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IMG_8159By Christine Brown-Quinn, The Female Capitalist®

Have you been able to take a mental break this summer?  Are you looking forward to taking your career to new heights this Fall?  The key to both truly switching off during your vacations and increasing your impact at work is being able to deal with those annoying distractions.

In our technology-driven environment, it seems like there is an increasing number of ways others can contact us, and thereby derailing some of our key objectives and priorities.  And let’s not forget the key purpose of vacations –  it’s the time to genuinely recharge your battery and feel reenergised. In the June blog Managing Email Mania, I talked about the health hazards of not letting your brain ‘rest & digest’. And yes, we know this logically, but why is it still so hard?

Looking beyond the health consequences, let’s dig a little deeper into why managing distractions IMPROVES our productivity.  The more you accept distractions, the less energy you have to be productive at work and present for your friends and family.  Distractions end up affecting your mood AND the mood of others around you.  As humans, we mimic behaviour – at a very early age parents smile, and toddlers smile back. It’s the same in the workplace  – we’re subject to emotional contagion and that can obviously be negative or positive.

Research shows that on average we attend to one task for 11 minutes before we’re interrupted, and then it takes 25 minutes to return to the original task! In light of this overwhelming evidence, here are 5 Fast Track Strategies for Managing Distractions:

1. Choose how to spend your time  This can be scarier than it sounds. You no longer have any excuses for not getting something done that you’ve determined is a priority! Often times we’re afraid to take that plunge into something new and we hide behind those distractions. In other words, we focus on dealing with the distractions instead of what’s really important to us.  Take control of your most valuable asset –  your time. Allocate time to those things that are meaningful to you (in the workplace and at home). The more time you allocate to what’s important to you,  the more you CROWD out time for those things that are not important. Once I started to have a family I realised that in order to progress the career that I loved and be a happy a person, I had to let go of ‘doing’ everything and be laser-focused on what was important to me!

2. Write down your priorities – Schedule in those activities that are clearly in line with your key goals.  Be sure to break those goals into do-able bite-sized chunks.  I find that reviewing the list of actions at the end of a working day builds up my confidence & I feel in control.  It’s also an opportunity to pat yourself on the back for what you have achieved that day. Before going on a business trip or vacation, it’s always good to do a summary of your key priorities and the status so that it’s easy to pick up where you left off when you’re back in the office.

3. Master multi-tasking – Certain combinations of tasks work well together, while with other combinations the quality of the output can suffer.  If one task can be done by rote, that’s a great one to combine with a task that requires focused attention.  So talking to a colleague while walking works well, while attending a meeting and looking at your smart phone doesn’t! (Walking meetings are now a growing phenomenon – in fact this is Queen Elizabeth’s (of Great Britain) preferred method of conducting meetings with the Prime Minister!).

4. Build up your ‘focus muscle’ – Like anything, being focused takes practice. Make small changes that allow you to increase your focus and manage the distractions, and then build from there. Setting too high goals means they’ll be too difficult to reach and discourage you from starting. I love tennis.  The number one female British player is Jo Konta. She has a mind coach who has helped her just focus on the next point, rather than the point that’s just happened or going to happen three shots from now.  As a result, she’s been quickly climbing the rankings during the last 12 months. What’s your ‘next point’ that you need to be focusing on?

5. Plan breaks – We are humans not machines. Taking breaks is key to keeping up our focus AND empowers us to tackle the distractions! A change of environment can also enhance our problem solving capabilities, which is why I believe that work & life are a perfect complementary pair. My client Emma who is a management consultant and an enthusiastic cyclist says her best ideas come when she’s cycling!

All of these strategies will benefit from taming your smart phones! Remember your phone doesn’t dictate your priorities, you dictate how to use your phone in line with what your trying to achieve at that moment (which in some circumstances may mean muting it!)

I do understand the challenges in following this advice – for one, most of us have bosses and senior colleagues! I get that – I really do. But being available for everyone all the time actually devalues you and your time, in a personal as well as professional context. Psychologist Robert Cialdini calls this the ‘scarcity’ value – the less it’s available, the more value we place on. So that’s the irony… by following these five strategies, the value of what you do is bound to increase!