It’s a familiar lament at work: We can’t get anything done because we’re all so busy interacting. Open-office plans, project teams and the incessant ping of our devices lay siege to any possibility of extended mental concentration. The modern workplace, with all its interruptions and distractions, is like an unruly kid on a sugar high at Chuck E. Cheese’s, moving frenetically from one activity to the next. It’s all fun and games until the inevitable sugar crash.
Organizational leaders are both peddlers of the sugar (forwarding countless texts and emails to team members) and overwhelmed kiddos (being summoned yet again to lead a time-suck of a project.)
“Interruptions and unforeseen events consume much of our time in the twenty-first century because they can reach out and find us anywhere” says long-time productivity expert Hyrum W. Smith. Smith is the former CEO of time-management powerhouse FranklinCovey. In his new book “The 3 Gaps: Are You Making a Difference?” Smith writes, “In the past, when the pressure got too great, we could escape to a quiet place or leave the office and bask in the silence and privacy of the drive home. Not these days.”
All this distraction and stimulation makes us less productive — to the tune of an estimated daily loss of six hours’ productivity per worker, according to this Washington Post article. It also makes us dumber, especially if we don’t anticipate the interruption (and let’s face it, we’re rarely prepared. That’s why we call it an interruption.) According to the Post article, Edward G. Brown, an efficiency expert, says everyone at work is a potential “time bandit” — unintentionally “stealing” time from colleagues when they don’t give thought to how their interruptions affects others’ workflow. People in leadership roles are especially vulnerable to falling prey to this type of thievery because their role requires managing others’ output.
But there are things you can do for yourself and those whom you lead that will lessen the “sugar rush” of organizational life. Consider implementing the following four practices as a way to bring sanity back to everyone’s workload.
Connect to what matters most. Clarify your personal values and encourage your employees to do the same. When people connect their principles to the organizational ones, they understand how the work they do has merit. Smith suggests that you create a “social constitution,” which will help you understand your top priorities and why they matter to you.
Create a “Magic 15.” Smith encourages all people who attend his productivity seminars to set aside 15 minutes each day to quietly reflect, seek inspiration and plan their day. He calls this “The Magic 15 Minutes” because consistent application of this practice helps you close the gap between what you want to get done and actually manage to do. As a leader, you can encourage your team to follow suit. As a team, agree to honor each person’s “Magic 15” time, so that everyone can create the magic.
Get a “lock” on time. One of the best techniques to thwart time bandits is a system Brown calls “mutual time lock agreements.” In this process, teams agree when they will not interrupt each other. Then they put teeth into the agreement by holding each other accountable. According to the Post article, Brown estimates that clients who successfully implement this process see a 40% to 60% increase in productivity.
Enlist outside help to stay on track. Not certain you can hold to the agreements or ignore the siren call of your cell phone chimes? Many of us can’t; we’re hardwired for the stimulation that an incoming message creates. In those cases, it’s best to enlist an outside party to help you stay focused. There are many tech apps that allow us to shut off our cells phones and block access to certain websites. Or, you can turn to a very low-tech solution: ask a buddy to keep you honest. Or post photos or notes that remind you of your no-distraction rule in a location where you’re likely to lose focus.
Distractions and interruptions are a part of organizational life, yet they don’t have to overwhelm an entire team. Set an example and implement these four productivity practices. You’ll experience more productivity and less stress. Once your team sees you’re serious about curbing the sugar rush, they’ll be more likely to do the same.
Jennifer V. Miller is a freelance writer and leadership development consultant. She helps business professionals lead themselves and others towards greater career success. Join her Facebook community The People Equation and sign up for her free tip sheet: “Why is it So Hard to Shut Up? 18 Ways to THINK before you Speak.”
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