Managing Inputs That Distract Us

Someone admitted to me recently that working from home isn’t all that it is cracked up to be. He told me about all of the Zoom and Teams meetings he is now a part of, and people are continually reaching out to him via email and Slack. There is no doubt that technology is helping us get through this challenging time, but it is also making it more difficult to get our work done.

Patrick Amoy / Unsplash

I’m old enough to remember the workplace without email. But, I cannot imagine how we could keep our organizations running during a pandemic without email or some of the other things we have at our disposal

Of course we have to be careful that technology doesn’t become nothing more than a fancy distraction. For example, I got used to managing email in recent years so that it doesn’t become a nonstop distraction.

But as soon as I got a handle on email, friends and colleagues began sending me texts with quick reminders, comments, and questions. I find that text messages can be even more of a distraction than email, plus it is harder to move these messages onto my ‘to-do’ or followup list.  

Slack was introduced to me as a great way of instant communication. I found it distracting.

I’m no Luddite, but I have realized that I don’t need more inputs coming at me. Easy access is easy distraction.

As software programming Alicia Liu wrote in a Medium post, “Applied to Slack, its greatest strength: amazing ease-of-use, is also its weakness: making it far too easy for everyone to default to using Slack for communicating, even for all the myriad things that don’t make sense to use Slack to communicate.” 

Since we have begun working from home, I’ve now added Teams and Zoom meetings to my list of platforms.

So how do I get control over all of these inputs?

Let’s start with my email inbox. I perform triage three times a day. My goal is to empty my inbox at least once a day. That doesn’t mean I finish my emails but I review them and decide what to do next. I decide whether an email deserves my immediate attention (if its from my boss, or an urgent matter), something that I can add to my ‘to-do’ list for later followup, or something I can delegate, file for later reference or delete. I let people know that I generally check email in the morning, at lunchtime, and before I end my workday.  

If you text me, I probably won’t instantly respond unless it is an emergency. I don’t let my phone buzz with text alerts, either. My family or my administrative assistant know to call my private phone number if they needed to reach me.

I know that some organizations are relying heavily on Slack for instant communication these days. Again, you need to establish specific rules; otherwise, you surrender your intended actions and projects to the random inputs from others. If you are using Slack, consider ‘starring’ your most pressing challenges for quick reference. If you need to respond to a message but don’t have an instant answer or can’t stop what you are doing, starring is a great way to keep track of it, even as you get many new posts. Set different notification settings for different channels.

All of these inputs can be of tremendous value when used correctly. But, when we don’t put rules in place for how we will use them, we are letting others control our workflow and agendas. That takes self-discipline in deciding when our priorities must change because of something that is shared with you.

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