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On an episode of NPR’s “Fresh Air,” my favorite technology journalist, Matt Richtel, discussed with Terry Gross the research study that concluded that people today consume almost three times as much information as the average person did in 1960.

Think about it: You may have more than one voice mail or answering machine, more than one email account, snail mail you have to open, perhaps you’re in an industry that still uses faxes. Not to mention there is information being served up constantly on the internet, magazines, television, social media, instant messaging, text messaging… What all of these things have in common, is that they are things to which you have to react. The problem is that you can only be productive when you’re being proactive, but you can’t be proactive if you’re always being reactive. We live in a constant state of self-induced distraction, and I say “self-induced” because we create the situation through what Matt Richtel calls “screen invasion.” Our smartphone means we always have a screen in front of us – since it fits in our pocket, it can be in the bedroom, the dinner table, behind the wheel, or anywhere else. And besides that, we still often have a tablet, computer, television, navigation system in the car….heck, even the billboards along the roads are often LCD screens that change as you drive past. These screens we surround ourselves with are designed to steal our attention from us.

So the first way to improve your productivity with attention management is to recognize and better control the constant onslaught of external distractions, not only from technology but from other people. With regard to technology, recognize that it is there for your convenience and prevent it from constantly stealing your attention by sometimes shutting it off, putting it on silent instead of vibrate, having only one computer window open at a time, disconnecting from the internet when you are trying to get that important thing done, if you want to get through some email in the evenings, don’t do it in front of the television.  In other words, see what it feels like to do only one thing at a time, at least sometimes. You’ll do it faster and with better quality, and you’ll improve your “focus muscle,” rather than reinforcing the desire to be constantly distracted.

With regard to other people, how often do you set boundaries in order to control your attention and prevent interruptions? Remember that people can only interrupt you if you let them, and although this may not be appropriate in every situation, recognize that you don’t have to acknowledge that co-worker yelling to you over the cubicle wall, or the person who waltzes into your office asking, “do you have a minute?”  Sometimes (perhaps often), the answer should be, “no.”  People will do what works so if you always allow yourself to be interrupted, you’ll be sending the signal that this is appropriate behavior. Another tactic you may use is to wear headphones (even with nothing playing in them!) This is especially helpful if you work in a busy office with little privacy. If you choose to have sound in the headphones, I suggest instrumental music, nature sounds, or white noise, since the sound of the human voice is quite distracting.

Your ability to control your attention from external distractions will have a profound effect on your focus, which will therefore positively impact your ability to be productive and achieve your significant results.

For more on this first way to improve your productivity with attention management: controlling external distractions, note that the first section of my book, Personal Productivity Secrets, is devoted to this concept. Also check out the following posts:

Don’t forget to come back for the rest of the 5 Ways, or make it easy by entering your email in the box on the top right corner of this page to get messages sent directly to your inbox.

Thanks for reading!

Click here for the second post: Controlling Internal Distractions.