“Squirrel” has become shorthand for “distraction.” As in “I would have been totally focused but I got distracted by that fast-moving fuzzy thing over there.” Speedy, and where there’s one there are many, squirrels have come to symbolize our collective inability to hunker down and get stuff done.
Through my executive coaching work I’ve found that certain types of people tend to be particularly susceptible to distractions. Extroverts, who need people around in order to get energized, can find it tough to do “quiet” or solo work, and are hence easily distracted by more fun, more social things. Entrepreneurs – people who see possibilities in everything – tend to get drawn towards the new thing at the expense of following through on the thing they’re currently working on. And then there’s the general volume of information and ideas coming at all of us every day thanks to the speed and pervasiveness of technology. Whether you’re in a corporate environment, small business or a solo entrepreneur, squirrels can pose a major challenge.
While idea/distractions can be great – they can be the source of your next big thing – if you find them coming at you like tennis balls out of a cannon, you need to get them handled.
The first step is admitting you’ve got a problem. Take a look at the way you spend your time – not the way you THINK you spend it, but how you really spend it. Use an app and capture your day in the smallest time increments you can manage. Be honest. Record the good stuff, and also record the time you spend surfing, trolling email, looking at social media – be ruthless. Then evaluate – do you focus when focus is what’s needed? Are you getting the important things done? Or are the squirrels having a house party on your priority list?
Next – decide which of your most frequent distractions you WANT to curb, and how often for how long. If you doubt your own will power, use a tool like Self-Control or Freedom to schedule your absence from your most major online temptations. And if your temptations are not the electronic kind figure out what you need to do to remove them from your radar for fixed and regular intervals. (I know people who work from a home office but who go to coffee shops for focus time because they find they get distracted by domestic maintenance tasks. Not a problem I’ve ever had, but I digress….).
Now – decide on your “capture” tool. By this I mean the method or means by which you’ll trap any ideas that do occur to you. One reason I’ve found many people water-bug from one thing to the next is that when they come up with a new idea they’re afraid it will disappear unless they do something about it RIGHT NOW. It doesn’t matter what you use for your capture tool – your phone, a good old-fashioned notebook, sticky notes on the wall – just be sure it works FOR YOU.
Then – take a look at your planning and your ideal work style. Some of us can focus for extended periods but most of us need to mix it up. Tony Schwartz has written about the idea of working in “sprints” – 90 minute blocks of time for focus work, interspersed with real breaks.
Here’s where the rubber meets the road. You’ve allocated focus time, you’ve removed or prevented access to your most tempting distractions, you’ve got a tool or process in place so you’re confident you won’t lose any of your best ideas if you don’t act on them right now, you’ve planned to work based on your ideal work style and pattern – now, are you now able to focus?
If yes, great – you’ve tamed your squirrels. If not, take a look at the things you’ve SAID were important and worthy of focus. If you continually avoid doing something it might just be because you don’t really want to do it.
And if you are looking for great productivity and project management strategies to use to make sure you get your important projects done, check out Charlie Gilkey’s new book, Start Finishing.