Professionally Dealing with Life’s Distractions

Directional sign with Work LifeLet’s face it – sometimes work gets in the way of life.  Or vice versa, depending on how you look at it.  Even the most organized and well-balanced people will face unexpected and unwelcome distractions from work. Whether it’s a crisis like an injured loved-one, a child’s struggle with schoolwork or a flooded basement – or a more positive distraction like getting married or falling in love – eventually life is going to interrupt your concentration.  What works for one, won’t work for all – but here are a dozen suggestions for you (or for you as the leader of a distracted employee) that you can use to help keep things on-track:

  1. Don’t deny you are distracted. Those around you may be impacted sooner and may also notice faster that you are distracted. Pay attention and don’t be offended if co-workers or others are hinting that you seem aloof. Memory-loss is common when your mind is distracted, so watch for missed instructions, missed appointments and forgetting things you usually know by rote – like driving the wrong way to work, forgetting your photocopying key number  or leaving out an ingredient in your favourite recipe.
  2. Plan, plan, plan. When you feel pulled in every direction sitting down to plan your week can be incredibly calming.  You know what you have to deal with and you must set reasonable expectations of yourself.  Some people start to plan their lunches and wardrobes for the week, so it’s one less thing to worry about on a daily basis.
  3. Stick to a routine as much as you possibly can. Change nothing that has been working well for you up to now. Drive the same way to work. Hold team meetings each week. Make your lunch like always. It may seem boring, but it works.  The more you can do on “autopilot” the more you can focus on the things you really need your brain for, i.e. your job.
  4. Rely on more than your memory. Writing things down is a great way to remember them. Use the old stand-by: Create a Things to Do list at the start of every day – and then keep checking it. Give yourself a break and write down everything for a while. Use written instructions to yourself to keep focused in conversations too. Before you pick up the phone or go to a meeting, write down the points you need to cover and what exactly you are asking for. After a conversation write a quick note to the other person (cc to you) about what you both decided. When working with details (budget figures, invoices, important memos) ask someone else to edit and double-check your work.
  5. Build in short energy breaks. This can be hard to do when you are used to having high capacity and everyone around you thinks of you as always being available. Set a watch or an alarm on your PC for every 50 minutes and get up and walk around for 5 minutes or so. Pretend that you are preventing leg cramps if you have to, but give yourself permission to get away from your work screen/phone/desk and move. Moving your body will relieve some muscle tension, especially if you learn to do shoulder shrugs and head rolls while you walk. Go out for fresh air or at least walk up and down one flight of stairs. Take deeper breaths into your belly and when you exhale force out the air with a big sigh. Forget to take your cell phone and make it a total “I’m not available” break.
  6. Schedule time to think about what is on your mind. Instead of just pushing away whatever is bothering you, actually schedule time to think about it. Give yourself permission at lunch or right after work – once a day – to just sit and think about what is going on.  Journal your thoughts and feelings – it helps to put them on paper and then close the book. Or speak to someone you trust and who cares enough to listen without judgment. The key thing is to give what is important to you its due.
  7. Be careful who you confide in or unload on. Many an unsuspecting employee has revealed too much to their boss or co-workers when they were under pressure. This is a time to be discerning about how much you share. Even the most empathetic and understanding workplaces have long memories. Your distraction may be tolerated now, but you don’t want to hear about it in your performance review in 6 months time. You can never predict how it will change the perception of you as a capable performer. Best to keep personal details to yourself and ask for only the accommodation you need. And especially don’t take your stress out on others. You need a fan club when you are going through tough times, so snapping at those who can help you is not a good idea at all. If you do, apologize sincerely as soon as possible – without spilling your guts.
  8. Ask the right people for help. If there is a confidential Employee Assistance Program (EAP) don’t hesitate to use it. This is a time to make use of counselling professionals – your doctor or your pastor. If you have an HR partner you trust, you might confide in them. Outside of work you should lean on your friends and your family. You’d do the same for them – so don’t be too proud to ask for help. You might have vacation days or sick days to use – go ahead and use them if a rest is recommended.
  9. Prioritize your life. If there isn’t anyone to help, you will have to scale back in some area while you work with the additional burden of distraction. That might mean an apartment not quite so clean. Choose something that you can let slide without too much angst. Re-negotiate commitments and promises. Sometimes you need to take a break from volunteer positions for a time.
  10. More than ever, take care of your health. That means eating right, exercising, and getting enough sleep. Don’t succumb to the stress eating temptations of fast food and junky snacks. If you absolutely can’t find time to work out (try the mornings!) then go for a brisk walk at lunch, no matter what. Go to bed on time.  You probably aren’t sleeping well already so don’t stay up late and completely ruin the possibility of getting a minimal amount of sleep.
  11. Prioritize at work too. Pare down to the essentials of your work. What are the must-do’s for today? Take it one day at a time. This is a good time to delegate and to develop the capacity of your staff and peers. Let them pick up a few meetings on your behalf. Decide to teach someone else how to use the systems/tools only you know how to use. Ever teach someone to drive? Demonstrating and explaining to another is a great way to keep focussed and ensure you are hitting all the details.
  12. Enter another world when you go to work. Drop your cares at the door and focus, focus, focus.  Make work a haven from the stresses in your life. Collaborate with your co-workers. Understand expectations.  Deliver on time. In other words, perform. It may seem like an act sometimes, but do it anyway.  Everyone has times when their work capacity is diminished. Once you accept that, it’ll lighten your guilt load, you will be able to find your way back much faster.

A special thank you to a very professional leader, Mary Ann Mooney, for her wise contributions to this newsletter.

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