Al Bsharah Business Minded, Technically Inclined

Managing Distractions and Increasing Productivity – How Do We Get Things Done?

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We live in a very distractable world.  Email, Instant Messanger, Cell Phones, Home Phone (if you still have one), Text Messages, Desk Phone.  No matter where you are, you can be interrupted.  Sometimes in more ways than just one…  How many times has this happened to you:

  • You’re on a call at your desk, and another call beeps in.  You have to ignore it, as…you’re on another call.
  • Your cell phone then rings.  Again, you can’t answer…and you scramble to find it and mute it so the person on the other line isn’t annoyed.
  • Meanwhile, your desk voicemail lights up…and if you’re really cool, an email with that voicemail pops into your inbox.
  • Your Instant Messanger starts lighting up (why are you looking at that while you’re on a phone call anyway?)
  • That cell phone voice mail finally alarms letting you know you have a voice mail.
  • Soon after, a text message comes in from the same person saying, “Call me”.  Really?  I had no idea.  <grin>

Ok, that probably hasn’t happened to all of us at that extreme of a scenario, but we can all certainly relate to bits and pieces of it.  These interruptions come at any time of day, and sometimes at very inopportune times (since when did the bathroom lose it’s sacredness?!)  This interruption-mania doesn’t even take into account the (literally) hundreds of Social Networks many use as distractions…Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, LinkedIn (and that is barely the tip of the iceberg).  How is it that we get anything done?

Are we handling this new found immediate gratification and communication at our fingertips well?  I suppose it depends on where you spend most of your time.  The majority of my day is spent at work, like many of you.  In most cases interruptions are quite counter productive to, well…productivity.  Don’t get me wrong, interruptions also have benefits…and I’ll get into those…the ones in immediate focus are those you have (apparently) no control over.  But…you do.

I was sparked into this post by an entry at the Manager-Tools blog that briefly discusses the concept of “toast”.  These are the little pop-ups that slide their way into your vision located in the bottom-right of your screen.  IM’s, emails, whatever…little pieces of toast coming out of the toaster that you can’t help but look at.  Don’t kid yourself, most of you will probably look at one while reading this post.  Frankly, if you haven’t been distracted away from this post by one of them…I’d be surprised!  The irony that Manager-Tools brings forth is a nice play on words…”If you’re paying attention to the toast, you’re toast.”

How many times have you been in a meeting, formal or not, where the person speaking simply stops mid-sentence to focus on their PC or phone?  How many people in meetings are typing away on their Smart Phones, clearly oblivious to the conversation around them?  Have you noticed while having a conversation with someone on the phone that they occasionally drift away…clearly focusing on something else at the same time?  How many times have you caught yourself pausing in the middle of something to look at a piece of toast on your screen?  Don’t kid yourself, it likely happens more than you even realize.

These are distractions that pull us all away from directing our focus at the person who’s kindly requested our focus.

There’s a cost associated with this type of activity.  In some ways it’s directly financially tangible, but in others it’s more indirect.

  1. Lowered morale of those left waiting because something that can likely be dealt with later is given higher priority, leaving them with the feeling that you believe your time is more important than theirs.  As a manager, this would be an awful situation to put yourself into.
  2. Opportunity cost of those waiting for the key stakeholder to return their focus.  How much of their collective time could have been spent on something productive, how much does idle time cost the company…or you if it’s your company?
  3. Despite how good you think you are at multitasking, you’re going to miss something.  Sooner or later, it’s going to be something important.  You’re going to regret not paying full attention to those around you who need your full attention, and you’ll be left dealing with a loss of #1 and #2 (morale and cost) all over again.
  4. How long does it take you to get your train of thought back once you’ve finished your distraction?  Once you finally remember to get back to it, you have to get your brain back into that mode.  This rings especially true for software developers, project managers, or others who have to focus on the short-term as well as the future simultaneously.  To clearly do your job, you thrust yourself into a virtual world where you plan and make a long-term solution happen.  It’s surprising how long it can take to get you back into that mindset.
  5. Learning is usually compromised by distractions.  I apologize for not having direct citings, but I’ve read about a few studies that show that learning while multitasking is much less efficient.  The bottom line (to what could be an entire topic by itself) is that distracted learning may allow you to make similarly accurate decisions on occasion, but you may not fully understand why it’s the right decision to make.  This is due to the way your brain ends up processing the information you’re learning and ultimately storing (or not storing) it in long-term memory, as there are very different methods used during focused and distracted learning.

