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I am a big proponent of focus.

Multitasking has been put on a pedestal of high productivity. But as employee stress, anxiety, and burnout become a chronic issue in many organizations around the world, researchers are now discovering that the costs of a multitasking, unfocused workforce outweigh the benefits.

Focusing on one project at a time is the clear winner in executing with excellence. To do more with your time, you need to be focusing on your Time Management MVPs—your Most Valuable and Profitable activities.

But we all live in the real world where distractions arise—some days, seemingly, constantly. The ability to prioritize distractions to focus your time will contribute to your ability to get the really important activities done in the fixed amount of time you have available.

distraction matrixTo accomplish this, think about the distractions that you encounter on a daily basis in terms of the category they fall into. I think about distractions in the form of a Distraction Matrix.

Neither important nor actionable

In other words, whatever you’re working on will not be impacted whatsoever by the distraction and there’s nothing you could do about it to begin with. It’s neither important nor relevant.

Important but not actionable

We tend to like to interrupt ourselves to take current action and thus be distracted rather than delay taking future action. This distraction is the kind of thing that you need to file for a later date or future use.

Important but actionable in the future

This distraction is something that we may need to do but we don’t need to do it until a future date. It is not urgent or time sensitive, but should be considered in the long-run.

Important and actionable

Distractions that are urgent or time sensitive do come up. For these rare distractions that really are actionable and urgent, act upon them and then refocus. In other words, take a break to do what needs to be done, and then return to the task at hand as soon as possible.

A very good example of an important and actionable distraction is a fire alarm. But there are far fewer fire alarms in our day than we tend to think there are. It may be procrastination on our part, to put off those really big, difficult tasks for a distraction that is smaller and easier to “check off the list”. The ability to stay focused on the task at hand is critical, so you must avoid all the distractions you can. The question is how to do that.

I’m a big believer in two techniques. The first is blocking time. If a task or a project is important, schedule it. Give it time on your calendar and make sure that your assistant, your team, or your colleagues know this is “not to be interrupted time”. You’ve blocked time specifically for working on that task.

do-not-interrupt-sign-gears-u-s-8-5x11The second thing that you can do if you want to avoid distractions is to work behind closed doors with a sign that simply says “Please Do Not Interrupt”.

The problem is, we live in a culture that values accessibility over accomplishment. But that accessibility that we allow others to have to our time keeps us from getting important work done.

If you can’t avoid distractions, then ignore them. The phone rings during a performance review, your best option is to ignore it. Let them leave a message and you can call them back in an hour. If you absolutely must, answer and simply say, “I’m sorry I can’t talk right now. I’m in the middle of a performance review. I’ll get back to you.”

The real problem arises not when the distraction occurs but when you respond to it.