Every day, we're faced with dozens of potential distractions, from phone calls to e-mails to interruptions from others. These distractions can make it difficult (if not sometimes nearly impossible) to get things done. The good news is that distractions don't have to take over your day; with a few solid strategies, you can keep control over your time and increase your efficiency. Here are three of my favorite ways to minimize distractions.
#1: Limit audio and visual notices
The tools and technology that are part of our everyday lives are designed to keep us on high alert. Phones ring to signal incoming calls; e-mail programs ding and display miniature icons of envelopes to let us know about messages we've received; PDAs jingle to remind us about tasks we're meant to do.
While these notices can be helpful in some situations, in many cases they do little more than distract us from what we really need or want to focus on. Limiting these alerts will allow you to keep your attention on a specific task until you're ready to move on. For starters, try turning off your e-mail program's audio and visual notices. Your program will still collect new messages as they come in, but it won't constantly alert you of them, drawing your focus away from what you're doing each time an e-mail arrives.
You might also try turning off the ringer on your phone (whether a land line or a cell phone) during times when you need to concentrate on specific tasks. Another option is to route calls directly to voicemail so you can work uninterrupted until you're ready to field or return calls.
#2: Take yourself away from distractions
It happens to all of us: when we're faced with a task that's particularly important--and perhaps a bit daunting or slightly overwhelming--it suddenly becomes critical that we turn our attention to things that really don't merit our time or effort at that particular point. Have an important report to write for work? Surely it's time to clear out your pen cup and create new labels for your file folders. Need to tackle some tax prep work at home? It's been ages since you dusted under the bed in the guest room, and there's no time like the present to remedy that.
The fact is that when we're faced with tasks that require a lot of us, it's human nature to look for smaller, more manageable tasks we're sure we can handle and that will bring a sense of accomplishment. At times like these, then, it can be helpful to physically remove yourself from tasks that might distract you from what really needs to be done. If possible, leave your home or workspace when you need to dedicate yourself to something critical, or if you just want focused, uninterrupted work time. At home, head to a library or a cafe; at work, try a conference room or a vacant office. You'll benefit both from the change of scenery and from being away from the other, less important tasks calling to you.
#3: Make definite plans for following up on other tasks
One of the greatest causes of distractions is the intrusion of other tasks into what we'd prefer to be time dedicated to one particular To Do. While making your bed, you might realize that you forgot to transfer the laundry to the dryer. In the midst of writing an important e-mail at work, you might have a steady stream of colleagues knocking on your door asking for your help or input. In both cases, the tendency is to stop working on the task at hand and turn your attention to the task that's interrupting, often because you fear that if you don't attend to the interrupting task now, it won't get done.
Of course, chances are that this chain of action will leave you with a half-made bed and half-completed laundry, or with your important e-mail incomplete and unsent and your attention split between multiple colleagues and their requests.
The key to overcoming this roadblock is to make definite plans for following up on interrupting tasks after you finish the task currently at hand. For example, while doing work around the house, keep a piece of scap paper with you and use it to list tasks you think of or remember as you work. When you finish one task completely, refer to your list and move on to the next item on it. If you need uninterrupted time at work, close your office door (or put a chair in front of the entrance to your cubicle) and post a note indicating that you're working on something important and asking anyone who needs you to return at a specific time or submit a request to you by e-mail. And then, of course, do your best to be available when you say you will, and to reply to e-mail messages promptly.
Distractions might be inevitable, but they don't need to drive your day into chaos. Use these three tactics to limit the impact distractions have on your life, and to stay in control of your daily schedule and To Do list.