Managing Distractions

Good time management is an important skill. It’s also a constant battle. I think one of the primary reasons that it’s such a challenge is the sheer amount of distractions most of us face nearly every minute of every hour of every day.

According to Dr. Gloria Mark, Professor of Informatics at the University of California, it takes an average of 23 minutes for a person to fully regain his or her focus on a task after being distracted. It’s hard to be an effective manager of your time, when so much of it is spent just getting refocused.

And these days, with the near constant level of distractions competing for our attention, if we can’t figure out how to actively avoid them, we might as well give up on productivity altogether.

So maybe the question we should be asking ourselves is, “How can I manage my time by managing distractions?”

One of the biggest challenges to managing distractions is, of course, technology. Is it dangerously easy to disappear down the rabbit hole of social media, YouTube videos, or simply one Google question that leads to another, that leads to another….

Suddenly, we look up and wonder how we let the past two hours slip by without getting anything done.

Compounding this, is the fact that the technology we’ve all come to rely on is constantly pushing information at us, whether we want it to or not. No one purchases a new phone or computer for the sole purpose of being constantly interrupted. And yet, to a certain extent, that’s what ends up happening.

So, before we can effectively manage our time, we must manage our attention. And managing our attention has a lot to do with managing external distractions.

How do we do that?

Most of us need more time off the grid. My most productive days are often those during which I manage to secure a large chunk of time for uninterrupted work. While disconnecting from the outside world for an entire day is not realistic for most of us, blocking out 20, 30 or even 60 minutes at a time for focused work is generally within reach.

One way to make this happen is to schedule it and then force yourself to stick to the schedule, come what may. It might also be helpful to turn off notifications, lock the door to our office, or even put on a pair of noise canceling headphones.

Focus on role priorities rather than task priorities. I read somewhere that a survey of top executives revealed that few of them check email first thing in the morning. I don’t know how accurate that is, but I do think it’s a good idea.

Rather than starting your day by immediately jumping into reaction mode and responding to other people’s questions, problems and priorities, block out some time to tackle one of your most valuable priorities. Not only will this habit help you finish each day knowing that you put first things first, it creates a mindset of being in control of your time and how you choose to spend it.

Much of the time, determining what these high value tasks are is about identifying “role priorities”. Role priorities are the whole reason you were hired or took on a job in the first place. They’re what makes you most valuable and skilled in your line of work. Beginning the day with actions related to fulfilling our role is one of the best things we can do to further our own personal success and the success of the organization.

Streamline all the different ways you track priorities. How many places do you keep track of all the things you need to get done? For most of us, our “to-dos” are all over the place – in our heads, on sticky notes, on our computer, in our email, on our phone…

The result can be a feeling of overwhelm triggered by all the different places we need to check to ensure that things don’t fall through the cracks. It’s also easier to act impulsively, or ignore high-value tasks in lieu of less important ones, simply because when you have six different places to check, it’s easy to get distracted by the urgencies of one or two.

Figuring out a way to manage your workflow so that everything you need to get done is contained in one place makes it easier to avoid being reactive to things like the last 5 emails that just popped into your in-box. There’s a growing number of resources to choose from when it comes to workflow management, but at the root of them all is a similar goal: Effectively managing everything you need to get done from one location.

One final reason to do our best to manage distractions is the fact that multi-tasking is really not ever the most effective or the most efficient way to go about things. Multi-tasking generally causes us to slow down and increases the chances of making mistakes (that then take additional time to correct). Our brains simply can’t focus completely on more than one thing at a time.

So, be honest… how many times did you stop to check your email while reading this?

About Dan Finerty

Dan Finerty is the Director of Marketing at the Mountain West Credit Union Association, a Credit Union champion, a Credit Union Development Educator (CUDE), and an award-winning marketer. Dan has over 14 years of marketing experience in communications, retail, packaged goods, and, of course, Credit Unions. He believes that Credit Unions have an incredible story to tell and works with some of the brightest Credit Union professionals to help promote Credit Unions to the public. Dan holds two Bachelor’s of Science in Marketing and in Management. He is also a swell guy.

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