You're drafting an important proposal to get to a client by the end of the day. But 10 minutes in, your phone starts buzzing. A text message notification.
At that moment, picking up your phone seems like only a brief diversion. But according to research by UC Irvine, it can cost you much more time than you think, taking up to 23 minutes for you to get back to where you left off.
And that’s only one interruption. Think about how many distractions you encounter every day that vie for your attention and keep you from working on your most important tasks.
In an interview with the Washington Post, Edward Brown, an efficiency and workflow consultant to large financial firms like Merrill Lynch, Bank of America and Citibank, put it this way: “Research has found that, in the financial services industry, interruptions can take up to 238 minutes a day. Then you have to restart. That’s the loss of another 84 minutes. That leads to inefficiencies like momentum loss, do-overs because of errors. Stress and fatigue cost another 50 minutes. That’s 372 minutes, or 6.2 hours every day, or 31 hours a week—almost a whole person, in productive time lost.”
So, what can you do to stop the time loss, take charge of your schedule, and boost your productivity and impact?
The answer is found in the practice of Attentiveness, the third of the "Great 8" leadership virtues from my book “The Great 8: A New Paradigm for Leadership."
The Personal Outcome of Attentiveness: Productivity
How does Attentiveness drive greater productivity?
In a previous article, “Attentiveness: How High-Performing Companies Consistently Hit Their Targets,” we talked about how when you and your employees have clear line-of-sight to the company’s targets—and know what’s expected of you to help reach that goal—you’re better equipped to block out distractions, make good decisions, and focus your efforts to help the team succeed.
The idea here is to think of Attentiveness as the proverbial magnifying glass that focuses your energy in a way that “burns” an indelible mark of accomplishment into your organization.
That’s because when we get distracted, we spread our energy across a wide range of tasks, engaged in a lot of activity but not necessarily getting the most important things done with excellence. And with each interruption and distraction, we lose sight of our priorities and allow ourselves to be at the mercy of other people’s “urgent” requests.
But with Attentiveness, you’re applying the principle of the magnifying glass, where you lead with intentionality, concentrating your time, energy, and focus, like harnessing the sun’s rays into a single beam, onto performing the tasks that matter most to you and your organization and generate the most impactful results.
The Application: Planning Your Work, Working Your Plan
How can you put Attentiveness into practice to reduce distractions and boost your and your team’s productivity?
The first step is to clearly define your MITs—most important tasks. And while this may sound obvious, it’s a common challenge we see when consulting with leadership teams at Legacy Advisory Partners. They’re often overwhelmed and consumed with a lot of activity but have this deep-down nagging feeling that they’re still being unproductive.
And it’s in that moment—when you doubt that what you’re working on really matters—that you become the most vulnerable to distraction.
That’s why developing MITs is so critical to success; they give you the confidence that your task at that moment really does matter, and you should focus on it.
How do you define your MITs?
For a deep dive into the process, see my article “Empathy: How to Slow Down to Accelerate—and Sustain—Your Team's Success.”
Once you’ve developed your MITs, the next step is to plan your work in a way that ensures those tasks get done.
As bestselling author Brian Tracy put it, “Every minute you spend in planning saves 10 minutes in execution; this gives you a 1,000 percent return on energy!”
So, whatever time management system you use when setting up your plan—whether it’s digital or on paper—keep this one question in mind: How does my “to do” list align with my MITs?
That’s because your MITs serve as a compass to ensure your work is moving you in the right direction and guide you on which action items to delegate or cut altogether.
After all, you may think, “But I’ve got 10 things I should do today.” But, more than likely, you're going to be better off if you cut that list in half or even further—"Let's just get these three things right. These are the most important three based on my MITs.”
You’ll discover that, more often than not, at the end of the day you’ll say, "Gosh, what were those other seven things?" That’s because, somehow, somebody else did those things. Or, if those tasks didn't get done, it didn’t really matter in the first place.
But if you allow too many items on your list, it’s easy to get distracted, as you find yourself overwhelmed with everything that appears to be impossible to get done, which can shut you down mentally and keep you from even taking the first step.
The Key Takeaways
To recap, here are the key takeaways on how you can apply the virtue of Attentiveness to get more done in less time with greater impact:
#1. Count the cost of distraction.
When you’re working on important tasks that require your full attention, limit distractions. Turn off smartphone notifications, close your email, shut the door, and get to work.
Now, there will be times when you’ll need to allow for interruptions and react to urgent requests. That comes with being a leader—you have to deal with the unexpected. But be intentional about how you handle requests. If it’s a genuine urgent emergency, that’s one thing. But for most other requests that can wait a little bit, block out time each day where you’re freed up to deal with those interruptions without distracting you from getting your other work done. Think of it like “office hours” when your team knows you’re available in certain time blocks to respond to emails, answer and return phone calls, and take “Do you have a minute?” conversations.
This way, you're controlling the traffic of interruptions, so they don't disrupt your progress on your MITs.
And that brings us to our next takeaway.
#2. Develop MITs to keep you focused.
These are your most important tasks that will make the most significant impact on your company's success. Your MITs serve as your compass, making sure the action items on your to-do list will take you toward achieving your goals. They help you answer the question: What is the most important thing I could be working on right now?
3. Create a plan that aligns with your MITs.
Hall of Fame football coach Tom Landry put it like this: “Setting a goal is not the main thing. It is deciding how you will go about achieving it and staying with that plan.”
In other words, although defining your MITs is critical to success, you can’t stop there. You need to create a plan to help you execute on those MITs and stay on track. Otherwise, you’ll spend your days in “firefighter” mode, reacting to other people’s important matters while neglecting your own.
The Bottom Line
“Productivity is never an accident,” entrepreneur and author Paul J. Meyer once said. “It is always the result of a commitment to excellence, intelligent planning, and focused effort.”
When we practice Attentiveness, we become more intentional about how we use our time. We gain the ability to reduce the number of distractions and interruptions in our day so that we can focus on doing work that will make the biggest impact on our companies. And that's the essence of productivity: It's not about merely getting more work done but more of the right work done.
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About the Author: J. David Harper, Jr. serves as CEO and principal of Legacy Advisory Partners, an Atlanta, Georgia-based firm that provides total retirement plan advisory services that give clients a greater competitive advantage to attract and retain top talent. David is also the author of the book “The Great 8: A New Paradigm for Leadership” that teaches business leaders how they can tap into eight timeless “virtues” to expand their influence and achieve sustainable success for their organizations.