Google’s recent announcement about Gmail Priority Inbox is particularly timely, as it comes in the wake of a spate of popular articles about distractions being a cause for not being able to concentrate. (For example, The New York Times’ recent “Your Brain on Computers“). The debate is still open about whether distraction is a new phenomenon or not. (See for example, Physics Worlds recent “Would Einstein Be Ruined by Twitter” and “You’re So Predictable“). Regardless of whether being distracted or not is something new, it is a force to be reckoned with.
You turn on your computer in the morning (assuming it hasn’t been on all night loading up your Inbox with today’s workload), and as soon as it boots up, the alerts start pouring in. New mail messages, instant messenger status updates, new RSS feeds, and the never-ended Tweet stream. The list goes on and on; it’s no wonder you can’t get anything done.
These distractions have spawned a whole new market category–“distraction blockers.” Now honestly, do we really need another new tool to neutralize the last new tool we just installed? I think not. On the contrary, applying some common sense and a dash of discipline can do wonders. No need to buy more technology to solve last week’s technology mess.
Here are some simple tips for dealing with distractions:
1. Prioritize – The key to focusing is setting priorities, and hence, Google’s announcement is particularly timely. However, you don’t need technology to set priorities. Here is a proven method for prioritizing:
o Create a short list of tasks on a small piece of paper. Once you see all the tasks on a page, organized by projects, deadlines, and dependencies–the priorities become apparent.
o Each day review and update the list before you open you Inbox, before you attend meetings, and before you get sidetracked.
o Write the day’s tasks on a sticky note and focus on those tasks for the day. Next morning, copy any leftover tasks from the previous day and then throw out the note. One piece of note paper for each day.
o Go through your Inbox and add/subtract tasks based on incoming messages.
2. Set times of day for answering email, holding meetings, and for doing creative work. Different people are able to focus better at different hours; do what works, but stick to it.
3. Many people find it hard to sit still and focus, even without digital distractions. Exercise is a great cure for this. You don’t need to run a marathon; 30 minutes at the gym, a short walk, run, or bicycle ride can work miracles.
4. Delegate –Often a task can be completed by someone else and it may get done sooner than doing it yourself.
5. If you have creative work to do, like writing documents, creating project plans, building presentations, or writing a speech, here are some practical suggestions that work for me:
o Find a quiet place outside the office. Set up shop in a coffee shop (if you can work there), in a park, in the public library, or in any other place where you can focus and where you won’t be disturbed.
o Shut off the cell phone, disconnect from the Internet, and close all applications except the ones you need to complete your task. If you need the Internet for research, shut off Twitter feeds, IM updates, and all the other distractions. You don’t need a “distraction blocker” program; you just need to shut them off – plain and simple.
6. Understand that non-working time is NOT “downtime.” While the 9-5 workday is long gone, it is important to disconnect. Taking email to bed is unhealthy. When you are not “connected,” you can still do valuable work. In fact, thoughtful, contemplative work is often best done “offline.”
7. Lastly, accept the fact that you won’t get everything done; this is a law of nature. Before Albert Einstein could be overwhelmed by Twitter, he was overwhelmed by correspondence. According to Albert-Laszlo Barabasi, in 1953, Einstein received 832 letters and he answered only 476. The barrage of letters didn’t let up, and Einstein died two years later, so one can only assume that he left a great deal of unfinished business. Take a look at the Life Magazine photo of his desk from the day he died. Take heart; as bad your desk looks, it probably isn’t as bad as this …
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