“One way to boost our will power and focus is to manage our distractions instead of letting them manage us.”—Daniel Goleman, American author and psychologist
Imagine a completely distraction-free office, where you can focus totally and productively, where no one ever calls you, chats outside your office in the hallway, plays their music too loudly, or pops in for a quick question. Imagine a place where you could spend hours upon hours single-tasking to your heart’s content, churning out work by the barrel-load. Wouldn’t that be heaven?
I’m thinking NO. Oh maybe for a time, but it gets old. Unless you’re a solitary worker with no communications with others (a rare occurrence in this era), social interaction remains a must. Although I’m a big believer in warding off most distractions, some workplace distractions are actually useful, even desirable. (<— Click to Tweet.)
Let’s look at a handful of situations where this is the case.
1. Interacting with your team members. My office manager Christine works part time and is only in the office a short time each day. I need to be available to her for answer questions, coach her, and review tasks. If you’re a manager, you need to be available for some employee interaction. You can’t keep your door closed all day. If nothing else, your team members need to be aware of your presence, since people take their cues from whatever their manager does. If you’re not a manager, you still need to make yourself available to co-workers on a regular basis. You can close your door for a limited time when you must focus, but then you should open it again to indicate you’re receptive to questions.
2. When they act as useful recharge breaks. Sometimes, it’s best if you’re jerked out of your focus before you get too tired or your ideas go stale. Get up every 90 minutes and refresh your beverage, splash water on your face, use the restroom, take a quick walk around your building, or do a quick set of 15 overhead presses with the dumbbells in your office (what, you don’t have dumbbells in your office?). Even if it’s just Jane from accounting who’s come to remind you about the company softball game, a distraction may give you a chance to refresh yourself before plunging back into the fray.
3. When trying to avoid distractions drains your energy. Constantly fighting the inevitable is like crying over spilled milk. There’s nothing you can do about it, and trying to fight or worry about what you can’t control only wastes your mental energy. Since your brain uses up a good 20% of your body’s fuel, that’s physical energy down the drain too, not to mention irreplaceable time. View distractions non-judgmentally, and you’ll be better off. Don’t freak out whenever you get one. Calmly handle it, and go right back to what you were doing. If I’m interrupted, I grab a sticky note and write my very last thought on the task and stick it to the desk. When the interruption is over, I read my cue and go right back to what I was doing.
4. When they break up a bad mood or lack of creativity. Admittedly, this depends on your frame of mind, but a distraction can be a welcome, well, distraction from something bugging you, from negative self-talk that’s got you down, or from that most nefarious of nemeses, the paralysis of analysis. The distraction, as annoying as it may seem initially, may end up improving your mood. The more you sit there, the less creative and more grumpy you can feel. Some distractions can actually spark creativity if they involve new stimuli. Sometimes a walk with my dog sparks my imagination in a way staring at my computer screen can’t. Ultimately, the distraction may even provide you with a needed solution. According to a 2012 study at Carnegie Mellon University, the decision-making part of your mind may remain active even when you’re distracted, causing a brief period of unconscious thought that may improve decision making.
5. When it diverts you from the wrong track. Have you had a day where you had a major deadline and couldn’t check email, and by the time you get to inbox, someone has already solved the problem or handled the request? The more you “do” email, the more volume you create. The more times you respond, the less time you have to work on the actions inside the email. Turning off your email alerts allows you to purposefully check email when you say it’s time, rather than being dictated to by your computer.
The Long and Short of It
The lesson here is to balance diversion vs. focus demands, since both are inevitable and necessary parts of your job. In some cases, the needs of fellow employees and managers literally demand them; and even if that’s not the case, distractions do have their uses!
© 2016 Laura Stack. Laura Stack, MBA, CSP, CPAE is an award-winning keynote speaker, bestselling author, and noted authority on employee and team productivity. She is the president of The Productivity Pro, Inc., a company dedicated to helping leaders increase workplace performance in high-stress environments. Stack has authored seven books, including Doing the Right Things Right: How the Effective Executive Spends Time (January 18, 2016). She is a past president of the National Speakers Association, and in 2015 was inducted into its exclusive Speaker Hall of Fame (with fewer than 175 members worldwide). Stack’s clients include Cisco Systems, Wal-Mart, and Bank of America, and she has been featured on the CBS Early Show and CNN, and in the New York Times. To have Laura Stack speak at your next event, call 303-471-7401 or visit her website.