Peter Bregman is strategic advisor to CEOs and management teams and author of 18 Minutes: Find Your Focus, Master Distraction, and Get the Right Things Done. According to Peter, people are interrupted, on average, four times an hour, and the more challenging the work, the less likely you are to go back to it after the interruption. In other words, we are most likely to leave our most important work unfinished.
Here are Peter’s top 10 tips to reclaim your life from distraction.
1. Slow down
Momentum is powerful. Wherever you are, whatever you’re doing, it’s going to be hard to reverse direction. You need space in your life, space for change. Start with a single deep breath. See how that feels. The feeling of one deep breath will make you crave another.
Create time when nothing is required of you except to breathe and feel. A few minutes here and there is a good start. Soon, your momentum will slow, and your ability to make real choices and shift direction will grow.
2. Put yourself in the right box
Choose the box that fits you like a tight little cocktail dress or a perfectly tailored suit. Don’t try to hide your strengths, fix your weaknesses, fit in, or ignore your passions. That’s what we do when we fear our greatness, when we fear failure and when we fear rejection.
It keeps us from living our lives. Instead, choose work—and choose to work in a way—that uses the best of who you are and doesn’t require you to be strong in your weaknesses. Better yet, choose work that requires you to be weak in your weaknesses. That enables you to stand out because of how you are different and what you’re passionate about.
3. Experiment with what you want
You may not know exactly what you want. That’s perfectly fine. Allow yourself to experiment. Don’t make the mistake of waiting until you are sure. If you do, you’ll probably wait until it’s too late. Try things on. See how they feel. Take risks and communicate, work, focus and explore whether this brings you closer to your powerful, enthusiastic and energized self.
By experimenting, I don’t just mean trying on a new behavior here and there. I also mean trying on new goals. Think about your year—what might be something interesting, useful and challenging to accomplish this year? Then go for it. If it doesn’t get you where you want, don’t worry, you can always choose something different to experiment with next year.
4. Pursue failure
You can’t experiment without failure. But the whole idea of experimentation is that even failure is a success because it informs you. It teaches you what doesn’t work, which is just as important as knowing what does. As long as the failure impacts your behavior, it’s a success. Also, pursuing failure means you will take bigger risks and, much of the time, be pleasantly surprised. If you’re expecting failure most of the time, you can’t help but exceed your expectations.
5. Reduce your need for motivation and discipline
A study published in the American Journal of Public Health found that the closer teens live to places where alcohol is sold, the greater likelihood they will binge drink and drive under the influence. On a certain level this seems obvious, but parents tell teens not to drink, schools tell teens not to drink, and television ads tell teens not to drink. The law prohibits teens from drinking and prohibits liquor stores from selling to teens.
And still, if the liquor store is within walking distance of where the teens live (about half a mile), they will be far more likely to drink and drive drunk. To a larger extent than you probably realize, your environment dictates your actions. So don’t beat yourself up for lacking discipline or not getting traction on the things that are most important to you.
None of us have much discipline, so don’t rely on it. Instead, create an environment—surround yourself with the people, the space, the time and the rituals that will support you in slowing down, being in the right box, experimenting, and pursuing failure.
6. Set yourself up in the morning
This is your opportunity to plan ahead. Before turning on your computer, decide what will make this day highly successful. What can you realistically accomplish that will further your focus for the year and allow you to leave at the end of the day feeling that you’ve been productive and successful? Then take those things off your to-do list and schedule them into your calendar. This way you’ll be sure to get real momentum in the direction you most want to go.
7. Stay in touch with yourself throughout the day
Set your watch, phone or computer to ring every hour and, at the sound of the chime, take one minute to ask yourself two question: Are you doing what you most need to be doing right now? And are you being who you most want to be right now?
Then, during that pause, deliberately re-commit to not just what you are going to do over the next hour, but also to who you are going to be. It’s a great way to keep yourself, yourself. There are so many unintentional distractions that get in our way. This is an intentional one—an interruption that will help you stay focused.
8. Say “no, thank you”
We have limited space in our minds and each time we say “Why not?” to something—or even consider saying “Why not?” to something-it takes up room. If we learn to automatically say, “No thanks,” to things that don’t fit into our main areas of focus, we’ll simplify our lives and free our minds to focus. “No thanks,” paves the road for “Yes please,” and it simplifies your life. It helps you do more important things and less unimportant ones. I developed “No Thanks List” consisting of 27 simple examples when, in my opinion “No thanks” was the best response to eliminate distraction and help me maintain my focus.
9. Define your boundaries and communicate them
We live in an ADD world where there are few, if any, boundaries. Phones, computers and tablets—we can do work anywhere, anytime. And we do. So we end up exhausted and overwhelmed.
Even though we seem to be working all the time, we end up far LESS productive. Because trying to get everything done is impossible and like overeating at a buffet, in the face of unlimited options, we often make the wrong choices—choices that are not in our own best long term interests.
We work on the wrong things. In this world with no boundaries, we need to create some intentional ones of our own. We need to know what we care most about accomplishing and we need a process to keep us focused on those things that matter most to us. And, just as importantly, we need to learn how to communicate those boundaries politely but with firmness. It’s how we stand up for ourselves.
10. Learn from each day
Someone once asked me if I could teach an organization only one thing, what single thing would have the most impact on an organization. My answer was immediate and clear: Teach people how to learn by looking at their past behavior, figuring out what worked, and repeating it while admitting what didn’t work and changing it. People should take five minutes at the end of each day to ask yourself how the day went, what you learned, who you need to connect with, and what you plan to do differently—or the same—the following day.
So there you have it: How to reclaim your life. If you’d like an objective test of your efforts, take Peter’s diagnostic quiz. In a few minutes, you can determine where you stand. If you need some assistance, check out Peter’s book, 18 Minutes: Find Your Focus, Master Distraction, and Get the Right Things Done. It will help you reclaim your life from distraction.