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Stop Distracting Me!

Are you finding it harder to stay focused at work these days?

Welcome to the club! It’s been estimated that distractions and interruptions steal up to two hours per day of productive time for the average worker. And as new technologies make the world increasingly interconnected, it looks like it will only get worse – if we let it.

What’s stealing our time and attention away from the activities that matter most?

The usual stuff: phone calls, voice mail, email, Facebook, Twitter, instant messaging, Blackberries, interruptions from co-workers. We’re all familiar with these. But there’s a subtler and even more pervasive time-stealer in the workplace — our own thoughts.

The fact is, our own mental distractions drain huge amounts of creative energy. They keep us entranced and prevent us from tapping into our creative resources. When some of our attention is occupied by the past or future, we prevent ourselves from focusing on the present. When we’re distracted and mentally agonizing over the next thing that pops up on our lists, any chance of meaningful innovation goes right out the window.

What keeps us distracted? See if you recognize these common innovation dousers:

  • Single thought. Relying on a single idea or plan to see your project through.
  • Getting really worried. Worry is misdirected creative energy. Anxiety makes the creative flame burn in all the wrong places.
  • Not having fun. When you stop having fun, the task becomes burdensome.
  • Getting easily frustrated. The harder you work at being frustrated, the better you’ll get at it.
  • Exaggerated importance. Making your challenge so important or all-consuming that you allow it to ruin the rest of your life.
  • Knowing the right answers. You’re so convinced that you have all the answers that you stop entertaining or looking for alternatives.
  • Running it through a committee. Nothing destroys individual initiative like a committee. Relying on a committee often denies personal responsibility, which eliminates the thrill of taking the risk. Having too many meetings to “discuss it” (which really means “listening to individual agendas”) wastes time and doubles the cost.
  • Setting inappropriate deadlines. Make them too short and the task becomes impossible. Too long, and you lose interest in the project.

Relax and refocus

Fortunately, reclaiming your mental focus doesn’t require major surgery. Simply relax your muscles and concentrate on your breathing to center your attention. Then take a piece of paper and, as quickly as you can, write down any issues that come to mind. It doesn’t matter how pressing or trivial the concern. If it comes to mind, write it down.

Keep writing until you have nothing more to write. When you’re done, step back, look at your list, and acknowledge that you will deal with each concern at the appropriate time. This undermines the power of those issues to distract you, and makes it possible to give your full attention to the activity at hand.

Another great approach to dealing with distractions is to get clear on what inspires your innovative side. Identify what keeps you really focused and intensely determined, and build more of this into your day. For example:

  • Necessity. Nothing sharpens the attention better than demands.
  • Fun. Having a great time makes the juices flow.
  • Boldness. Jumping right into a situation with both feet.
  • Speed. Doing it as fast as you can.
  • Shooting from the hip. Starting without a plan and applying ideas as they come to you.
  • Taking risk. A real risk, without a safety net. Feeling the crisp bite of fear and dread, but going ahead with it anyway. The threat of failure lights a fire like no other!
  • Pride. Taking pleasure in success and accomplishment.
  • Time pressure. Feeling the rush of the deadline.
  • Mental sparks. Feeling bold, standing out in the crowd, and getting noticed.
  • Trust in last-minute inspiration. Having faith in your ability to pull the project out of the fire.
  • Relaxing. Loosening your grip of life’s worries.
  • Reflection. Having a private time and space to contemplate your navel.

The emails, Tweets and constant barrage of interruptions aren’t going away any time soon. And neither are our internal distractions. So identify the ones that hinder you the most and take appropriate action to defuse them. You’ll get a lot more done throughout the day. And you’ll be surprised at what your innovative side comes up with.

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