So, back to the most common types of communication many of us use…  Are they being used correctly in your environment?  Part of eliminating distractions has to do with the people around you.  If someone calls your cell phone every time they need something, regardless of how important it is, that can be a bit of a distraction.  In my estimation, a call to the cell phone is typically the sign of a very important item….but it may not be used that way by others.

Below I’ve listed, by order of my perceived priority, the most common types of communication available to us in the workplace.  It should be noted that there are always valid exceptions to any rule, especially this one.  I can’t say enough about how important in-person communication can be to a productive working environment.  Just because it’s listed as #1 on my list doesn’t mean that you should never contact someone in person unless it’s vitally urgent.  There are many other circumstances at play here, and there is no black-and-white definition on how communication should happen.  This is merely meant to be a framework or guideline for prioritization of communication.

Aside from prioritizing each communication type, I’ve also included a few bullet points on how this type of communication should likely be used.

  1. In Person
    • Requires face-to-face collaboration
    • Quick or substantial discussion needing immediate attention
  2. Cell Phone Call
    • Requires substantial discussion
    • Requires immediate attention
    • Is tied for #1 if the person calling does not have the ability to quickly find you in person
  3. Desk Phone Call
    • Requires substantial discussion
    • Important but can wait until you’re at your desk
  4. Text Message
    • Requires quick question / answer
    • Relatively urgent answer required
    • Could arguably be placed at #3, but I put it here because it’s usually a shorter communication
  5. Instant Message
    • Requires quick question / answer
    • Important but can wait until you’re at your desk
  6. Email
    • Requires substantial information to be shared
    • Requires documents or other files to be shared
    • Can wait until you’re in front of your computer
  7. Everything Else
    • Low priority

This is all fine and good, but what do I do to enforce this?  How to I keep these distractions at bay so I am not constantly distracted?  For this list, I’m going to start from the bottom up.  The least urgent items get first attention here.

  • Everything Else
    • Social Networks and other items do not require immediate attention in 99% of the workplaces.  I’m sure there are some organizations that thrive by using these systems, but for most of us they’re nothing more than distractions.  Disable all alerts to your email, to your phone, or to any other place.  Turn them off.  Look at these sites on your lunch break or when you’re at home.  Do not allow these sites to dictate when you should be doing something…you own your time.  If you need something specific, by all means, go for it…just don’t get caught up in their notification loops.  These sites selfishly want you coming back, don’t forget that.
  • Email
    • Turn off your pop-up toast!  You’ll be amazed how much more productive you’ll be with this one simple modification.  Email is low priority, and if you get as many emails as I do in a day…that constant pop-up will keep you from ever getting anything done.  Here’s a quick tutorial on how to disable Outlook 2007 pop-ups.  A little Google Searching will likely find you where to change options in whatever mail client you use.
    • There are many recommendations on how often you should check your email.  For me, this depends on what kind of project I’m working on.  If I need to sit down and grind on something uninterrupted for a while, it may be a couple hours before I get to it.  In most cases, once an hour is probably good unless you have nothing else going on (lucky you).  For some, once every 30 minutes would be OK.
    • If others are using email as high-priority in an organization that doesn’t function that way, politely ask them to contact you using different methods if it’s more urgent.
    • Turn off email notifications on your phone.  There is rarely a need for this.  People grow to hate their Smart Phones because they say they can “never get away from work” because of them.  The reality is, most of these comments are based on constant harranging due to email notifications.  Turn them off and look at email when you want to, not when it wants you to.  Smart Phone life can be good!
    • If it helps you, politely ask people to start CC’ing you on things that you just need to be aware of.  This is another layer of productivity that’ll help you find the important items in your inbox quickly…when you do decide it’s right for you to get to your inbox.
  • Instant Message
    • Again, turn off the pop-up toast!  Turn off the blinking task bar items.  Turn off any other creative “look at me” notifications the IM clients provide.
    • Don’t allow people to write novels in IM, and don’t allow this inflectionless quick communication to lead to misunderstanding.  It’s meant for quick question / answer solutions.  If you’re going back-and-forth with someone, pick up the phone and have a 2 minute conversation and get it over with instead of banging on your keyboard for 15 minutes (and being distracted all along the way).
  • Text Message
    • Get comfortable with putting your phone on mute.  Do it regularly, in particular when you cannot be bothered due to an urgent in-person or phone conversation.  Granted, a text message should be used for relatively urgent communication, but some things are more urgent than others.
    • Much like IM, do not attempt to have long and productive conversations over Texting in a short period of time and without distraction.  Use the other fancy feature on that phone…the phone!
  • Desk Phone
    • Turn the volume down and choose a more appealing ringer if you have that option.  I’m not saying to ignore this communication tool, that would be counter-productive.  However, turning it down and/or using an amicable ringer is less alarming and startling to your thought process.  You will be able to field the call and get back to your groove quicker if you didn’t jump out of your seat or become irritated by that annoying ringer sound.
  • Cell Phone
    • The same desk phone ringer suggestion applies here.
    • Additionally, much like the text messaging suggestion…get familiar with your mute button.  Turn that ringer off when appropriate.
    • See the phone email notification section under Email above…turn these off!
  • In Person
    • If you’re one of the lucky ones with an office, shut your door.  This signifies that you’re busy and only urgent items will result in a knock on the door.
    • If that isn’t enough, and you really need privacy, put a sign on the door that says something to the effect of, “Please do not interrupt unless you are on fire.”  You may choose your words more wisely if you wish.  <chuckle>
    • If you have the option to work at home, that’s always a solution.  I will warn, however, that in many cases the remaining communication tools will increase in their use due to you being out of the office.
    • Finally, one of the simplest and most effective forms of getting yourself some focus time is to politely tell your employees and/or coworkers that you have to focus and would appreciate if interruptions could be avoided.  This one really works wonders (as long as you’re not asking that every day!)

