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Distracted? Six Practical Tips for Blocking Distractions and Getting Work Done

Google’s recent announcement about Gmail Priority Inbox comes in the wake of a spate of popular articles about distractions being a cause for not being able to concentrate and think clearly. Here are some simple tips for dealing with distractions.

priority inbox

Google’s recent
announcement about Gmail Priority Inbox is particularly timely, as
it comes in the wake of a spate of popular articles about distractions being a
cause for not being able to concentrate. (For example, The New York Times‘ recent
Your Brain on Computers“).
The debate is still open about whether distraction is a new phenomenon
or not. (See for example, Physics Worlds recent “Would Einstein Be Ruined by Twitter” and “You’re So Predictable“). Regardless of whether being
distracted or not is something new, it is a force to be reckoned with.

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You turn on
your computer in the morning (assuming it hasn’t been on all night loading up
your Inbox with today’s workload), and as soon as it boots up, the alerts start
pouring in. New mail messages, instant messenger status updates, new RSS feeds,
and the never-ended Tweet stream. The list goes on and on; it’s no wonder you
can’t get anything done.

These
distractions have spawned a whole new market category–“distraction
blockers.” Now honestly, do we really
need another new tool to neutralize the last new tool we just installed? I think not.
On the contrary, applying some common sense and a dash of discipline can
do wonders. No need to buy more technology to solve last week’s technology
mess.

Here are
some simple tips for dealing with distractions:

1. Prioritize – The
key to focusing is setting priorities, and hence, Google’s announcement is
particularly timely. However, you don’t
need technology to set priorities. Here
is a proven method for prioritizing:

o
Create a short list of tasks on a small piece of
paper. Once you see all the tasks on a page, organized by projects, deadlines,
and dependencies–the priorities become apparent.

o
Each day review and update the list before you open
you Inbox, before you attend meetings, and before you get sidetracked.

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o
Write the day’s tasks on a sticky note and focus on those
tasks for the day. Next morning, copy any leftover tasks from the previous day
and then throw out the note. One piece of note paper for each day.

o
Go through your Inbox and add/subtract tasks based on
incoming messages.

2. Set times of day
for answering email, holding meetings, and for doing creative work. Different people
are able to focus better at different hours; do what works, but stick to it.

3. Many people find
it hard to sit still and focus, even without digital distractions. Exercise is
a great cure for this. You don’t need to run a marathon; 30 minutes at the gym,
a short walk, run, or bicycle ride can work miracles.

4. Delegate –Often
a task can be completed by someone else and it may get done sooner than doing
it yourself.

5. If you have
creative work to do, like writing documents, creating project plans, building
presentations, or writing a speech, here are some practical suggestions that
work for me:

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o
Find a quiet place outside the office. Set up shop in a coffee shop (if you can work
there), in a park, in the public library, or in any other place where you can
focus and where you won’t be disturbed.

o
Shut off the cell phone, disconnect from the Internet,
and close all applications except the ones you need to complete your task. If
you need the Internet for research, shut off Twitter feeds, IM updates, and all
the other distractions. You don’t need a “distraction blocker” program; you
just need to shut them off – plain and simple.

6. Understand that
non-working time is NOT “downtime.” While the 9-5 workday is long gone, it is
important to disconnect. Taking email to bed is unhealthy. When you are not “connected,” you can still
do valuable work. In fact, thoughtful, contemplative work is often best done
“offline.”

7. Lastly, accept
the fact that you won’t get everything done; this is a law of nature. Before Albert Einstein could be overwhelmed
by Twitter, he was overwhelmed by correspondence. According to Albert-Laszlo Barabasi, in 1953, Einstein received 832
letters and he answered only 476. The
barrage of letters didn’t let up, and Einstein died two years later, so one can
only assume that he left a great deal of unfinished business. Take a look at
the Life Magazine photo of his desk from
the day he died. Take heart; as bad your
desk looks, it probably isn’t as bad as this …

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About the author

A technology strategist for an enterprise software company in the collaboration and social business space. I am particularly interested in studying how people, organizations, and technology interact, with a focus on why particular technologies are successfully adopted while others fail in their mission. In my 'spare' time, I am pursuing an advanced degree in STS (Science, Technology, and Society), focusing on how social collaboration tools impact our perceptions of being overloaded by information. I am an international scholar for the Society for the History of Technology.

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