Overwhelmed by Distractions?

“Time Management” experts seem to encourage getting everything out of your mind and into your trusted collection device – like a planner or app.  I’ve heard the term ‘brain dump’ used many times over the past number of years.  I became familiar with the term ‘grasscatcher’ list over 35 years ago.

Brain dumps or grasscatcher lists serve a function of placing thoughts, ideas, tasks, goals, dreams, and etc., out of the vapors of our memories and into a form that we can deal with them.  What could be more satisfying that knowing your ideas are captured on paper and ready to be prioritized and acted on when its appropriate?

However, oftentimes, when we capture our lists, we’re responding to the things that are most urgent.  Urgent really has nothing to do with priorities, rather urgent simply means ‘calling for immediate action.’  Urgencies pull our focus away from what may be more vital, yet we go ahead and try and deal with the urgencies as they arise.   Urgency is why, at the end of the day, we are exhausted and look back at our day and think, “I didn’t get anything done!”

Years ago we thought of urgencies as things like ringing telephones, drop in visitors, the boss’s thoughts based on the latest management book they read, coworkers wanting to stop in and bitch or visit and the like.  We often had someone come to our offices with a wild-eyed look and passionately tell us about the latest emergency we just had to deal with.  We wasted countless minutes and hours working on something that wasn’t really a priority and then realized how hard it was to get back and focus on what we were working on before the interruption.

Nowadays, urgencies might still be the same, but we can add chiming notifications of emails, texts, snaps, instagrams, or flashing red likes or notifications on our various social medias.  We swore we wouldn’t waste time at work with those things, but…we ‘need’ to check our email or “I’ll just spend a few minutes checking on Aunt Betty’s story.”

Guess what?  Our distractions have suddenly become our priorities and at the end of the day, we don’t get anything done.

I read somewhere that for every second you are distracted from the task at hand, you need at least 15 seconds to get re-focused mentally.  I don’t know if  that’s completely accurate, but I can attest, as a high school teacher, that I see this phenomenon daily with my students and with myself.  If I, after instruction or lecture time, sit down during the students’ work time and check my email, when a student asks a question, it takes me some time to be able to reasonably respond.

So what?

I don’t have a magic answer, but I do have a few strategies I’ve tried.  Here are some ideas to think about.

  • Turn off your phone
  • Silence your phone
  • Turn off auto retrieve for your email (if its really important, they’ll call)
  • Install an app that will limit your use of social media during the work day (do you really need all that social media stuff on your phone?)
  • Schedule a time to check and respond to email
  • Plan your discretionary time for working on high priority tasks, write it down and forget about it until it is time to work on it
  • Be a stickler for ‘office hours’.  You can train regular interrupters to come back when you have time scheduled for them.  Be an asshole about it.
  • Limit your daily action list to a vital few things – tailored to the actual amount of time you have to work on priorities.

That’s about it.  Easier written than done, but perhaps someone can find an idea that will help.

Getting the Most Out of Discretionary Time

Discretionary time is when we have control over our actions.  For me, my work day has 5 class periods of instruction, 1 class period of work based learning supervision and administration and 1 class period of preparation.  I consider my preparation period and time before and after school as discretionary even though my prep and other time is focused on things like lesson planning and grading.  So I don’t really have a lot of discretionary time during my work day.

My daily action list (to-do) used to have many items on it and I would spend quite a bit of time “planning forward” all of the stuff I didn’t get done.  I used to beat myself up over how little I seemed to get done.

However, reading GTD by David Allen opened my eyes about the concept of ‘next actions’.  Much of my work is project based.  A project is something that requires more than one thing complete.   I’ve been trying very hard to always ask myself, during my early morning planning time, what is the next action I can take that will move this project forward?  That’s what ends up on my list and invariably is something that will take only a few moments to complete.   If my next action takes longer than a few moments, I try to determine when I will be able to focus for a longer period of time and defer action until then.

I don’t want to throw shade at GTD, but this is not a new idea.   I see the same concept in the Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, in Time Power, in Hyrum Smith’s 10 Natural Laws of Time and Life Management, in almost all of Stephen Covey’s books and in other recent works.  If you’ve ever been to Amarillo Texas and stopped at the Big Texan, you’ve noticed the epic challenge of eating a 72 ounce steak in 1 hour.   The only way that people succeed (but why?) at that is taking 1 bite at a time.  The same applies to all of our projects and tasks – 1 bite at a time.

So, grab your metaphorical fork and plate (pencil and planner in case you don’t capture metaphors 😉 ) and take on your meal.

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