Experts in strategic workforce development

Managing distractions in the world of work

23 Sep 2018

I have no doubt you are very busy; it is the nature of management and leadership roles in todays’ demanding environment.  And the very fact that you are busy you are means you are probably interrupted on a regular basis (a recent HRB article suggest a distraction every minute).  You bombarded by E-mails pinging, telephones ringing, and people knocking, all whilst you are trying to do your job!

Now here’s the thing, according to Knight & Grabowecky, our brains are wired to react to new things.  They suggest our “Prefrontal cortex has a selective bias to novelty, crucial for detecting change” – the ‘novelty bias’.  This bias developed millennia ago when early humans were faced with a plethora of potential dangers to be alert for.

Whilst your particular situation may vary, I personally no longer face too many saber-toothed tigers in my working life (not literally anyway).  The distractions today are more novel, pleasurable, and interesting, they tug our attention away from what is productive and meaningful.  YouTube videos of playful animals will always be more interesting than my report, and checking E-mails will always offer a bigger dopamine hit than the Exel Spreadsheet we have to proof!

With all this stuff going on in your working life, and a propensity towards the new and interesting … It really is a wonder you get any work done at all.

So how can you wrestle back control from the novelty factor?

1.  Create space free of distraction.  When you have important pieces of work to get done, plan in advance to ensure you will not get distracted.  Clear some time in your diary, find a space where you are less likely to be interrupted even if that requires going off site, ensure you have all you require for the task at hand (including a supply of coffee), and set a period of focused time before returning to the clamour of the usual routine.

2.  Set goals for the day.  Yes you have a to-do-list, who doesn’t.  But just like everyone else, your to-do-list is too long to do and with so many distractions has no chance of being completed.  Identify a small achievable number of key tasks to complete (three is probably a good number) which are your priorities for the day.  If you get more of the list done, that’s great.  But three key tasks allows you to focus on what is important.

3.  Focus on the difficult stuff.  As Brian Tracy suggests; you should eat your frog first.  It is easy to be led towards high noise but low importance stuff (which is probably half of your E-mails) and miss the big issues.  If you get the hardest things done first it allows you to feel a degree of success buoying you up for the more trivial or routine stuff.

4.  Work to deadlines.  This is probably easy for most of your work; it comes with deadlines and usually that is “yesterday”.  But even if it doesn’t have a deadline, create one for yourself, otherwise it is easy to let the important things drift in favour of the distractions.

As Knight & Grabowecky suggest, we are prone to distractions – but we can plan to avoid them … at least for a short time.

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