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  •   Taking Action to Overcome Distraction

    By Sarah Schafer
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Monday, September 14, 1998; Page F09

    I received an e-mail quiz the other day. It asked me to choose which item I would attend to if the following were happening at once: The phone is ringing, the baby's crying (I have no children but I played along anyway), the doorbell is ringing and the laundry is hanging outside about to get rained on.

    I panicked. Ultimately, the quiz turned out to be a joke. But I only realized this after I finally decided I couldn't put the items in order and I scrolled down to read the end of the e-mail.

    What this told me was that I have difficulty prioritizing. And I don't think I'm alone. Most of us go through our workday trying to navigate the temptations of co-workers stopping by to gossip, customers calling us to demand our immediate attention, or bosses telling us to drop everything and attend a meeting.

    Of course, many of us think making a to-do list will solve all our problems, and indeed it can help. But I can't help thinking of my favorite childhood story of Frog and Toad, when Toad loses his to-do list in the wind and refuses to chase after it because that wasn't on his list of things to do.

    So how do we plan in this unpredictable and windy world of work? We asked some busy people to tell us how they stay flexible while keeping their focus.

    Enlist Others to Maximize Your Efforts


    "I basically operate like a hummingbird," said Elizabeth Birch, executive director of the Human Rights Campaign Fund in Washington. Birch, like most executives and employees of public-interest groups, must flitter about from one constituency to the next, and one issue to the next, rarely landing for long in one place.

    For that reason, Birch enlists others to make her efforts go further. For example, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act is a top priority. Birch's strategy, she said, is to talk to members who are in favor of the bill to get them to co-sponsor it. Then she'll try to push those co-sponsors to start lobbying other members. That, Birch said, is a more effective use of her time than trying to convert someone who plans to vote negatively.

    According to Birch, a good question to ask yourself when faced with a task is, "Does my taking direct action on this task ... add value ... or can it be done as easily by someone else?"

    Winnie Stachelberg, political director for the fund, agrees. She added, "Take a moment, at least, to put the task into a context and figure out what else will be impacted by the decision you make or the conversation you have." For example, Stachelberg said, when returning phone calls, perhaps e-mailing one person could take care of a couple of phone calls (if, say, they're from the same organization).

    In the world of lobbying, sometimes it's easy to be dazzled away from other priorities when a big name asks you to take a call or have lunch. But, Stachelberg said, it's important to decide whether someone really warrants special attention. "Sometimes meeting with an impressive person is important, [but] there are other times when, in fact, a person has no name recognition but gets things done."

    Look for the Payoff


    For salespeople, only one constituency matters: the one with the money.

    In one sense, being able to tie your priorities to potential dollars makes prioritizing somewhat easier than in some other fields. If there's no potential sale, don't waste your time. But in sales, non-moneymaking tasks come up all the time. The trick is to eliminate those problems to get back to what's important.

    For example, Jerry O'Malley, clinical marketing manager with MedImmune Inc., remembered a time when a customer-service issue started monopolizing all of his time. Because of skyrocketing demand for a particular product, customers had to endure increased waiting periods. To keep his clients happy, O'Malley started personally delivering the products. "I would have to drive around quite frequently," said O'Malley, adding that he lost a few weeks of valuable selling time.

    Finally, O'Malley solved the problem by doing something that at first glance might have seemed a waste of time. He went to the company's delivery service and learned how to ship pharmaceuticals -- including the cold-packing process that keeps them from going bad. Then he could ship things himself in emergencies, rather than carting medicine all over his territory.

    For Matt Brenner, account executive at radio station WWDC-FM (101.1), priority number one is returning phone calls within 24 hours -- whether the call is from a customer, potential customer or whomever.

    "The calls I want to hear are the calls when people say I have money to spend," Brenner said. Obviously, callers aren't always so blunt, but Brenner said he saves the most vague callers -- those who simply seem to be fishing for information -- for last.

    Another way Brenner, 23, prioritizes in his workday is by giving his attention to the things he least likes to do as early in the day as possible. "I'd rather finish the day doing something I enjoy than something I don't enjoy."

    Make a Plan, Stick to It


    Staying in focus is one of the most difficult things to do during a workday. The Marines, who in recent years have gained considerable respect for their streamlined approach to management, stay focused by mapping out their projects upfront. When on the verge of distraction, said Sgt. Will Donaldson, 24, the Webmaster for the Marines, always go back to SMEAC. That stands for Situation, Mission, Execution, Administration and logistics, and Command and signal.

    This method may sound complicated, but it's really quite simple. As Donaldson explained, he uses it for his projects just as the Marines use it in combat.

    Take one of Donaldson's current projects, for example. He's working on updating the Marines' antiquated process of sending press information to hometown newspapers. Situation? The current system does not have the ability to support today's requirements. Mission? To replace the system with a new one. Execution explains how the mission will be accomplished. Administra-tion and logistics explains what is needed (in this case it would be, say, the number of servers required). And Command and signal lists the people in charge and how to get in touch with them.

    Doing this five-paragraph plan keeps you from going off on tangents or getting lost in unnecessary details, Donaldson said. And if at any point you get stuck, going to the plan can bring you back on target.

    Because planning is so critical to the Marines, and to Donaldson personally, he said he actually plans to plan, blocking out the time on his daily planner.

    One question Donaldson thinks everyone should ask themselves when deciding whether something is truly urgent is, "What's going to happen if I don't do this today?"

    Questions about getting ahead? E-mail Sarah Schafer at schafers@washpost.com

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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