Moving From Distracted Working To Focused Results

Your ability to think deeply, plan strategically, and create and innovate are your most valuable leadership assets. Yet, in our on-demand world, you are bombarded with constant interruptions that distract you from this meaningful work. Here’s how to move from distracted working to focused results. 

We live in a distracted world. With computers and smart phones it seems the whole world has instant access to us: phone calls, emails, texts, social media messages, notifications from your bank, credit card, dentist – you name it!

It’s well known now that using a phone to text while driving results in the same low reaction rate as someone legally drunk. There are now “distracted driving” laws to curb this dangerous driving practice.

At work we multitask and feel as if we are getting a lot done. We may not crash into someone while bouncing between writing a report, checking emails, Facebook, and back to the report, but our brains are distracted. Rather than doing high-value work, we do shallow and mechanical work.

“Multitasking” is a euphemism for distracted working. And it’s costing you. 

The Attention Cost of Interruptions

University of California at Irvine Professor Gloria Mark studied attention and interruptions in work habits. The results should change the way you do your work.

“We found that each person worked on an average of 12.2 different working spheres every day,” Dr. Mark reported. “We also found that they switched working spheres, on average, every 10 minutes and 29 seconds.” This means we’re only focusing on one task for an average of 10 1/2 minutes.

Our best work takes prolonged, focused attention. If we are to do deep, value-added work like writing, creating strategy, analyzing systemic problems, or any work that requires thinking and creativity, we must give it more than 10 1/2 minutes of attention at a time.

Where Do Interruptions Come From?

Email, phone calls, or someone popping by, cause interruptions which shift our attention. What’s really amazing is that we have ourselves to blame for many interruptions. Dr. Mark said, “people interrupted themselves almost as much as they were interrupted by external sources. They interrupted themselves about 44% of the time. The rest of the interruptions were from external sources.”

Every time you “just take a look” at email, you’re distracted. Check Instagram, Twitter, or Facebook? Distracted. Distracted. Distracted.

“What’s the harm you?” you ask. Dr. Mark found that it took on average 23 minutes to resume work after an interruption.

Why so long? Occasionally, the interruption itself took that much time, but more often, an average of two more tasks followed the interruption. Once attention shifts to the interruption, the mind then continues the attention shift to other related tasks. For example, answering an email may take just a minute, but in doing so you see other emails and your attention shifts to those emails. And then you check Facebook.

Moving From Distracted Working To Focused Results

Since 44% of distractions are self-initiated, we can overcome them. Also, by following a few tips, you can eliminate many external interruptions.

  1. Turn off notifications. You can change the notification settings on your phone and computer to not display a message or make a sound when something comes in. In the iPhone go to Settings > Notifications. For your computer you need to go into the preferences of each program.
  2. Turn off social media. The social media companies want you to waste your time browsing their sites. But “likes” don’t pay the bills. Close the browser window.
  3. Schedule your interruptions. Commit to checking your email, social media, messages, etc. only a couple times a day. I suggest 30 minutes before lunch and the end of the day. If phone calls are a problem, turn your phone off and let anyone transferring calls to you know that you shouldn’t be disturbed.
  4. Batch your appointments. My client coaching appointments and customer calls used to be spread throughout my week. Now I batch them together on Mondays and Fridays. This leaves my Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays for focused work.
  5. Schedule your focused work. Focused, important work takes discipline to complete. You can’t squeeze it in between calls and appointments. Block time in your calendar and protect that time from interruptions. In my experience, what gets scheduled gets done.
  6. Ship it. “Working on” and “completed” are very different. “Created / wrote / developed” and “launched” are very different. Results come from doing your focused work and getting it out there. As Seth Godin says, “Ship it.”

Start with 30 minutes of focused work. Decide what you want to work on and why that’s important. Schedule it. Remove interruptions using some of these tips. When you begin the 30 minutes, set a timer and don’t change tasks until the timer goes off. It’s going to be challenging!

Doing these 6 tips requires breaking long-established habits. It will take some time. The encouraging thing is that you can make progress by doing any of the tips. Do one. Then add another. And another.

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    Keith is President of Creative Results Management. He helps busy leaders multiply their impact. Keith is the author of several books including The COACH Model for Christian Leaders.

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