Driven by Distraction

by Dr Malcolm Johnson FAIM

Driven by Distraction

Being effective in your day requires being aware of:

  1. What is important
  2. How effectively you use your time
  3. How much energy you can maintain
  4. Avoiding distractions

Distractions destroy effectiveness. People often think they are being affected just because they're busy. And how often is a reason touted as a justification for not being present; "I'm so busy!" Up to a point. It is a reason for being disciplined enough to say, "not now", or "not yet" and then being prepared to a schedule a time when the discussion is going to be more convenient.

Multitasking has its attractions for explaining rapid shifts in attention, but how effective are we really being? If the activity represents a sequence of small procedural tasks, then we are more likely to be engaged in switch-tasking. Switching focus from one task to another to rapidly move projects along is fine, providing the activity itself is completed. If not, all we end up feeling is overwhelmed, and busy. But no progress has actually been achieved.

What we spend time on requires prioritisation. It also needs us to be sure that the immediate focus is actually the best use of our time and that what we are working on is making an important contribution to agreed outcomes. Line-of-sight to an overarching objective makes what we do now have purpose and meaning. This provides a significant boost to personal well-being through the alignment of our work with the broader context of purpose and vision.

How many times have you heard someone say "I'm working 110%"? This is problematic because what it says is that the following may be at play:

  1. the person is doing a job which is not sufficiently resourced, or
  2. the task has not been done before and progress discussions have not taken place to pull in more resources, or
  3. the quality may become compromised if the 110% goes on too long, or
  4. the workplace culture is potentially unhealthy and will lead to burnout of a precious resource, the people who commit daily to doing their best.

What we can do is to become more disciplined in how we use our time and how we manage our energy so we are fully present and powering when we are 'in-harness'. Tony Schwartz has written an insightful piece in Harvard Business Review on how to manage our energy. Part of this is in structuring your day so that you can apply your most effective time to tasks that require you to be totally fresh. I'm doing this now in writing these thoughts at the start of the day. I know there will be interruptions as people ask for my input or vice versa. This can be done when the energy drain from focusing on that first important task is telling you to take time out. Change the pace, connect purposefully with others and show appreciation for good work.

There is also much to be said to having 'thinking time'. If you're working at 110%, any time spent reflecting is likely to be considered 'unproductive'. How wrong can we be?  It is essential to take time out to think; a prerequisite for innovation.  Going for a walk to get a coffee can provide an enjoyable segue from keyboard work to free-thinking. It's amazing how the rhythm of walking and fresh air will stimulate great solutions. Try it.

Avoiding the distractions of your mind is tough. How many times do we catch our mind wandering when we are working on a task? Try focusing on the task in the knowledge that you will stop after 60 to 90 minutes, rewarding yourself with a break. Keep focused during that time and keep a notebook beside you to write down stray thoughts that occur. Keep on working. It's amazing how many good thoughts can be captured this way for later development or as a solution to a previously intractable problem.

Take control. External demands on your time can be negotiated if you work in a respectful environment. More challenging is managing your thoughts. Where you focus matters; be specific, be purposeful, and be present. The alternative is to become, as Zig Ziglar mentioned so many years ago, a "wandering generality instead of a meaningful specific".

Further Reading

Schwartz, T. (2001). Managing Your Energy, Not Your Time, Harvard Business Review, October, 63+

About author

Dr Malcolm Johnson MBA (Qld ) Ph.D (Qld) FAIM
Dr Malcolm JohnsonDr Malcolm Johnson is General Manager of Professional Development and Research at the Australian Institute of Management QLD NSW ACT NT. He completed his MBA and thesis on corporate strategy while working at Shell Australia, subsequently contributing to preparation of the country business plan submitted to the Shell Board in London.

Malcolm undertook doctoral research in decision behaviour which he subsequently applied to build and sell a number of sizeable businesses in the financial services sector. Understanding decision drivers enabled articulation of client specific solutions that mapped aspirations to appropriate actions and resources.

The research also has specific application to change management. Understanding the complexity of implementing strategic change, he has guided a number of strategic transformations across the public and private sectors. This contribution to enhanced management practices has been recognised through coverage in publications ranging from BRW, Asset, InFinance, and Money Management through to the Australian Financial Review and The Australian.