Karla Miller is one of the eight remaining finalists in The Washington Post Magazine’s @Work Advice Contest. For Round 2, we asked: What is the biggest problem in today’s workplace, and how can it be solved?
Distraction, like obesity, is becoming a modern American epidemic. The weakened boundary between home and work means that everything we do is riddled with the distractions of everything else we’re supposed to be doing. As a result, the average worker’s focus is like the average American’s diet: all over the place and increasingly unhealthy.
BlackBerrys buzz during dinner and at soccer games. iPhones blurt out Beyoncé during business meetings. We spend office time shopping for birthday gifts on Amazon and then, feeling guilty, take our laptops to bed. No task gets 100 percent of our attention. Our lives start to look like one of those Italian-Chinese-Korean buffet restaurants, where everything is available but nothing’s really good. We process tasks like competitive hot dog eaters, feeding with one hand while grasping with the other. We wolf everything, with no time to identify and savor the good stuff. Through it all, distraction bubbles through our minds like diet soda, leaving us bloated yet unsatisfied.
The answer to this wasteful, unfulfilling use of time and mental energy? The same as with food: Mindful consumption. Three courses for your consideration:
Customize. Forget rules. Figure out what your most efficient work style is. Are you a fixed-menu worker, blocking off time in a carefully orchestrated series? Or do you do better at a smorgasbord, starting with a plate full of tasks and taking a few bites from each until they’re gone, then going back and filling a clean plate?
Consolidate. A consolidated workspace, physical or virtual, is like an organized kitchen: easier to navigate and less likely to catch fire. Keep all appointments in one calendar, all files in one cabinet or directory (with backups) and one nonwork email account. Multipurpose tools — say, a smartphone with email, calendar, and notepad — mean fewer items to keep track of and fewer devices clamoring for your attention.
Compartmentalize. Wait — didn’t I just say to consolidate? Yes. Consolidate and compartmentalize, like a Japanese bento box. Use filters, folders and color coding in your inbox and calendar to sort messages and events. Make caller ID and voicemail your maitre d’s, weeding out the riffraff.
Set mental boundaries too: When off-topic concerns prick you like fish bones, spit them out into notes and set them aside.
Finally, set personal boundaries: If chatty intruders pop in without a reservation, offer an apologetic smile and a gentle but firm, “I’ll let you know as soon as I have something available.”
Remember, too, that some scheduled distractions can be healthy palate cleansers. Build some leeway into your workday for short breaks and— (stomach growls) —sorry—lunch.
Whose advice did you like best? Vote for your favorite contestant
Read each contestant’s Round 2 answers
Read each contestant’s Round 1 answers
Meet the @Work Advice Contest’s 10 finalists