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Has Digital Distraction Replaced Daily Planning?

Before the advent of e-mail, social media, smart phones and nearly constant electronic interruptions, daily planning was a strategy that was used quite effectively in the business community. Not so much anymore!

Oh yes, we still make the attempt to set our daily plan, but I am willing to bet, that for a lot of you, the plan goes out the window within the first two hours of your workday. Why? Because a barrage of message distractions in the form of e-mails, texts, facebook comments and IM’s have invaded our lives.

Workers have a growing challenge in resisting distractions. With workers receiving between 100 and 200 e-mail messages buzzing or flashing into their computers or smartphones each day, who could resist? After all, one or two of those messages might even be important.

Time after time, I hear workers lament that they had planned to get several important things done in a specific day, only to wonder at five o'clock where their time went. Why were they not able to do those few important tasks? The answer lies in the distractions that constantly invade their inboxes.

It is commonly accepted by time management gurus that it takes the average person an average of four minutes to recover from any interruption. E-mail has become one of the biggest sources of continual interruption for today’s workforce.

Say for example that you are working on an important report. An e-mail message dings and flashes on your screen, and you look up for only a few seconds to see what newfound treasure has graced your inbox. As a result, it takes you four minutes to get back in the zone and properly focus on the report you’re writing. Multiply this by only 15 interruptions, and your recovery time zooms to 60 minutes -- an hour of wasted productivity.

And for many workers, they are not just briefly distracted by that newfound treasure in their inboxes. They will completely drop what they are doing to read it! Or they will click the link contained in the message. Or they will allow that e-mail message to be their new top priority by working on it, even though it is low on the priority scale. Bye-bye daily plan.

One of the biggest challenges felt by many who are wrestling with the continually growing volume of e-mail messages is finding that discipline to work on that right stuff at the right time. In the early days of e-mail and electronic communications, handling a few interrupting messages was not an impact on the average worker. Now, during the age of message overload, the ability to resist these distractions becomes a key to productivity.

Today's e-communications bring with them the potential for near to constant interruption.  For the undisciplined worker, this results in ongoing frustration and the inability to accomplish the day’s priorities.

To the rescue

Three actions can bring a return to daily planning that works:  turning off all the interrupters, setting specific times to sort messages, and building the sorting and handling of e-mail messages into that daily plan.

Turn off the interrupters. The default setting in Outlook is to deliver new messages as soon as they're received in the server. You can change this, and you should. Either turn off the automated delivery or set the delivery interval to the longest stretch you can stand. 90 minute intervals are recommended. This way, you take control of the interruption and enable yourself to pick up your email messages when it works for you, not the other way around.

When you're playing with your Outlook settings, turn off the sounds and the flashes announcing the arrival of messages. These are nasty intruders that inhibit your ability to focus.

And don't worry, if someone calls you and needs you to look at a message just sent, you can always click the "send/receive" button at the top of your screen and watch it magically appear.

Set specific times to sort messages. Taking control of message management includes being decisive about when you will view your inbox. By setting specific times that you plan to view the new messages in your inbox, you have turned a reactive behavior to a proactive behavior. Five times to view you inbox is enough -- in the beginning of your day, midmorning, after lunch, midafternoon, and just before you leave work for the day. Combined with your turning off all of the interrupters, this action will allow you several hours of focused time to accomplish what is truly important, rather than being interrupted almost constantly.

When viewing your inbox, it is critically important that you approach that activity with a mindset to sort the work, rather than to work it. Just because it is the most recent arrival does not make it the most important task on your list. Sorting allows you to triage work, and set the priorities that will make you most effective.

Build the sorting and handling of e-mail into your daily plan. Let's bring back the routine of daily planning and stick to it! Choose a regular 10 to 20 minute time to plan each day. Then, view all of your tasks -- telephone calls, meetings, projects, to dues, AND e-mail delivered tasks -- and set your work plan for the day.

Of course, there will be urgent and important interruptions every now and then. These can, will, and should interrupt that daily plan - sporadically. Let's just avoid having the non-urgent e-mails do the same. your daily plan should be those five timeslots when you sort your e-mail. Build viewing that inbox into your daily plan, each day. You can't ignore it, plan for it!

Electronic communications have become invasive, but we can still control how we respond and plan. Just because we are connected 24/7 doesn't mean that distractions should overrule priorities. It’s time to bring back daily planning. It works and provides a wonderful roadmap to becoming truly productive.