10 Ways to Take Control of Your Day
"So, what did you do at the weekend?" begins the water cooler conversation. It can feel like some welcome downtime from your intense workload during a busy day, but time flies and, 15 minutes later, you realize that you're late for a meeting with your manager. And the stress returns.
Sometimes, it seems as though our workplaces have been designed to break our focus. Even when you're "snowed under" with work, you'll still likely check your emails regularly, read customers' Twitter comments, or – even though your manager would disapprove – surf the Internet for cheap vacation flights.
Dr Gloria Mark, Professor of Informatics at the University of California, Irvine, says that distractions such as these are both stressful and costly. She has found that it takes an average of 23 minutes for a person to fully regain his or her focus on a task after being distracted.
The Overload Research Group – a collection of academic and corporate researchers dedicated to reducing the amount of information that people have to deal with – has found that U.S. workers waste about 25 percent of their time dealing with "an incessant stream of data," losing their employers a staggering $997 billion a year.
In this article, we'll identify the 10 most common distractions that we face at work, and examine strategies for managing them, or even eliminating them altogether.
1. Personal Technology
Our smartphones – and now smartwatches – have blurred the line between personal and professional communication. We can now receive work emails and phone calls on the same device as private Facebook comments, Instagram photos, and an array of other personal information.
Given such technology's addictive nature, policies to control their use at work are rarely effective, as it's hard to enforce rules about what people can look at on their own devices.
It's usually more helpful if individuals understand and manage the challenge themselves. For example, you and your colleagues could agree to put away your phones for a certain time during the day, to help you to focus on a particular piece of work.
Many of the emails in our inboxes are not particularly important. However, we often feel the need to look at them as soon as they arrive. So, here are five ways to manage those messages so that they don't take you away from important tasks.
- Schedule checking time – Turn off the alert that appears on your computer screen when you receive an email, and check and respond to messages at set times of the day. Give yourself a maximum of 30 minutes for each session. Manage your co-workers', manager's and customers' expectations about how and when you will reply to them.
- Choose "low productivity" times – There are likely certain times of day when you do your best work, maybe in the morning or maybe late at night. Schedule an email check-in for your less productive times, and save your peak hours for high-value work.
- Turn emails into actions – If you need more than a few minutes to read or reply to an email, add it to your Action Program or To-Do List.
- Use the trash – Don't keep emails forever. If you do, you run the risk of losing sight of the important ones as your inbox grows, and of your inbox becoming harder and harder to manage. Once you've replied to them, put the ones that you don't need in the trash, and archive or file the ones that you want to keep.
- Smartphone syncing – Try redirecting your email to your smartphone, to help you to free up your computer from distractions. Then apply the advice we've given above to your personal device.
3. Social Media
Social media offers us new ways of communicating with unprecedented numbers of people. It can also be a productivity killer, taking our attention away from work tasks and breaking our concentration.
Organizations can no longer just block people's access to websites that aren't work-related – smartphones can get around this, as they operate on cellular networks independent of any work-based Internet access. So, people must be gently encouraged to use social media responsibly, so that their productivity and focus aren't affected.
A study by Myrian Herlle and Vivian Astray-Caneda, of Florida International University, recommends that organizations apply Adams' Equity Theory to explain to team members the serious impact on output of excessive social media use.
Try tracking your own social media activity over the course of a week, and noting down just how much time you spend on these sites during work hours. Then, schedule a few moments each day for posting updates or answering messages.
4. Instant Messaging (IM)
Many workplaces use an IM platform to keep team members in touch with one another. However, it can also be a source of distraction, thanks to non-essential notifications and emojis.
Get into the habit of Using IM for small, quick queries only, not for conversations. Resist the pressure to reply instantly, and consider setting specific times during the day when your status is "online."
Reading the latest headlines, checking sports scores, and ordering new clothes online (even for the office) can easily steal 30 minutes of our time, as well as often being a breach of workplace rules.
Turning off access to the Internet isn't normally an option, as organizations are increasingly using cloud-based software that requires an Internet connection to work fully. But, you can install blocking software, such as Freedom, to help you to decide which websites or content you want to block for yourself.
If it's acceptable within your organization, use a brief personal browsing session as a reward for an hour or two of high-quality, focused work. The Pomodoro Technique could help you with this approach.
6. Phone Calls
The ring of a phone often prompts an intense need to answer, even if we're deep in concentration. To minimize this source of distraction for you and your team, consider arranging a rota so that team members can take calls for one another. They can use IM to check if people are able to deal with the call.
If you don't want to turn off your personal phone because of family concerns, pre-program some quick text replies, such as "In a meeting – will return your call ASAP." You can also explain to friends and family that you will only be available for calls at lunchtime or in the evening.
7. The Work Environment
Rather than trying to ignore such distractions as strong cooking smells or loud colleagues, get away from the problem. Set yourself up in an empty meeting room to regain your focus. Wear noise-cancelling headphones, or play "white noise," to blank out anything that would otherwise grab your attention.
Always try to have a manageable To-Do List. Having one that's too long can lead to procrastination, as you wonder which task to tackle next. Commit to accomplishing the two most important tasks on your list today, and put the rest on hold until tomorrow.
If you discover that you are frequently dealing with urgent but unplanned enquiries, try to dig deeper into these issues and use problem solving techniques to uncover their underlying cause. Addressing this should help you to minimize the disruption, or even eliminate it altogether.
Remember, you're part of a team, so ask your co-workers to share the load in busy periods. If you're a manager, learn to delegate effectively.
You might manage someone who allows himself to get distracted too easily. Encourage him to identify and tackle the root causes of this behavior, and to develop better habits.
9. Other People
Unless you're part of a virtual team, colleagues visiting your desk could be a big source of distraction. But, you're also a manager who wants to be available for your team members.
So, if you don't want to be disturbed at times when you need to focus on a task, consider working at home, or in a conference room, as a way to avoid inadvertently inviting interruptions. If you have your own office, close the door and tell your team that you need to be left alone to concentrate for a while.
In an open plan office, make your workspace less hospitable by removing extra chairs, or standing up when a colleague arrives.
If you have a frequent disrupter, talk to her about the problem, as she might not even realize that she's distracting you.
Our article, Managing Interruptions, offers more help in this area.
You're going to need a lot of mental and physical energy to juggle your priorities, manage visitors, and have the discipline to control your use of technology. So, it's vital that you take care of yourself.
Many people don't get enough sleep because of the distractions of technology at home, so employ best practice there too.
Dehydration can make you feel tired and impact your thinking, so try to drink plenty of water. Get some fresh air and take a brisk walk during the day – both will energize you. Try to avoid heavy lunches and sugar-laden snacks, as they can lead to a slump in concentration later in the day.
We all face distractions every day. They lower our productivity and increase our stress. Think about what distracts you the most during your working day, and technology will likely be high on the list.
Try to adopt new habits to help you to control your distractors. Carefully assess your phone, messaging and email usage, and limit the time that you spend on social media.
Make it clear to people when you don't want to be disturbed, or get away from distracting environments to find somewhere quiet to work. Keep your To-Do Lists concise and manageable.
Implementing these measures should mean that you, and your team members, get more done.
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