If you’re like most people, you’ve got at least three or four things you could be doing right now besides reading this article. You need to answer an increasingly urgent string of emails from a colleague, check in with a client, file a weekly report to your boss, and reply to a text from your significant other—and look, another hilarious cat photo on Instagram! That tidy to-do list you made this morning is already shot, and the day is far from over.
Traditional time-management techniques just don’t work anymore, says Maura Nevel Thomas, author of “Attention Management: How to Create Success and Gain Productivity—Every Day.” “Before the Internet and smartphones, managing our time was much easier, because there were far fewer distractions,” Thomas notes. “Now, anyone can reach us anytime, through a dozen different communications channels—and we’ve gotten so used to it, we even distract ourselves.”
It doesn’t help that, in most workplaces now, office doors have become “a rare luxury,” she adds. “You used to be able to close the door if you needed to concentrate for a while.” For most of us, those days are gone.
In “Attention Management,” Thomas expands on her popular TED talk, laying out her system for getting distractions under control. She has coached people in dozens of organizations, including Dell and the U.S. Army.
Monster asked Thomas for some tips on how to focus on what matters—and tune out everything else.
Email is a major distraction at work. How can we get over the urge to constantly check it?
Checking email is a habit that gets reinforced over and over, all day long, so it becomes automatic. Most of us do it without even thinking about it. So, as with most habits, the first step is just becoming aware of how often you’re doing it, and how much time it sucks up.
Then, rethink your assumptions. You really can ignore your email for an hour or two without anything terrible happening. Often people think, “But everyone expects an immediate answer!” My reply is, “Only if you always give them one.” Reset other people’s expectations. If you start replying only at certain times of day, for instance, that is what they’ll get used to. You can even add a line to your signature requesting that, for anything truly time-sensitive, the sender should call you instead.
What can you do about co-workers who keep dropping by your cubicle?
One thing that works is to have a “Do Not Disturb” sign. When you need to concentrate, post it at the doorway, or on the back of your chair if that’s facing the doorway. Noise-cancelling headphones help, too. The point is, establish boundaries. Then, it’s essential to honor them yourself. If you’re not consistent about it, and you make exceptions and stop to chat with someone when the “Do Not Disturb” sign is up, people won’t take it seriously.
Of course, some people won’t pay attention to it anyway, at least at first. So plan beforehand how you’re going to address that, usually just by saying, “Sorry, I really can’t talk right now,” and suggest a time when they should come back.
Most of us think of daydreaming as the opposite of productivity, but you write that we can use it to get more done. How?
We’ve become a society where only “doing something” equals productivity. But our brains need quiet time in order to function. What may look to someone else like wasting time—taking a walk, looking at the sky, just letting our brain wander—is when we come up with ideas and see the connections between things. This is especially true with so-called knowledge work. Unless we regularly allow ourselves that downtime, we’ll actually be less productive.
You write about making each day “proactive,” rather than “reactive.” How can we get past reacting to every distraction and stick to a plan?
Becoming proactive, so you’re the one in control of your attention, starts with having a really good handle on what you want to accomplish, which means being very organized. If you have notes scribbled on sticky notes all over your desk and non-urgent emails you could answer, it’s human nature to tackle that easy stuff first, instead of diving right into what really matters.
The antidote is what I call workflow management, which is about setting priorities, and then storing and handling the information and demands of each day so that the most important things come first. It’s impossible to avoid distractions without that clarity about what you need to do and when.
In the book, you define productivity a little differently than most people do. Could you explain?
Everyone’s had the experience of coming to the end of the day and realizing that, even though they were really busy all day, they didn’t get much done that mattered to them, and they’re no closer to their goals. I define real productivity as living a life of choice—that is, spending your life on the things that are important to you. If you think of it that way, distractions are much easier to keep in their place.