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Kevin Meyer


The Simple Leader: Remove Distractions

When self-discipline is slacking, it’s time for the timer

Published: Thursday, October 13, 2016 - 14:21

When many people go into the office, they start their day by chatting with some colleagues, checking their email, and surfing the net for a while. Then they start working on whatever project is due that day. Soon, however, they hear the sound of a new email arriving, which they promptly open, leading them to other tasks. Before they know it, the day is over and they still don’t have that project finished. This happens repeatedly, taking two days to complete a 30-minute task.

Every interruption requires time to refocus, and during that interval we lose momentum, either physical or mental. We may be very disciplined about what tasks we want to accomplish and in what order, but we can still fail at actually getting them done.

In most cases, distractions are self-inflicted: choosing to answer an email that could wait, saying hello to everyone that walks by, multitasking, or trying to find the end of the internet. If you want to be more productive, it helps to get rid of the distractions that demand your attention. This could require you to communicate and manage expectations at your workplace. For example, you might need to explain to colleagues why you are keeping your door shut or not answering emails for a certain time period each morning.

“You will never reach your destination if you stop and throw stones at every dog that barks.”
—Winston S. Churchill

I get easily distracted by physical things—pictures, books, knickknacks, scraps of paper, and the like. Therefore, I work very hard to have a clean, organized work area. Several times a week, I straighten it up, transferring notes to my journal (you might wonder why didn’t they go in there in the first place—me too), emptying the trash, scanning and shredding paperwork, and cleaning up my computer desktop. I’m working on trying to standardize this activity, but it’s hard.

Another way to be more productive is to understand how you work best. Everyone has an optimum length of time that they can focus on something. For most people, this is between 20 and 90 minutes, after which their attention spans rapidly decrease. For me, that amount of time is about one hour, after which a speck of dust is intriguing enough to divert my attention.

Figure out what the best time interval is for you and leverage it. I use a timer application on my computer (and one on my iPhone when I’m away from the office). I set it for 50 minutes, giving me a 10-minute break every hour. All potential distractions, such as email, web browsers, and even my phone are turned off. (This type of focused work/break sequence is commonly called a pomodoro. Francesco Cirillo coined the term in his book, The Pomodoro Technique (Lulu.com, 2009). Pomodoro, which means “tomato” in Italian, refers to the tomato-shaped kitchen timer Cirillo uses to divide his work time in to focused, manageable intervals.)

Once I start my timer, I’ll work on one task for those 50 minutes, stopping for a 10-minute break at the end. During my break time, I try not to check my email, as email seems to draw me in for far longer than 10 minutes. (In fact, I’m working at trying to check email just two or three times a day.) When the break is over, I start another 50 minutes. I repeat this cycle as many times as I can, especially during my most productive time of the day.

This article is an excerpt from The Simple Leader: Personal and Professional Leadership at the Nexus of Lean and Zen (Gemba Academy LLC, 2016).


About The Author

Kevin Meyer’s picture

Kevin Meyer

Kevin Meyer has more than 25 years of executive leadership experience, primarily in the medical device industry, and has been active in lean manufacturing for more than 20 years serving as director and manager in operations and advanced engineering, and as CEO of a medical device manufacturing company. He consults and speaks at lean events; operates the online knowledgebase, Lean CEO, and the lean training portal, Lean Presentations; and is a partner in GembaAcademy.com, which provides lean training to more than 5,000 companies. Meyer is co-author of Evolving Excellence–Thoughts on Lean Enterprise Leadership (iUniverse Inc., 2007) and writes weekly on a blog of the same name.