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How to Cope with More of Those Pesky Distractions

How to Cope with More of Those Pesky Distractions

Using “concentric defenses” to keep off interruptions you can’t avoid in other ways
Bamburgh Castle, England

Most of the articles you read about dealing with time- and attention-wasting distractions concentrate on avoiding them altogether (shutting yourself away, better organization, better time allocation) or not adding to their number yourself (minimizing responding to e-mails and IMs, filtering phone calls, avoiding gossiping).

This is fine. But what about those that simply get through such defenses: the phone calls you can’t avoid, the personal visits to your desk, the calls from your boss? Are there any ways to deal with those and still keep your mind focused on what you need to be doing?

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There are; and that’s the subject of this article.

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What are “concentric defenses?”
The approach I’m advocating is based on the idea of “concentric defenses:” an idea first used by builders of medieval castles. The concept is simple: you start with an outer defense — maybe a ditch or moat — to try to prevent attackers ever reaching you. If that fails, they are faced with high walls and guard towers. Capture those and you find another set of walls and towers inside them. In effect, the attacker has to start all over again.

Drawing of concentric castle

Most castles of this type had maybe three lines of defense, including the moat. Some had four, with a final tower or “keep” inside the second set of walls. I’m suggesting six progressive lines of defense against distractions and interruptions, so you can deal with everything from the thoughtless colleague to the boss who demands that you drop everything else and attention to her need — now!

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The six concentric defenses against distractions and interruptions

Here they are. I’m going to assume that you’ve already tried the conventional means of avoid the distractions (noted above) and it’s either broken through or wasn’t going to be stopped by those anyway:

  • The first defense is the simplest: simply ignore the distraction altogether. This won’t work with a personal caller, but it can be done with phone calls and e-mails — so long as you are sure who’s calling. Ignore the interruption until you’re ready to deal with it — which may be never.
  • Your second line of defense should be to note down the subject of the interruption — so you can be sure of dealing with it later — then pay it no further attention. This works well with e-mail requests for data or simple phone calls. Even a few personal visits can be handled this way, so long as the visitor doesn’t expect an extended conversation. Make sure you do get back to it and supply what was asked for. That way, people will trust the process in future and not expect anything else to make them feel certain that you’ve heard.
  • The third line is to deal with those who need to know, clearly, that you’ve heard them and will respond in due course. I call this “acknowledge, note, repeat, and shelve.” Acknowledge the request; make sure they see you note it down (or assure them that you’re doing so); repeat back, if necessary; then shelve. The same proviso applies as with the previous defense: you must prove that you will deal with whatever they wanted — only later, when it suits your schedule.
  • That still won’t be enough for some people, who suspect you’re fobbing them off and will simply ignore what they want; or that “when it suits you” may turn out to be some indefinite time, far in the future, when the response will be useless anyway. For that, use the fourth defense line: “acknowledge, schedule, repeat with scheduled time, and shelve.” You acknowledge the request, set a definite time to deal with it, repeat the time to show you’re committed to it, then shelve the request until then. This works very well with boss-generated requests of a non-urgent nature.
  • By now we’re down to those interrupters who simply won’t accept a promise to deal with the need later. For them, I suggest the fifth line: “Acknowledge, do the minimum, schedule the rest, then shelve and get on.” You acknowledge what they want, do the absolute minimum you can to deal with it right away (to demonstrate that you really will give them what they want), set a firm schedule to complete the job, and shelve it until then. You’ve suffered some interruption, but probably not enough to set you back seriously with what you were doing. This should be your automatic defense for bosses who demand to see action on your part, even when the request is not really that urgent.
  • The final, sixth line of defense is the one you should use with the boss who won’t be satisfied with anything less than instant action on your part, however much that interferes with your other work. In such cases, you need to reverse one of the earlier defenses: you acknowledge the request, note down carefully exactly where you are in what you are currently doing (so you can get back to that place quickly afterwards), deal FULLY with the boss’s imperious demands, and forget about what you had to set aside to do this.

    This last step is vital. If you keep thinking about what you had to leave to deal with the boss’s demands, you’ll feel more and more anxious and frustrated; plus you won’t really have all your mind on whatever you’re having to do to satisfy the boss. It may therefore take you longer, and that will certainly make you feel more angry and stressed.

That is my list of suggestions. You may have found other ways of dealing with distractions you didn’t generate yourself and you can’t avoid. If so, add a comment to this article and share them with other readers, please. Today may be the day you help someone who’s struggling with a problem you know how to solve.

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The Productivity Paradox: What Is It And How Can We Move Beyond It?

The Productivity Paradox: What Is It And How Can We Move Beyond It?

It’s a depressing adage we’ve all heard time and time again: An increase in technology does not necessarily translate to an increase in productivity.

Put another way by Robert Solow, a Nobel laureate in economics,

“You can see the computer age everywhere but in the productivity statistics.”

