Does this scenario sound familiar to anyone?
You’re a busy professional with multiple clients and/or projects. You consider yourself highly productive and able to multitask.
You painstakingly plan out your day on a calendar. You’ve got the calendar synced with multiple mobile devices so that you can access your master plan at any moment.
You spend time (when you should be sleeping), brainstorming new ways to organize your day so that you can maximize productivity.
You wake up on time, make breakfast, and go through your normal routine. 8 AM rolls around and it’s time to get to work. You sit down in front of your computer and instinctively go to email.
Inside there’s a message that alerts you of an issue in area of interest scheduled for different day. You decide that working on the problem for five minutes won’t hurt because you’ve got two hours blocked for the other project you’re supposed be working on instead.
As you begin to work on the problem the wheels began to turn in your mind and you feel a rush of adrenaline that comes with problem solving.
Your quest for an answer leads you to the internet, where you jump from one blog post to another, hot on the trail of a solution for the problem. You briefly glance up at the clock and you’ve already spent half an hour.
Guilt Sets In
You feel a slight tinge of guilt, but you press on because you feel like you’re very close to solving the problem. The more you work, the more it feels like you have blinders on to the world around you.
You question whether or not you should put it down and work on what you’re supposed to be working on, but the fear of losing your place in the problem-solving process keeps you on the same path.
Before you know it, and hour and a half has come and gone and you start to move things around on your calendar to allow your current course of action.
You start to get hungry, and grab some lunch so that you can add fuel to your brain. The guilt is getting stronger and stronger as you’re past the point of no return. Your schedule has been completely derailed and you’ll have to start from scratch tomorrow.
The challenge of staying on task is universal. Some people do it better than others, but the truth is: distractions are part of life.
From the fires you need to put out, to shiny objects on the internet, to being called by an old friend; each day we face a number of unexpected events to take us off our predetermined path.
A Matter of Mental Energy
Human beings have a limited amount of mental energy, just as they have a limited amount of physical energy. One serious threat to productivity is how you allocate that energy.
Off-topic processes can easily drain your energy stores. If too much energy is used, you just want to shut down and do something mindless.
That’s why diet, exercise, and sleep are so important: to give your body and your mind the best chance and the most energy you possibly can.
My Top Five Distractions
1. Problem-Solving With Blinders On.
Just like the story at the beginning of this article, my number one distraction is an urge to solve problems that may or may not be related to what I am supposed to be working on.
These problems are not necessarily the urgent, must-fix-or-all-hell-will-break-loose, kind of problems. It’s sometimes a non-urgent problem that has just been in the back of my mind.
Often, part of the solution comes to me in my sleep; and I wake up the next day with the urge to get on the trail to a solution. Once I get going it’s hard to stop.
I feel like if I stop working on the problem, I’ll never solve it. Maybe it’s a form of OCD for loose ends in my head. The problem is: it leads to neglect in other areas, creating even more problems.
I also get a lot of satisfaction from solving something that seemed impossible. That reward sometimes outweighs the reward of simply doing what I’m supposed to do.
It’s funny how different planning a schedule is than actually executing it. While planning events of the day seems so sexy; implementing them seems so boring.
Having already discussed non-urgent problem solving, a more common dilemma is urgent problem solving. Your website crashes, a presentation is hours away but not finished, and the typical office drama that goes along with human beings working together.
Often, the hard part of firefighting is determining what is so important that it merits stopping everything else. When problems come up, they seem to be the most important thing in the world, but several days or weeks removed, they matter very little.
More often than not, other people believe that their problems are more important than yours. Have you ever heard the expression “the squeaky wheel gets the oil”? It’s very easy to give in to somebody who’s in front of you and demanding your attention.
That’s why sometimes, the only way to avoid this kind of distraction is to turn off all forms of communication.
3. Mindless Entertainment: TV/Video Games/Radio/Internet
Have you ever felt so overwhelmed with the expectation, that you resort to doing absolutely nothing? When I have these moments, I tend to resort to mindless entertainment.
Flipping on the tube, browsing the internet, or firing up the Xbox seems to give my mind the escape it’s looking for. Unfortunately, more problems and pressure are mounting behind the scenes as my mind is taking a break.
4. Noise – Text/Email/IM/Twitter/Etc.
Are you old enough to remember when the only forms of communication were snail mail and a hardwired telephone? My, how times have changed.
Constant “noise” is becoming a bigger and bigger problem every year. It started with cell phones, continued with email, and now has popped up in the form of text messages, instant messages, and social media.
If you’ve read much of my content, you’ll know of my distaste for meetings. Although they’re supposed to be for productivity, I find them to be just the opposite.
They never start on time, no one is ever prepared, it’s hard to get a word in, decisions never get made, and worst of all: instead of working, you just talk about work.
The problem is multiplied by how many people are invited to the meeting. What may be a productive meeting between two mature adults can turn into a full-blown time-suck with a dozen.
Plus, it always seems like people want to meet at the beginning of the day, when I am most productive.
Here are a few suggestions in your battle against distractions. While we will never fully conquer them, we can at least hope to mitigate them.
1. Add Wiggle Room to Your Schedule
When I first fell in love with the concept of a day timer, I’d pack every minute of the day with something productive to do. It never occurred to me, during the planning process, that things may not go as planned.
I soon learned to plan for the unexpected. When blocking out time on a calendar, make sure to leave chunks available in case you need to move things around.
2. Schedule Firefighting Time
In fact, I even like to schedule a block in my calendar for firefighting and noise. While this may not completely eliminate the threat of firefighting or noise, it at least gives relieves some pressure.
I’ve found that there are two major types of activities that are important on a day-to-day basis. Stephen Covey calls them: big rocks and small rocks. While it’s important to get the big rocks in; if you don’t pay attention to the small rocks, they grow bigger and bigger until they become screaming big rocks.
I suggest blocking out time for both big rocks and small rocks in your daily calendar.
3. Offload To Long-Term Memory
Just like a computer, our brains have short-term and long-term memory. When I get obsessed with problem-solving, the pieces of the puzzle are in my short-term memory. I don’t want to quit because I’m scared of losing that information forever.
One suggestion is to offload the problem to long-term memory when this comes up. For example, when you feel the urge to keep on the path of problem-solving an issue, write it down somewhere youâ€™ll be sure to look: for example, your calendar, to do list, or Kan-Ban. (I especially like the concept of Kan-Ban, which will be the subject of an upcoming blog post.)
The idea is: you can let your short-term memory rest assured that you will pick up right where you left at the appropriate time.
What are your top distractions?
I’m curious to hear from you. What are your top distractions? What kind of fires, mindless entertainment, and noise comes up in your life? Please leave a comment below and I look forward to continuing the conversation.
(Featured image by smlp.co.uk)