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Neutralizing Distractions

How do you tame the multitasking beast? You may have tried to limit multitasking, but without much success. Why is it so hard to stop multitasking? Simply put, almost all our technology today encourages multitasking, interruptions, and distractions. It’s hard to recognize how prevalent it is, and even harder to stop it. The misperception that multitasking is a more efficient way to work and the latent fear that you might miss something both contribute to the dire situation today. Ask yourself this: Is it really important to find out right now that your best friend is taking his girlfriend to see a new movie tonight? To ask the question is to answer it—you need a breakthrough.

The breakthrough comes from adopting what my co-author and I call the nuclear option. As a team, turn off your smartphones, pagers, office phones, instant messaging, email, and other technology that distracts you when you need to focus on productive work.

Why do we call this the nuclear option? Because, like using a nuclear weapon, it’s an action of last resort—something people are loath to do. Most of us are utterly addicted to our devices. Turn off all your devices for just one hour, and you’ll see how hard it is to kick the habit. You’ll probably be unable to avoid checking your email several times, or checking your smartphone for new text messages and posts your friends have added to social media sites. Just shutting down for an hour is probably tough—but do it anyway.

Here’s how to approach this major change: As a team, set aside an hour in which no one can be distracted. The goal of the team is to work exclusively on the project—without interruptions—during this time. After you conquer one hour, move to two hours, and then to four hours. If you really, absolutely, positively must be responsive to outside interruptions, designate one person on the team as the interface to the outside world while the rest of the team focuses on the project. This plan might require that one person to handle any crises that arise while the rest of the team is focused, but it will still be worthwhile. You can even rotate this responsibility from day to day, if necessary.

One final note: Try to set aside this focus time at the beginning of every day. If you try to make it happen later in the day, it’s too easy to succumb to the pressures that start accumulating from the moment you walk in the door, and you might never get around to dedicating the time to focus. If you can get to the point where the team sets aside focus time at the beginning of every day, you’ll be well on your way to taming the multitasking beast.

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