  After two weeks of following Carnegie around, sitting in meetings, travelling with him, watching him work, seeing how he made decisions and so on, the consultant came back into see Andrew Carnegie and said “I now have the answer to the question how you can be more successful and it is this…” 

“Only do the most important things”

Carnegie sat for a moment expecting the consultant to continue, but the consultant simply repeated the expression – ONLY DO THE MOST IMPORTANT THINGS – that is the key to how you can become more successful. Andrew thought and later said in his memoirs that was the best piece of advice that he ever paid for and was worth many times more than what he actually paid.

When you go about your daily work activity and routine, the one question you need to keep asking yourself is – ‘Am I working on the most important things right now?’. If you can answer that question and say Yes, then the results and the productivity gains and benefits will come to you. If the answer is No or Not Really, then stop what you are doing and move onto something that is the more important activity for you at that time.

If, during your work day, you constantly move from one task to another as a butterfly flits from one flower to another, then this is counter-productive. Each time you stop and start a task it takes a little bit of time. Work through activities by batching them together, for example, for all your phone calls, all your letter writing, all the filing, meetings, etc, and then moving on until finished.

Some ideas for solving common distractions
Time tips: Interruptions face-to-face – drop-in visitors

  • Have ‘no-interruption’ time – ideally an hour or more a day – for high priority work
  • Separate business and social matters
  • Get to the point if you are busy
  • Defer to later all priority 2 and 3 items
  • Have ad-hoc chats standing up or on neutral ground – so you can walk away
  • Look busy!
  • Store up things to talk to others about and do it in batches to avoid ‘blurting’

Time tips: Procrastination

  • DO IT NOW.
  • If a job is too big chop it into manageable chunks – salami slice – either by time or tasks.
  • Go public.
  • Be careful not to take on too much in unrealistic timescales.
  • Make appointments with yourself, and use a reminder system so you don’t forget.
  • Schedule nasty jobs for specific times and reward yourself on completion.
  • Do the worst first: If you have to eat a frog don’t look at it too long. If you have to eat two frogs, eat the big one first. (Mark Twain)

Time tips: Self-management

  • Ask yourself all the time, ‘Is what I am doing at this minute moving me towards my objectives?’ If not, don’t do it.
  • If you have a lot of unplanned interruptions, plan for the average or the maximum number.
  • Select your prime time, that during which you operate best. Some of us are morning people, some afternoon; plan for your best time so that you get your high yield jobs done then.
  • Remember that time is a non-renewable resource.
  • Plan ‘If only’ days – ‘If only I had the time to…’

Time tips: Paperwork

  • After prioritisation aim only to pick a piece of paper up if you mean to finish working with it then. Don’t be a paper shuffler.
  • When in doubt, throw it out.
  • Have on your desk, only the item(s) you are dealing with.
  • Emails are not for dialogue – pick up the phone more often – especially to clients and for complex or sensitive matters.

Keeping your desk or work area clear
There are numerous benefits from keeping a clear desk; here are just a few:

  1. It’s more motivating when you come into work in the morning.
  2. It stops people putting things on your desk – people often hesitate to put things on top of a clear desk; they would rather put it in a tray or will wait to give it to you.
  3. You lose things less frequently.
  4. You are less likely to be distracted by pieces of paper, files or reports that catch the corner of your eye when you are working on something else.
  5. You are less likely to spill coffee or drinks.
  6. You are less likely to lose important messages or post-it notes (I have missed whole meetings, because somebody kept a post-it note on their desk which got buried and forgot to tell me the message).
  7. It gives clear signals to people that you are organised and use your time well.
  8. It creates a sense of efficiency and an air of authority in an office.

Whilst the benefits may be many, actually achieving a clear desk can seem tricky for some people. Here is a step-by-step process that will help you achieve this clear desk.

  1. Think about how often you use different objects and store them accordingly. Keep the desktop free for in-trays containing urgent paperwork, a pot of pens and the phone, with a list of most-used numbers and a book for messages to yourself.
  2. Take time out once a week to sort the paper on your desk into four piles: stuff to act on, stuff to bin, stuff to file, and stuff to pass on. It shouldn’t take you more than a few seconds to make each decision.
  3. Revamp your filling system and organisational storage. Keep files lean and bin anything that is duplicated before you put it away.  This is true for your computer and cloud storage too.
  4. Take a few minutes every afternoon (and evening) to organise your desk and clear things away, put things back, throw things away and so on.

Effective email guidelines 
Don’t let the emails pile up in your inbox – this will just make you feel overwhelmed. There are three sensible actions for dealing with email you have received:

  • File it in a topic or project folder to read later
  • Carry out the actions requested by the sender (and then either filing it or deleting it)
  • Delete it

You can also set up filters and sieve rules for incoming mail; this is useful for organising mail from mailing lists and deleting spam straight away.

Writing effective emails

  • Make sure the subject line sums up what the email is about (eg, ‘Today’s meeting of the training committee: Agenda’, not ‘Hello’).
  • One topic for each email – get to the point and stick to it.
  • Maximum three short paragraphs or five bullet points.
  • Write as you speak (use plain English) but don’t write as you chat (avoid slang, etc).
  • Assume nothing is private – email is like sending a postcard, not a private letter.
  • Don’t send Word attachments – use PDF formats – or web links
  • Don’t write sarcastic, abrupt or rude emails – it can be very hurtful.
  • Don’t send your email to more recipients than is necessary.