Are you controlling your life, or just reacting?

We are all time poor. At work, at home, on the commute, and at the weekend. It’s easy to feel powerless, that life and work is a constant movement from one task to another. But have you ever considered that maybe you have more control than you think?

Purely down to the proliferation of ‘things’ we all experience today (technology, social media, smart devices, 24/7 connectivity), we are over-stimulated, and in the main, always distracted. Even if you are a focused and super organised person, I’m guessing you still find your time slipping away from you even on the most simple of things – email, texts, notifications, workplace chat platforms – encroaching into valuable ‘doing’, ‘thinking’ and ‘home’ time.

Which can mean we spend most of our days reacting to, rather than proactively controlling our workloads. Productivity decrease as a result of distraction for some is a major consequence. As Maura Thomas outlines in “To Control Your Life, Control What You Pay Attention To”, a common workplace dilemma is the inability to move agendas forward due to a constant focus on firefighting. Emails, meetings, notifications – all distract from other agendas and slow down desired impact.

So what to do?

Use technology for its purpose – to enable and empower you

You need to take back control of technology, and your usage of it. Set your phone to airplane mode for a set period of time a day, preferably in the morning. Use this time as your ‘space’ for tasks that need focus, or undivided attention. Monitor your use of social media platforms and email – and create windows of usage. That way, you can still connect, but in allocated time.

Place more structure on your day and take back some time

You may be an open door type of leader, but it’s OK to close the door for a couple of hours a day if the reason for it is communicated well. Manage expectations with staff that you will be only be unavailable for a certain period of time.

Re-set your brain when it comes to email

Email is one of the biggest time wasters of them all. Not purely for the time you spend on it, but in the way it conditions you to think. As Thomas suggests, email ‘conditions you to expect an interruption every few minutes, which chips away at your attention span’. This condition that we all experience, can only be changed through structure (i.e. turning email off while focusing on tasks) and a conscious effort to resist the temptation to respond, to everything, immediately.

However, most critically, as Thomas suggests, is the ability to control your thoughts. Even if you consciously place technology to one side and create ‘space’ to manage tasks that require a high level of focus, you may not be able to stop your mind from wandering. Constant distraction creates a state of mind that is not used to focusing on just one thing. Like many people who watch a film with their laptop open while flicking through social media on their phone, we are becoming more and more accustomed to constant redirection of thought and stimulation. Focusing on one task, or thought, can be the hardest of them all. If you become distracted by an idea or a reminder of a task while in this quiet space, jot it down, and move back to your core focus. Above all, becoming conscious of becoming distracted is key to it all – and will help you to recognise quicker those time sapping activities we’re all at risk of slipping in to.

Read more: Thomas, M., “To Control Your Life, Control What You Pay Attention To”, HBR

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