After receiving 72 emails in one hour, John Freeman, editor of Granta magazine, was spurred to write a critical analysis of the maelstrom that is modern communication.

Email, he argues, distracts us from what is truly important and fractures our concentration so much that we become ineffective. His 2009 book, The Tyranny of Email, has echoes of Charles Hummel’s 1967 essay The Tyranny of the Urgent, in which he singles out the humble telephone for similar criticism.

Consider the following:

– It takes an average of 64 seconds to recover your train of thought after you’ve been interrupted

– An office worker works for three minutes before being interrupted

– Checking your emails every 5 minutes will cost you 8.5 hours a week

– Smartphones, as we know, combine mobile phone, push email, text messaging, internet faxing and web browsing, to name but a few of their many distractions


Research shows that only about 10% of managers take persistent and effective action to achieve their goals; the other 90% mean to but somehow don’t get around to it. Instead, they get caught up in what London Business School’s Lynda Gratton calls “active non-action.”

By this she means that many managers get so overwhelmed by the demands of their jobs that they become highly reactive to what’s going on around them and lose the ability to be masters of their own destinies. In effect, they lose the ability to say no to others and to themselves.

In many ways there’s an addictive quality to this type of behaviour; we’re keyed up, on edge, waiting for the next hit, the next email, the next interruption. As much as we complain about the pressure, we get a kick out of being in demand, indispensable.

The key to calming this storm of activity, it seems, is to focus firmly on what is important, not on what is urgent.

1) Go back to your goals

Remember them? Every manager has specific, measurable goals that clearly set out what they should achieve, but how many ever look at them, never mind work to them, once they’ve been written.

Don’t just set them and forget them; if you’re feeling out of control, look at your goals at least once a day and make sure what you’re doing is what you should be doing.

2) Reduce

Next, reduce your workload. Don’t take on anything that doesn’t strongly relate to your goals. Whenever you’re about to take on something new, ask yourself whether it fits or not, whether it’s really yours to do. Things that we think of as requirements are often just choices that we make.

3) Prioritise

Prioritise what you do. If you constantly have one eye on your emails, a phone at your ear and your tablet dinging away on your desk, you’re not prioritising and you’re certainly not focused. If you choose what you like over what you should do, you’re not prioritising. If your staff constantly come running to you with crisis after crisis, you’re not prioritising and you need to get better organised.

4) Organise

To overcome busyness, managers must organise their workloads. It’s critical that space is created for the things that really matter (like planning your day, or backing up your hard drive, as a client of mine learned to his cost recently).

Interruptions should be kept to a minimum; check your incoming messages no more than three times a day as a matter of routine. Equally, if not more important, don’t make yourself too accessible to staff and colleagues, it does no-one any favours if you drown in a sea of good intentions!

5) Get help

If 90% of managers struggle to stay on target with their day, it’s reasonable to say it must be a tough thing to do, so get some help.

If it feels too tricky to work with your manager on an issue like this, then find a buddy or a mentor – preferably someone who stays on target – and work with them.

A qualified coach can be a big help, too. A few sessions with someone experienced in personal development but unfamiliar with what you do often reveals things you otherwise might miss. A professional coach will also be completely non-judgmental – very important. (Did you know, The Colour Works has a team of qualified coaches who could help you here?)

6) Reflect and re-focus

Finally, take time out during each day – yes, really! – to stop and reflect on how things are going.

Are you sticking to your plans? If not, why not? What pulled you off track? Is there a pattern to this? What can you do to control it or eliminate it altogether? What?s your pay-off for getting distracted?

Why not view our solutions on people and change today?

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