Distractions are a serious problem for marketers. We covered five different ways distractions create significant productivity problems last week. Now it’s time to move on to the more important question: What can we do about it?
Obviously, distractions are never going to disappear entirely. There will always be a few things that legitimately need your immediate attention – and, in all likelihood, a few others that will call for it even if they don’t.
As a result, the key to managing distractions is to control their frequency, timing, and impact, rather than eliminating them altogether. To do this, there’s several steps to be taken at both a personal and organizational level. The key is to find the combination that works for you and your team.
1. Eliminate Self-Distractions
We all have those sites that we find ourselves checking throughout the workday. Maybe it’s your personal email, your bank, a personal social media account, or your favorite online retailer. These diversions are usually no more than a couple of minutes, but, as we found out in the previous post, they can add up.
If you’ve got the willpower, the easiest way to prevent self-distraction is to just stop, well, distracting yourself. For many of us, this is easier said than done. Luckily, there are several productivity tools that can allow you to temporarily block access to distracting sites and applications. A software called Cold Turkey, for example, allows you to create a schedule which define the websites/applications you can and can’t use during a certain time period.
2. Let People Know You Don’t Want to Be Distracted
As far as external distractions, letting people know you don’t want to be distracted is the first and most basic way to address the issue. It could be something as simple as putting on headphones, closing your office door, or putting up a do not disturb sign. In combination, such techniques are pretty effective in limiting in-person distractions, but that still leaves the problem of digital distractions.
Digital distractions can be a bit harder to avoid. Instant messaging systems often include an “Unavailable” or “Busy” status, which can take care of distractions there. Phone and email are a bit tougher. Shutting them off probably isn’t an option. On the other hand, you do generally have the option of deferring these communications. With proper planning, you can set expectations for email and set up forwarding for calls.
The drawback to most of these techniques is there’s a “boy who cried wolf” factor to them. The first few times you go to these lengths, you’ll probably be taken seriously, but if you do too often, you’re likely to get negative feedback and/or have the distractions return. It’s best to reserve full shutdown for the times you really need to focus.
3. Log Distractions
Keeping track of a problem is a great what to put yourself on the path toward getting it fixed. Distractions are no exception. A simple four-column excel spreadsheet – project, interruption, stop time, return time – will do the trick.
A distraction log provide a few important benefits. First, it gives you a pretty strong idea of how much time distractions are actually costing you. Second, it lets you identify (and hopefully address) your biggest sources of distraction. Finally, a distraction log serves as a great support piece to explain the problem to your superiors.
Bonus Tip: To avoid the distraction log from being a distraction on its own, use a placeholder to help you return to projects faster. Place a large, bright symbol – a neon yellow star, for example – to mark your place before you shift gears to deal with a distraction. In fact, according to productivity trainer, Laura Stack, such a visual cue can cut the time needed to restart a task by as much as 80%.
4. Clarify What’s Urgent and What’s Not
When you’re dealing with a mix of urgent and non-urgent communications, you end up having to begin by treating everything as if it was urgent. Even though the preponderant amount of communication is non-urgent, you have to be vigilant in case something that is urgent turns up. The result is a lot of additional effort and distraction for messages that could easily be dealt with in bulk at a later time.
To start sorting out your communication channels, email is a great place to turn. Email is primary communication channel for many companies and it usually contains everything from junk mail to critical information. The key is to separate the latter from everything else. The quickest way to do this is to set different notifications for different types of email. For example, you could use a distinctive sound for emails marked “Important” (though that’s a far from perfect measure). Alternatively, you could use a distinctive sound for messages from an important individual or group.
At department level, you can quickly solve the issue of urgent vs. non-urgent by agreeing to use a certain channel for one or the other. For example, you might decide to use an in-person visit or an IM for time-sensitive matters and email for things that can wait. Such an approach is much more effective than anything at an individual level, provided you have buy-in.
5. Have a Dedicated Time (or Place) to Focus
In aviation, there’s an FAA regulation called the Sterile Cockpit Rule. It basically forbids any non-essential contact with pilots during critical phases of the flight, like landing and takeoff. It’s designed to prevent distractions to pilots, which were found to increase the chances of potentially deadly errors.
Naturally, marketers and pilots don’t have the same kinds of consequences attached to their errors. Nevertheless, there are times that we’re doing something important and we need to get right. Whether it’s a matter of perfecting a key project or just making substantial progress, we need to focus.
As companies have identified this need, they adopted approaches similar to the FAA. Some companies are creating interruption-free zones or privacy rooms, where employees can step away from distractions at important times. Another approach is banning non-essential communications for an hour or two each day. Similarly, other companies are limiting such communications to a dedicated window each day.
One notable example of this concept is Intel, who granted workers four hours a week of “think time.” Think time is made up of 90-minute work blocks, designed to grant employees time to put their heads down, work without interruption, and get important things done. During this time, workers are not expected to respond to emails or attend meetings (barring emergencies). They can schedule these hours as needed throughout the week.
Let us know what you think:
- How do distractions impact your work?
- Does your department/company do anything to help you deal with distractions?
- Would you add anything to this list?
Great follow-up article and practical tips, Matt!