In other words, just because our computers are getting faster, that doesn’t mean that that we will have an equivalent leap in productivity. In fact, the opposite may be true!

New York Times writer Matt Richel wrote in an article for the paper back in 2008 that stated, “Statistical and anecdotal evidence mounts that the same technology tools that have led to improvements in productivity can be counterproductive if overused.”

There’s a strange paradox when it comes to productivity. Rather than an exponential curve, our productivity will eventually reach a plateau, even with advances in technology.

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So what does that mean for our personal levels of productivity? And what does this mean for our economy as a whole? Here’s what you should know about the productivity paradox, its causes, and what possible solutions we may have to combat it.

What is the productivity paradox?

There is a discrepancy between the investment in IT growth and the national level of productivity and productive output. The term “productivity paradox” became popularized after being used in the title of a 1993 paper by MIT’s Erik Brynjolfsson, a Professor of Management at the MIT Sloan School of Management, and the Director of the MIT Center for Digital Business.

In his paper, Brynjolfsson argued that while there doesn’t seem to be a direct, measurable correlation between improvements in IT and improvements in output, this might be more of a reflection on how productive output is measured and tracked.[1]

He wrote in his conclusion:

“Intangibles such as better responsiveness to customers and increased coordination with suppliers do not always increase the amount or even intrinsic quality of output, but they do help make sure it arrives at the right time, at the right place, with the right attributes for each customer.

Just as managers look beyond “productivity” for some of the benefits of IT, so must researchers be prepared to look beyond conventional productivity measurement techniques.”

How do we measure productivity anyway?

And this brings up a good point. How exactly is productivity measured?

In the case of the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, productivity gain is measured as the percentage change in gross domestic product per hour of labor.

But other publications such as US Today, argue that this is not the best way to track productivity, and instead use something called Total Factor Productivity (TFP). According to US Today, TFP “examines revenue per employee after subtracting productivity improvements that result from increases in capital assets, under the assumption that an investment in modern plants, equipment and technology automatically improves productivity.”[2]

In other words, this method weighs productivity changes by how much improvement there is since the last time productivity stats were gathered.

But if we can’t even agree on the best way to track productivity, then how can we know for certain if we’ve entered the productivity paradox?

Possible causes of the productivity paradox

Brynjolfsson argued that there are four probable causes for the paradox:

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  • Mis-measurement – The gains are real but our current measures miss them.
  • Redistribution – There are private gains, but they come at the expense of other firms and individuals, leaving little net gain.
  • Time lags – The gains take a long time to show up.
  • Mismanagement – There are no gains because of the unusual difficulties in managing IT or information itself.

There seems to be some evidence to support the mis-measurement theory as shown above. Another promising candidate is the time lag, which is supported by the work of Paul David, an economist at Oxford University.

According to an article in The Economist, his research has shown that productivity growth did not accelerate until 40 years after the introduction of electric power in the early 1880s.[3] This was partly because it took until 1920 for at least half of American industrial machinery to be powered by electricity.”

Therefore, he argues, we won’t see major leaps in productivity until both the US and major global powers have all reached at least a 50% penetration rate for computer use. The US only hit that mark a decade ago, and many other countries are far behind that level of growth.

The paradox and the recession

The productivity paradox has another effect on the recession economy. According to Neil Irwin,[4]

“Sky-high productivity has meant that business output has barely declined, making it less necessary to hire back laid-off workers…businesses are producing only 3 percent fewer goods and services than they were at the end of 2007, yet Americans are working nearly 10 percent fewer hours because of a mix of layoffs and cutbacks in the workweek.”

This means that more and more companies are trying to do less with more, and that means squeezing two or three people’s worth of work from a single employee in some cases.

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According to Irwin, “workers, frightened for their job security, squeezed more productivity out of every hour [in 2010].”

Looking forward

A recent article on Slate puts it all into perspective with one succinct observation:

“Perhaps the Internet is just not as revolutionary as we think it is. Sure, people might derive endless pleasure from it—its tendency to improve people’s quality of life is undeniable. And sure, it might have revolutionized how we find, buy, and sell goods and services. But that still does not necessarily mean it is as transformative of an economy as, say, railroads were.”

Still, Brynjolfsson argues that mismeasurement of productivity can really skew the results of people studying the paradox, perhaps more than any other factor.

“Because you and I stopped buying CDs, the music industry has shrunk, according to revenues and GDP. But we’re not listening to less music. There’s more music consumed than before.

On paper, the way GDP is calculated, the music industry is disappearing, but in reality it’s not disappearing. It is disappearing in revenue. It is not disappearing in terms of what you should care about, which is music.”

Perhaps the paradox isn’t a death sentence for our productivity after all. Only time (and perhaps improved measuring techniques) will tell.

Featured photo credit: Pexels via pexels.com

Reference

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