Are distractions ever a good thing?  After reading this article (assuming you’ve even gotten this far), you may believe I think they are pure evil.  Not true.  Distractions are good, and can be good if used correctly.  Here are a few reasons how they can be beneficial:

  1. If used on your terms, meaning, you initiated the distraction on your own because you needed to hit the mental reset button.  Get up, stretch, walk around a bit to get the blood flowing again.
  2. If you’ve been struggling with a problem for some time and are fighting to get to a solution, step away for a while.  It’s amazing how our minds can keep working on a problem subconsciously, and in many cases that subconscious thought will result in a successful solution…sometimes when you least expect it.  Sometimes sleeping on a problem is even better, as you’ll wake up in the morning refreshed and occasionally with a new solution that your sleeping mind helped devise.

Some will ultimately argue with these views.  One argument that I’ve heard many times is, “I have to keep up on my inbox or I’ll get too far behind.”  So, they focus on it on-the-fly to keep it from queueing up.  I disagree with this mentality because I don’t believe these people realize how much productivity they lose in distraction time (I was one of those people, by the way).  Jamming through all your emails on a 60-minute (or even a 30-minute) basis is a great way to focus on email and get it cleaned up.  Meanwhile, the other projects you’ve been working on don’t suffer because you’ve neglected them due to email distractions.

If you don’t agree…I’ll only ask you to give it an honest shot.  I have been, and on occasion still am, a distraction junkie.  I live in the same world you do.  But, in making some subtle changes in how I manage distractions I’ve become more productive…and really, a lot happier.  Oh, and I still get more than my share of good, clean, positive distractions in!

About the author

Al Bsharah

Al’s been involved in multiple San Diego startups since 1999 after leaving the Detroit auto industry as an electrical engineer. He's started two of his own companies where he's raised capital from both VCs and angels, and sold one of them to both Seismic and Return Path. He resides on the board of Startup San Diego, is a Tech Coast Angels member, and has graduated both Techstars and Founder Institute accelerator programs where he now mentors. Al is currently the Vice President of Product Strategy at Seismic and in his free time he manages to play a little beach volleyball, trade stocks, and camp with his wife, son, dog, and friends.

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By Al Bsharah
Al Bsharah Business Minded, Technically Inclined