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Time management for time wasters – minimising distractions

Approx. reading time: 4 minutes

Procrastination is the thief of time

The old proverb needs rewriting. It should read distraction is the thief of time. Because since the saying was penned by the poet, Edward Young, in the 18th century, distractions have grown to become the bigger criminal. In fact, I’d argue they’re now the biggest crook of all when it comes to time wasting. Way ahead of not keeping a to do list, multi-tasking and failing to prioritise.

Young wasn’t distracted by smart phones when he was writing Night Thoughts where the line first appeared. He felt no uncontrollable Pavlovian urge to scan news websites every time he heard a corny jingle. Wasn’t constantly checking his social media accounts for thumbs and hearts. Or snowed under drifts of non-urgent emails. His was a simpler life. Shorter I’ll grant you. But the price we pay for progress – for literally living longer – is that we waste more and more of that extra time on pointless, frivolous and unproductive tasks. Little wonder we’re becoming less and less efficient.

Some studies reckon we waste up to two hours a day at work by being distracted. I’d argue that in some organisations that’s a conservative estimate. Indeed, the Institute for Public Policy Research in it’s report Prosperity and Justice: a plan for the new economy, highlights the fact that productivity in the UK is 13% lower than in other G7 countries. But whatever’s being lost why waste the most precious commodity of all? So if you’re serious about getting back some of that invaluable time, to become more efficient, more productive, then learning how to manage distractions and interruptions is a really important part of time management. And as a consequence I can say, without a hint of irony, that it’s something delegates spend a fair bit of time on in my time management workshops at ACM Training.

So if you haven’t got the time to attend (and, of course, I think you should make the time) here are my top five tips for managing distractions:

  1. Recognise what’s truly distracting you in the first place by listing the source of the distraction every time you’re distracted over, say, a period of a week. The distractions are very likely to be digital – text, email and social media pop ups for example. But don’t forget to list the analogue too – a noisy office, and open door, a room with a view…
  2. Switch off, shut out or turn your back on those distractions that you can reasonably do so to. In digital terms that means going into your phone, tablet or computer settings (and preferably all three because of multi-screening) and switching off audio and visual notifications. Better still, turn off the phone entirely. In analogue terms it might mean closing your office door and putting up an old-fashioned do not disturb sign or rearranging the office furniture so that you’re not endlessly daydreaming over the view from the window.
  3. Limit those distractions that are genuinely unavoidable. For example, you may be on call and, therefore, unable to switch off your phone. You can always turn it face down to avoid visual alerts but still hear the ring (generally we’re more easily distracted by vision than by sound). Can you limit email receives to once an hour or even less frequently? The always on, always available attitude may make us feel important but it’s rarely necessary in most workplace settings.
  4. Take regular breaks. If you’re hungry or tired, getting deep vein thrombosis from sitting still for too long or out of breath from rushing about too much take it easy, if only for five minutes. Abraham Maslow was right – we simply can’t ignore our physiological needs and the harder we try to ignore them the more distracted by them we are. If you try concentrating on a really important task on an empty stomach (and, therefore, an energy-deprived brain) I can guarantee you’ll be distracted. So stop. And during your break by all means be distracted momentarily by all those things you’ve listed in point one. Think of it as your reward. I call it compartmentalising. You have a big compartment for work. You have a smaller one for distractions. Not one big noisy space where they all compete for your attention. Because the distractions win pretty much every time. They’ve been designed that way. Attractive distractions if I can coin another phrase.
  5. Schedule the most important stuff for times when you’re least likely to be distracted. That might be early mornings before everybody else has got to work (or got up if you work from home). Or it might be in the evening when everyone else has gone home (or to bed). I’m a big believer in handheld technology freeing us from the constraints – and distractions – of the desk or office. Sitting in the corner of a coffee shop where nobody disturbs you because nobody knows you. Pecking away at your tablet screen to finish that annual report. Or blog post. Now how about a slice of cake (see point 4) or, better still, a bag of nuts?

I should add that these points refer mainly to what could loosely be called external, physical distractions. But, of course, we can also be mightily distracted by the internal, mental and emotional stuff swirling around in our heads and hearts. I’ll make dealing with these the subject of a separate post in this occasional series, Time Management for Time Wasters. If I can find the time!

Sandy Keating

This poster on the London Underground reminded me there are “internal” distractions too!