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How to beat distractions and get things done

Experts weigh in on how to dodge diversions and be more productive at work.

Emails. Meeting. Coffee run. Phone calls. More emails. Another meeting. Hilarious anecdotes about the latest wacky hijinks of Dave’s cat, Jenny’s dog and Brenda’s grandkids. Lunch. More meetings. More calls. More emails.

And then it’s 5pm and your to-do list remains un-did for yet another ridiculous, frustrating day.

If this sounds at all familiar to you, you’re among friends. A report by US research firm Udemy concluded that more than two-thirds of full-time employees experience workplace distraction to some degree – and over 50 per cent say those distractions contribute to underperformance.

For businesses, a distracted employee is an unproductive one. Deloitte’s Global Human Capital Trends 2018 report revealed a “high level of anxiety” among employers about the way modern workplaces reduced employee productivity.

Productivity expert Dermot Crowley, author of Smart Work and Smart Teams, says emails and meetings are the top two sources of distraction in workplaces.

“People have become victims of their inbox,” Crowley explains. “Most people in corporate workplaces are getting at least 100 emails a day; middle to senior managers can be getting 300 to 500. It’s just impossible to stay on top of.”

Meetings are also productivity-killers. Crowley says that senior employees in some organisations are spending 80 per cent or more of their core working hours in meetings.

Matt Cowdroy, “productivity ninja” at Think Productive, says the reality is we’re actually distracting ourselves.

“There’s a thing we call the ‘boss-worker problem’,” Cowdroy says. “While we’re trying to get things done we’ve got this boss voice that comes into our mind and says, ‘Why aren’t you preparing for that meeting tomorrow?’, even if the thing you’re working on now is really important.

“Your boss and your worker are in constant conflict.”

Here are some strategies that Crowley and Cowdroy recommend to help you dodge distractions and take control of your working life.

Distraction: Email addiction

“Email notifications are the biggest distraction in your day,” Dermot Crowley says. “Just turn them off. I’ve been saying this for 17 years and it pains me to say that I’m still having to say it.”

Also consider shutting down your email application altogether except for designated times of the day. Another good strategy is to aim for “inbox zero” i.e. leaving no emails in your inbox when you shut down your application or log off for the day.

Alternatively, you could do what one Australian company did and ban internal emails altogether. “Everything in our inbox is other people’s priorities,” says Matt Cowdroy, putting not to fine a point on it.

Distraction: A cluttered mind

Cowdroy recommends getting what he calls a “second brain”. “That just means getting everything out of your head and into a system of some sort,” he explains.

“That could be a digital to-do list like Todoist, Wunderlist or Outlook Tasks – it doesn’t really matter. It only needs to be five or 10 minutes, maybe at the start of the day. Capture what’s really important – the top five priorities – before you start replying to emails.

“We call this ‘boss thinking’: do the planning that cuts through the noise.”

Distraction: Meetings

In his latest book, Smart Teams, Crowley says jokingly that organisations could reduce their meetings by 100%.

“What I mean is that they could easily have 25 per cent fewer meetings, 25 per cent shorter meetings, 25 per cent fewer people in meetings, and they could easily reduce wasted time in meetings by 25 per cent,” he explains.

Crowley recommends reaching an agreement within your team to reduce the number of meetings and better manage them to be more productive. He also says to consider replacing formal meetings with shorter, ad hoc discussions in designated spaces within the office.

Distraction: Other people

If your fellow workers are doing your head in, slot in some quality me-time. Book a room away from your desk where you can actually get things done. Not only does it fill up your calendar and prevent others planning your day for you, a change of environment can also be conducive to creative thinking.

But you can’t be in focus mode at all times, so when interruptions do come your way Crowley recommends making a quick decision about whether to stop what you’re doing and deal with the issue being raised.

“A senior manager I worked with had a great technique when he was interrupted: he would simply turn round to the person and ask, ‘Is this critical to right now?’ If it’s not, send an email or book in a meeting.”

And if you still can’t keep the hordes at bay, consider spending some time working from home.

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