Attention Management and Changing Habits

During the holiday break, my kids were off from school and I put up my out of office email to let my clients know I was working on a limited schedule. I was around, but not working much. I’m assuming my clients were also busy doing their thing during the holidays, because email, text, and phone were quiet. On the days I chose to do some work, I was amazingly productive and I attribute this to the lack of interruptions that seem to occur during a regular work day. I’ve worked hard to regulate email: I have auto send/receive turned off on my laptop and my phone and I only click that send/receive button when I’m at a point where I can read and respond to emails. But, I’ve noticed that I respond to texts and phone calls differently. Unlike email, phone calls and texts are pushed to me and I don’t want to blindly ignore these methods of communication. If the kids are sick or my parents need to reach me, I want to receive important calls. But, often, phone calls and texts come in that do not need immediate attention. Even knowing this, my inclination is to respond to the text or answer the phone call. This interruption is distracting, pulls me away from the priorities I set for myself and my clients, and puts me at the mercy of someone else’s priorities.

I spent some time thinking about why I feel the need to respond immediately to phone calls and texts and my answer was two-fold. First, when a client calls or texts, I assume it’s important and time-sensitive. But, I quickly realized this assumption was not always correct: I made a list of phone calls and texts I received last week and not one of the calls was an emergency. Most were just general requests for help or questions that did not need an immediate answer. Second, because I have young kids, I can only have uninterrupted phone calls when they are both in school. If a phone call comes in while they’re in school, it’s a good time for me to talk without being interrupted. The paradox with that second item is that because my work time is limited, I count on that solid block of time to be very productive. So, while I can answer an unscheduled phone call during my work block, I’m also disrupting my core working time and throwing off my previously set priorities.

I decided to re-visit a great book I’ve mentioned a couple of times on this blog: Personal Productivity Secrets by Maura Nevel Thomas. The book focuses not just on time management, but on attention management in the digital age. Just re-reading a few important passages I’d highlighted started me thinking about how to better manage the way I react to phone calls and texts. Thomas described exactly how I was feeling when I’m bombarded with phone calls and texts. I felt busy, but not productive:

“It’s easy to spend your time simply reacting to all of the demands on your attention, but the result is simply activity, rather than productivity.”

I also talked about the issue with my coach, De, and we came up with a great plan. Because my block of work time is so short and valuable, we decided that it would be best to not interrupt that time by responding to texts and answering phone calls (unless it was clear that it was an emergency situation). We also talked through what my response to an incoming client phone call or text would look like when the situation inevitably arises. If a text comes to my phone and it is not an emergency or is not a quick yes or no answer, I will forward the text to my email and respond to it when I check my email. The prevents me from forgetting about the text. If an unscheduled client phone call comes in during my work block, I will let it go to voicemail. We decided to allot a 30 minute block of time before my work block ends to return any phone calls. This means I’ll be able to return the call in a timely manner and know that I won’t be trying to squeeze in a call when my kids are around.

These small changes have made a big difference in the way I approach incoming calls and texts. Taking that much-needed break over the holidays really helped me become aware and identify that this was a behavior and habit I wanted to change. To quote Thomas again,

“Most habits are so ingrained in your life and behavior that you probably don’t even recognize them anymore. Becoming aware of the behaviors that aren’t serving you is the first step in changing them.”

What habits or changes are you working on?

Image by Billy Brown (CC BY 2.0) via flickr

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