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Career Q&A | By Liz Reyer, Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

How to manage distractions at work

Q My problem is focus. I work in a fast-paced environment: lots of e-mails, lots of texts, and high expectations for responsiveness. That's all fine until I have tasks that require sustained focus. It's hard to keep the distractions away so that I can think. Suggestions?

A: Figure out what you control, negotiate expectations where you can and commit to building new habits.

Take an honest look at what you want. Many people who choose fast-paced industries like yours are drawn to the high-adrenaline nature of the business. Yet in your situation, it may be too much of a good thing. Determine what your threshold is and what your ideal time usage would look like.

Look at the specific distractions you face. Which do you initiate? This would include obsessive e-mail checking and texting. When you do have time to focus, do you dig in or do you skip from task to task? These are areas that you can learn to control.

Which distractions come from others? Consider whether they're all equal in terms of urgency. Do you need to get back to your child's baseball coach as quickly as to a client? Probably not, but the temptation is likely there.

To what extent do you create expectations that you then struggle to meet? This is reinforcing: If you always get back to people in just a few moments, then an hour may seem unresponsive even if there's no real urgency.

Changing habits is hard, so it may help to understand the costs of not changing. Learn more about the impact of distractedness on your productivity, including the quality of what you produce, and consider possible effects on your health and happiness.

First, create a list of possible solutions to your dilemma. Options include checking e-mail on a limited schedule — say, once an hour or less — and setting aside "focus time" on your schedule for specific projects.

Next, determine the real needs of your clients, vendors and co-workers. How? Ask them. Have conversations with each about how quickly you really need to respond in various situations.

Also get their feedback on your proposed availability schedule. If you're checking e-mail every two hours, will they feel snubbed? Give them options to be in touch if something truly is more urgent. And recognize that some may not be willing to change; this is outside of your control.

Now, the hard part — changing your habits.

Focus first on the one that causes the most distraction. For many, it's checking e-mail.

Try closing your e-mail program so that checking requires more effort. When it's open, get rid of "new e-mail" alerts. Ask others to call if there's a last-minute schedule change or an urgent need for information — this will make it harder to rationalize having e-mail open.

Once you have time to focus, learn to use it. If you're struggling to work on the task at hand, wait it out without doing something else. Even just thinking about the task you're focused on will move you forward. Try a mindfulness meditation practice, too, to build your focus in general.

Learn new habits that help you focus and reclaim your time and productivity.

Liz Reyer is a credentialed coach with more than 20 years of business experience. Her company, Reyer Coaching & Consulting, offers services for organizations of all sizes.

How to manage distractions at work 04/06/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 6, 2011 5:30am]

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