Monday, October 31, 2020

Dealing with Distractions (Part 1)

One of the problems managers and leaders mention most often as a significant cause of stress and frustration is being distracted. If you're constantly diverted from your proper tasks, you may feel compelled to rush and cut corners as the only way to get back to what you should be doing.

Some of life's interruptions and distractions are just the way it goes. No one can be free from them, especially in a busy job. But there are others – often a surprising number – that occur because you either let them happen or invite them in. Let's start with some you can probably control, if you're disciplined about it.

It's odd that people schedule meetings and calls, but rarely schedule time to do the major elements of their work — what they're paid to do. Still less do they schedule time for reflection, considering decision choices or developing creative ideas. Schedule everything. Train your staff to treat scheduled working or reflecting time the same way as scheduled meetings. You must not be interrupted or bothered except in an emergency. Also schedule time when your door is open and you're ready to take calls and answer queries. If people try to break into your scheduled working time – and they will at first – politely explain your schedule and agree a time when they can get back to you. Ignore pleas like, "This will only take a moment," or "I'm here now." Stick to your schedule. When people see you're serious, most will get the message and cooperate.

Let everyone know there are times when you're not available by phone or email. Screen your calls. Better still, silence the phone – especially your cellphone – and let calls go to the message center. Check regularly (not too often) and deal only with truly urgent calls. Save the rest until your next scheduled "contactable" time. If your computer beeps or dings when emails arrive, stop it. Ignore emails until you're ready to deal with them. Not only will people quickly learn when you can be contacted and when you can't, they'll be prevented from contacting you the moment some thought hits them. You'll be surprised how many needs to contact you will evaporate in the time they're forced to wait, and how may people will solve their own problems while they're unable to pass them on to you.

The essential point is this: schedule everything and stick to your schedule except in true emergencies. Your task is to train your colleagues and subordinates not to come to you with every notion that happens to enter their minds. You want them to respect your schedule because they've learned you won't give up on it.

It will take a little time. Some will get the idea faster than others. Some will try to persuade or trick you into giving up. They find it convenient to be able to drop things on your desk at a moment's notice. But, eventually, nearly everyone will get into the habit of coming to you only at times you have set. As a result, you will have saved yourself multiple distractions and taught a valuable lesson in setting priorities.

In Part 2 of this short series, we'll look at the worst distractions and time wasters of modern organizations: cellphones, emails and meetings. Part 3 will begin to look at the dark side of distraction: how and why people encourage others to interrupt their work, while loudly complaining they have no time.

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