Life is distracting. According to research, people are interrupted, on average, four times an hour. Here’s the kicker: The more challenging the task you were working on, the less likely you are to go back to it after the interruption. In other words, we’re most likely to leave our most important work unfinished. To reclaim your life from distraction, try these 10 steps.
- Slow down. Momentum is powerful. Wherever you are, whatever you’re doing, it’s hard to reverse direction. To create space for change, start with a single deep breath. Make sure there are a few minutes in your day when nothing is required of you except to breathe and feel. Soon, your momentum will slow and your ability to shift direction will grow.
- Put yourself in the right box. Choose the box that fits you like the perfect cocktail dress or a beautifully tailored suit. Don’t try to hide your strengths, fix your weaknesses, fit in, or ignore your passions. Instead, choose to work in a way that uses the best of who you are, that enables you to stand out because of how you’re different and what you’re passionate about.
- Experiment with what you want. Try things on. See how they feel. Take a risk to act, communicate, work, and focus differently, and explore what brings you closer to or farther away from your powerful, enthusiastic, energized self. Try on new goals: What might be interesting, useful, and challenging to accomplish this year? Then go for it.
- Pursue failure. The whole idea of experimentation is that even failure is a success because it informs you. It teaches you what doesn’t work, which is just as important as knowing what does. As long as the failure impacts your behavior, it’s a success.
- Reduce your need for motivation and discipline. To a much larger extent than you probably realize, your environment dictates your actions. Don’t beat yourself up for lacking discipline or not getting traction on the things that are most important to you. Instead, surround yourself with the people, space, time, and rituals that support you in slowing down, being in the right box, experimenting, and pursuing failure.
- Set yourself up in the morning. Before turning on your computer, sit down and decide what will make this day successful. What can you realistically accomplish that will further your focus and allow you to feel productive? Then take those things off your to-do list and schedule them into your calendar. That way you’ll create real momentum in the direction you want to go.
- Stay in touch with yourself throughout the day. Set your watch, phone, or computer to ring every hour. At the sound of the chime, take one minute to ask yourself two questions: Are you doing what you most need to be doing right now? Are you being who you most want to be right now? During that pause, recommit not just to what you’re going to do over the next hour, but also who you’re going to be.
- Say “No, thank you.” Each time we say “why not?” to something—or even consider saying “why not?” to something—it takes up room in our minds. If we learn to automatically say, “No, thanks,” to things that don’t fit into our main areas of focus, we’ll simplify our lives and free our minds to focus. “No, thanks” simplifies your decisions and your life. It helps you to do more important things and fewer unimportant ones.
- Be clear about your boundaries and communicate them clearly. Cell phones, Blackberries, texts, e-mail—we can work anywhere, anytime. What’s surprising is that even though we seem to be working all the time, we’re far less productive. Because trying to get everything done is impossible, we often make choices that are not in our best long-term interests. In this world with no boundaries, we need to create some intentional ones of our own. We need to know what we care most about accomplishing, stay focused on those things, and communicate our boundaries politely but with firmness.
- Learn from each day. I was once asked, If an organization could teach only one thing to its employees, what single thing would have the most impact? My answer was immediate: Teach people how to learn—how to look at their past behavior, figure out what worked, and repeat it while admitting honestly what didn’t. Take five minutes at the end of each day to ask yourself how the day went, what you learned, who you need to connect with, and what you plan to do differently—or the same—the following day.
Peter Bregman, MBA, MCC, RYT, is an advisor to CEOs and their leadership teams. These tips are adapted from his award-wining book 18 Minutes: Find Your Focus, Master Distraction, and Get the Right Things Done.