Keeping an Outlook on Distractions

Tuesday, October 21, 2014 - 09:48

By Dr Malcolm Johnson FAIM

Increasingly, people at work are feeling overwhelmed by the volume of tasks they are being asked to complete or contribute to. A case in point is your email inbox of which every morning waits to consume your day. It is almost a common routine to settling into work; make a coffee and open Microsoft Outlook before tackling your own task agenda. Immediately your own plans are swamped by the needs of others as you respond to each email.

In the absence of a clear task agenda of your own, it is tempting to use email responses to create a busyness and sense of importance for your input or contribution to others. And time disappears. Email provides a default excuse for not taking control of your own agenda. Is this because email provides a more immediate deadline than your own tasks that are possible to adjust? By responding are you stress-relieving in the short-term but adding to the stress of time to your own agenda by deferring or delaying working on it?

Studies of exam performance have identified self-defeating behaviours that some people adopt as a subconscious excuse for forthcoming performance. In my early undergraduate degree I lived in a University College and saw this practised with varying degrees of sophistication. When assignments were due or an exam was scheduled the next day, some of my peer group would party the night before.

The excuse for poor performance was the party: “I would have aced that exam but I had a hangover”. It was easier to blame an external event for lack of preparedness rather than personally accepting that they had not fully prepared. Using external events as an excuse for personal performance is commonplace. Is putting priority of responding to emails over own task performance providing a similar excuse?

An alternative perspective could lie in a person’s disposition. A selfless person is more likely to put the needs of others over their own. Responding to emails immediately is an outward display of attending to the needs of others, bringing with it the self-satisfaction of being true to their character, and supporting their sense of self-worth.

Which begs the question: “Do selfish people achieve more?”  Centred on their own agenda, are you picking up tasks they could well do themselves? Instead of writing an email perhaps they could have invested the same amount of time doing their own research. In emailing such a request they have multiplied the time required for the task and intruded on the time of those who respond. Time is the ultimate ‘non-renewable’ resource.

I’m all for teamwork and contributing to mutual success. Is being attentive to the requests of others an expression of your contribution to teamwork? We have formal teams at work but we also have, or are ensnared, in informal ones as well. Is the personal need for being included undermining personal performance?

I remember a time several years ago when a member of my team was more comfortable setting out their thoughts in long emails that took an age to read (and an even longer time to write). What happened to a phone call or a brief (scheduled) meeting? Interaction can save an enormous amount of time if it is targeted to achieve an outcome in the form of a decision (small or large). It also maintains momentum and avoids the need to revisit and refresh thinking as a project lobs in through an email  and trying to recall “where did we get to on that one, and how does this new information (email) progress the matter?”

The constant oscillation between projects, like a train being shunted and stopped and then push forward again, is a major source of frustration (delaying closure) and a contributor to ineffectiveness.

Cascading effects by delaying work on your own tasks may impact the ability of others to do their own work. Perhaps the emails being received are follow-ups for information? There is circularity to this.

So let’s cut to the heart of it. Boost personal effectiveness by:

  • Planning for the next day at the end of this day
  • Working only on the highest priority (important) tasks before you open Outlook
  • Scheduling specific times through the day when you will check email then switch it off or minimise it
  • Having purposeful conversations then document agreed outcomes as an email file note
  • Being on top of your work reduces the frequency of urgent requests (demands)

Being disciplined can help you to effectively overcome the greatest distraction (or excuse) invented: email. But beware; social media’s reach into the workplace has become an epidemic. This compulsion for connectivity to others is also costing business significantly in lost time and reduced productivity. As with email, only access the devices at specific times.

In terms of accountability, there’s nothing as confronting as a blank page; quality of performance becomes self-evident. Brevity is a bonus. 


Extract from Dr Johnson’s upcoming book WhatGives, Wiley, forthcoming 2015.

Dr Malcolm Johnson FAIM is National Director, Research and Thought Leadership at the Australian Institute of Management. Malcolm’s contribution to enhanced management practices has been recognised through coverage in publications ranging from BRW, Asset, InFinance and Money Management to the Australian Financial Review and The Australian.