Over the past 30 years, we have seen a dramatic change in the way we interact with others. I am old enough to remember when almost every interaction was either over the phone (landline, not mobile) or in person, because technologies like email did not exist. However, the introduction of email, text, chat, and other technologies changed everything. We no longer had to wait hours or even days to address issues. We could instead address them almost instantaneously, vastly improving productivity. Unfortunately, that’s only one side of the story.
Today’s environment is more complex than ever, and solving complex problems often requires deep thought. However, the constant distractions caused by these new technologies leave less time than ever for deep thought.
Several years ago, Cal Newport noted this phenomenon in his book, Deep Work, and the situation has only gotten worse since the time his book was published. Many leaders and knowledge workers have developed a horrible habit of constantly checking their phones or computers for messages, feverishly trying to keep up with inbound requests. The result is that they no longer set their priorities, but instead get distracted by lower-value activities, jeopardizing long-term performance. Even worse, the constant distractions increase stress levels and the risk of burnout.
Following are a few simple recommendations to help break the cycle:
- Set an agenda for the day. Before checking email in the morning, write down your agenda for the day. Simply devoting the time to thinking about your goals for the day will help clarify what’s most important.
- Schedule time to check messages and stick to it. Setting aside specific times during the day to check messages will provide employees with more distraction-free time to address important and/or complex issues.
- Silence notifications. What do you do when a notification pops up in your email or on your phone? If you are like most, you look, and there’s a reason—big tech companies have entire teams that focus on developing technologies that get and keep your attention. But those interruptions come at a tremendous cost; studies indicate that it takes up to 25 minutes to recover your train of thought after a distraction.
- Set expectations. Talk about the issue with the rest of your team and make sure they understand when you are available. By establishing ground rules, you’ll set a great example for your team, so they learn how to minimize their own distractions.
None of these steps alone are going to be a silver bullet because the technologies that disrupt our day also have tremendously positive impacts. However, striking the right balance can help ensure that you focus the majority of your time on the most important issues impacting your organization.
You may also like: