5 Ways to Manage Distractions for Increased Productivity

Is there something else you’re meant to be doing right now?

You’re probably in the midst of a complicated project and had planned to take just a minute to send a tweet or update your Facebook status. Then you saw the link to this article and figured that reading about how to manage distractions would be a good thing to know. Hot Suzy in a basket of muffins, you’re distracted!

It’s okay. We all get distracted sometimes. The difference between you and all the other people who get distracted easily is that you won’t continue to be distracted. You’ll read the five tips below and leave a brief comment telling me which tip you plan on implementing as you go back to your work. Would that we all could be so focused!

But we aren’t. The best we can hope to do is manage our distractions so they don’t gnaw at our productivity. Here are five tips to help you harness the distraction beast and get more productivity out of your day:

1. Schedule Breaks

The moments you spend away from your work are just as much a part of your life as those spent toiling away. Treat them as such! Scheduling breaks, especially when time is short and work is long, can be the difference between productive success and exhaustion.

  • Don’t wait until you’re frazzled – Schedule your breaks, no matter how brief they may be, as a way of “topping off” your energy reserves instead of a way to come back from an empty tank.
  • Stay on schedule – If you planned to take a 15-minute break at 12:00, you’d better be out of your chair by 12:01! The same goes for ending your breaks. Stay on time and you’ll find it easier to move in and out of your focused work mode without losing forward motion.
  • A break should be a restorative action – Chatting with a friend online about your project isn’t a break. It’s a distraction. The purpose of a break is not to derail your train of thought, but rather to halt for rest and replenishment.

2. Plan for Distractions

There will always be the call you must take, a fire alarm in your building, or an inexplicably suicidal pet. Interruptions happen. These simple steps will help you handle interruptions without losing too much forward motion:

  1. Acknowledge the interruption – The nicest interruptions are those that we anticipate. The worst tend to open our door without knocking and spill coffee all over important papers. It is not worth your time to become irritated, regardless of the interruption. This will only make it more difficult to return to work after the interruption is gone.
  2. Bookmark your idea – In the moments after the phone rings for the first time or you’ve said “come in” to the person knocking on your office door, you have a chance to note exactly where you were heading with your project. Part of planning for interruptions is to have sticky notes or a favorite bit of software open in order to jot a quick note before the phone rings a 3rd time or your depressed cat jumps off the balcony.
  3. Minimize your immediate involvement – Many interruptions require more than just an answer. Clients, partners, spouses, and friends typically want action and not just a conversation. The trick to staying productive in spite of the interruption is to schedule your action for a later time. If your friend needs your feedback on a project, say you’ll be glad to give it in 20 minutes once you’ve wrapped up your own project. Follow through with quality and others will respect you for setting boundaries.

3. Regulate Inputs

It makes you feel more relevant and connected to be “plugged in” at every moment of the day. It’s fun to have an average email response time in the single digits. But at what cost? Forget about the memories and happy moments you miss out on because you’re staring at a screen or answering a call. What about all the ideas you never have because you just don’t take time to think?

  • Silence your Blackberry (iPhone) and put it out of sight.
  • Schedule phone calls so you have at least an hour of complete silence each day.
  • Limit the number of times you check your email each day and, when possible, batch your responses.
  • If you must use Facebook or Twitter, do it during designated breaks. There’s no need to let a bored shopkeeper from Siberia mess up your groove by sending you mean tweets!

4. Know Your Productive Zone

When do you get your best work done? Are you a genius in the morning but slow in the afternoon? Do you like to work late at night when you’re alone? Most of us only have a few hours each day that we can honestly point to as being truly productive hours. Those hours are what I call a “productive zone.” (I do my best writing in the early afternoon once I’ve had a cup of strong tea.) It can take some time to figure out what works best, but once you do? Guard that time with a ferocity put to use. If you know yourself to be productive under specific circumstances and can communicate the importance of those circumstances to others, there’s a good chance your requests will fall on welcoming ears.

5. Increase Your Margins

One of the most vexing aspects of interruptions is that we rarely have time for them. In our rush to get projects done at the last minute and force ideas under pressure, we miss out on numerous fun conversations and inspirational moments. If you give yourself enough time to complete projects at a high quality and allow for a few interruptions and restorative actions (breaks) you won’t find interruptions as distracting. You’ll have scheduled them, after all.

And that, dear reader, is what one might call a productive distraction. Best of luck with the rest of your day’s work. Don’t forget to share the link to this article with a friend. Being distracted alone just isn’t any fun!


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