Go With the Flow

by Tina Manzer

From employee questions and shoppers’ chit-chat to the endless call of your inbox, sometimes you feel like you’ll drown in distractions. They constantly pull you out of your flow, that intense state of concentration you need to get your best work done.

“Flow is the state of mind that occurs when all your conscious thought is focused on what you are doing,” says Julian Birkinshaw, coauthor with James Manktelow of Mind Tools for Managers: 100 Ways to Be a Better Boss. “Unfortunately in the modern workplace, flow can be difficult to achieve and maintain. By weeding out typical distractions, though, managers can improve their focus, get more done, and become more effective.”

Here are the eight most common distractions and how you can eliminate them.

The relentless presence of personal technology

Smartphones and (more recently) smartwatches have blurred the line between personal and professional communication. You can receive work emails and calls on the same device as private Facebook comments, Instagram photos, and an array of other personal information.

When focusing on a particular piece of work, choose to put away your phone for a certain amount of time. That way you can devote your attention entirely to the project at hand.

It sounds simple, but self-management is not as easy as you think.

Email, email, and more email

Many emails in your inbox may not be particularly important, and yet you feel you must look at them when they arrive. Instead, try these tactics.

1. Schedule checking times.
Turn off the alert that appears on your computer screen when you receive an email and, instead, check and respond to messages at set times. This helps you manage your coworkers’ and customers’ expectations about how and when you will reply to them.

2. Use “low-productivity” times.
There are likely certain times of the day when you do your best work, like first thing in the morning or maybe late at night. Schedule email check-ins for your less-productive times and save your peak hours for high-value work.

Turn emails into actions. If you need more than a few minutes to read an email, add it to your to-do list.

Social media and web browsing

Both are major productivity killers. Try using a brief personal browsing session as a reward for an hour or two of high-quality and focused work.

Nerve-jangling phone calls

The ring of a phone often prompts an intense need to answer, even when you’re in deep concentration. To minimize this source of distraction, arrange a rotation system so that everyone on your team can take turns answering for one another.

Other noise distractions

Rather than trying to ignore loud colleagues, the barking dog next door, or the lawnmower outside your window, wear noise-canceling headphones or play white noise to block out the sounds that would otherwise interrupt your flow.

An overwhelming workload

Try to have a manageable to-do list. One that’s too long can lead to procrastination as you wonder which task to tackle next. Each day, commit to accomplishing the two most important tasks on your list and put the rest on hold until tomorrow.

“In our study we found that 79.5 percent of managers view prioritizing tasks effectively as one of the most important planning and time management skills,” says Manktelow. “It is so important!”


Colleagues visiting your desk can be a big source of distraction, but as the owner or manager of a business, you need to be available for your employees. So, if you don’t want to be disturbed when you need to focus on a task, consider working at home. If you have an office, close the door and tell your team that you need to be left alone to concentrate temporarily.

Shortfalls in your own well-being

It takes a lot of mental and physical energy to juggle your priorities, manage people, and have the discipline to control your use of technology. Make sure you are getting plenty of sleep and drinking enough water. Dehydration can make you feel tired and impact your thinking. It’s also important to get some fresh air. Take a brisk walk during your workday; it will energize you. Try to avoid heavy lunches and sugar-laden snacks that can lead to a slump in your concentration later in the day.

“It’s easier than ever to lose track of what you should be doing at work, but you can still take steps to avoid distractions and improve flow,” concludes Birkinshaw. “Learning to better manage these ‘flow breakers’ is a valuable skill that can be practiced and sharpened over time. When you can achieve flow more easily, you will not only become a better manager, you will also set a great example for your team.”

Flow and the Traditional To-Do List

Scott Mautz recently discussed a productivity technique called timeboxing in his weekly column in Inc. The technique was at the top of a list of 100 tips compiled by productivity expert Marc Zao-Sanders, CEO of filtered.com. The list resulted from a thorough search of online productivity articles scrubbed for the 100 most-frequently-cited tips, which were then ranked from 1 to 100 based on raw usefulness and ease of implementation.

Timeboxing re-imagines the to-do list by putting it in chunks of time, Mautz explains. “So, assign a fixed period of time to a to-do item, schedule it, and stick to it. Voilà,” he wrote, noting that typical to-do lists include way too many items, are not well prioritized, and enable us to practice the worst of our anti-productivity habits. We all tend to do the easiest tasks first, for example, even though they are often not the most important.

Here’s what Mautz learned when he tried it.

1. “It takes discipline to start, but it pays off in the end in increased productivity.”
The issue is thinking through in advance how long each task will take and selecting which tasks are the most important. “Then you have to be brutal about working that task to completion within the time allotment you gave it,” notes Mautz. “In the beginning, I stunk at estimating ‘time for completion.’”

It worked, though, because he got better at time-estimating, and the whole process made him organized, premeditated, and disciplined.

2. “I gained a more targeted, earned sense of accomplishment.”
Mautz found that not only do the “right” things get done, but the idea of time in a box made him single task versus multitask. “You feel stress in trying to accomplish that task within the time you allotted for it, but it’s productive stress, unlike the stress of staring at an ever-growing to-do list and wondering if you’ll ever complete it.”

3. He ended up building his own version that works well for him.
“I still like the visual, stacked, to-do list, so I still use it” Mautz concludes, “but I timebox the most important items on that to-do list, and denote on the list with a little square that the item has been timeboxed on my calendar. That way, in the space in between timeboxed events, I can still achieve a sense of accomplishment by completing and crossing off a few of the more mindless, less urgent tasks on the to-do list.”

If Mind Tools for Managers sounds familiar, it’s because Ed Dealer has featured excerpts of the book in the past. Its authors provide practical advice that identifies the 100 skills that a manager can master, based on a survey of 15,242 managers and professionals worldwide. For more information, visit mindtools.com.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *