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Home » Business Owners

How Diversions Kill Your Productivity

Almost 20 years ago I read a book by Eli Goldratt called The Goal. This business novel told the story of a young production manager tasked with turning around an ailing factory, introducing the production management concepts of bottlenecks and diversions. For many years this book has been recommended reading for people working in production operations or lean environments (with over 100 5 star reviews on Amazon).

So, I was quite surprised when copyblogger featured it in the 38 books every blogger should read. I thought that it was a mistake.  But then I started thinking about it and realised that actually it was quite a smart inclusion and not just for bloggers but for every business owner, regardless of their business.

You see, every business has diversionary activity.

Emails, Phone calls, Instant Messages, Social Media

Emails, phone calls, instant messaging and social media are all activities which divert your attention from achieving your goals and being productive. Each of them ensure that your break off from what you are doing. They ensure that your train of thought is disrupted and they stop you being productive. Big Time. quoted the average American as being disrupted 73 times a day and a 5 minute telephone call can take you 20 minutes to get back to being in the state of mind prior to the interuption. The same is probably true with the short break to check the text message or check an email popup which has just displayed on your screen.  Disruptions can lead you down rabbit holes. Responding to the text message or just finding that document that your boss wanted or dealing with that customer query. They all take time and they all stop you from being productive and moving towards your goals.

Diversions kill productivity

If you’re wanting to be super productive you need to take control. You can start by identifying what you need to get done that day or for that week. Then you need to block time out to get that work done.

Realistically, this is not hours at a time, if you’re anything like me, I can be working on one thing and ideas just spring up in my head and unless I was disciplined I’d end up working on that more interesting thing. Which more than likely is 10 times more interesting that what I have to do at that precised moment.  So I break my ‘task time’ into 30 minute segments and work solidly on a task for 25 minutes. Then at the end of 25 minutes I take 5 minutes out maybe to check emails or get a coffee.  This is called the Pomodoro Technique and works really well for me.

Telephone calls can be a major distraction so use voicemail when you’re on ‘task time’. Then once or twice a day (I like 11.30 and 4.30) just before lunch and just before people go home,  go through all your  voicemail messages and call the people back.

If a lot of your orders come over the telephone, then I can understand that you will want to be super responsive as you don’t want to miss a telephone order.

Challenge: So for the next week write  down every reason that you had a call. Was it to ask a question about the product/service before they placed the order? Was it to actually place the order? Was it to check when the stuff would be shipped or check your opening hours?

Once you’ve logged all the reasons why you’ve had calls you need to think about how you could service these calls more effectively.  For instance, could you create a Frequently Asked Questions Page (FAQ) on your website to answer the most common questions. Could you direct people to a contact form to send you their details and you could call them back.

If it’s just to place an order, do you really need to take the call? Could this be outsourced to a local call answering service or to an assistant? If your have a website why aren’t your customers ordering from that? Is it difficult to use?


I personally get my best work done in the mornings. So I try to aim for as few distractions as possible in the mornings, especially meetings.

But before I actually have a meeting or agree to attending one I decide whether I really need to attend that meeting or hold one  – don’t be fooled there’s very little that can’t be done over phone or by video conferencing (such as Skype). In fact I once worked with a team for a year who were based overseas and I never met them. (Although I did speak to them nearly every day on the phone).

So, could a phone call do instead?

If a phone call isn’t suitable and it absolutely must be a meeting I put meetings in to  my least productive part of the day. Which for me is after lunch and late afternoon.   To make your meeting as effective as possible here are some guidelines for more effective meetings and tips to make them as short as possible.

Dealing with Email

Worse than phone calls are emails, as more and more communication is spent this way now.  Most people think they are super productive because they respond quickly to emails. I once worked in an environment where I was getting a 120+ emails a day. I did not think I was productive. Every time I walked out of a meeting there were another 10 emails to deal with.

Some people advocate putting an email rule on which says something along the lines of:

“Thank you for your email. I’m currently checking emails twice a day at 11.o0am and 4pm, when I will get back to you”

Whilst this is good for setting expectations, if you’re working in a large organisation, I know  that some people will always take exception to that and call your boss and complain.  Not a good situation to be. As attending a meeting with your boss either gives you more work (bad for productivity) or a black mark for a pay rise.

But if it’s your own organisation, then you’re the boss, so that’s fine!

Dealing with email interuptions

Also on the subject of emails, whenever I work long term with a client and they provide me with a laptop installed with Outlook I installed I go straight to settings and disable the desk top alerts which stops a message displaying  or pinging every time an email arrives.

If you want to know how to do this here’s how:

Turning off your email alerts

First go to the menu bar in out look and select Tools\Options and then select Email Options

Then select ‘Advanced Email Options‘.

And finally ‘deselect‘ all the check boxes in the section ‘when new items arrive in my inbox

That’s it, you’re done. No more distracting emails to disturb you and you can get back to batching your emails twice a day.

So, that’s what really helps me avoid diversionary activity, but what about you? What works for you?  Please share your comments below.


  • Anne Sales @ You Love Coupons said:

    I can’t agree with you more. This past couple of weeks I’ve got the benefit of getting focused on one task. I was surprised at the amount of job I had accomplished. I hope I will be able to do it on a regular basis. Thanks for your guiding post.

  • Matthew Needham said:

    Hi Anne, yes focusing on one task at a time is certainly very effective mechanism for productivity. Keep up the good work and thanks for the comment.


  • Rick Byrd said:

    Hey Matthew:

    I read The Goal when I was studying to be an engineer some 20 years ago. I must have a first or second addtion copy because the cover of my book is blue.

    Anyway, I remember some years ago that I read that computers and technology would make us work less. It was said that computers would allow us to have to only work 32 hours per week instead of 40. I think back to that and I have to laugh actually I have to cry. Most people in traditional business work well over 40 hours per week. With laptops, celphone and smart phones people are never away from work anymore.

    It is impossoble to not have distractions but they can definitely be minimized. Susan from recommended to me to get 2 major tasks complete before checking email. This way you can at least accomplish a couple of major tasks.

    Also, Brendan Will recommended using a nifty program called TaskCoach. Basically the program uses a traffic light system. Green when task is done Orange when task is due and Red when task is over due. This could be beneficial to stay on task.

    Take care!

    – Rick

  • Matthew Needham said:

    Hi Rick, thanks very much for the comment. We are soooo old!! Lol.

    You’re right, we are defintely working more, just not necessarily in the office. I think you must have had a peak and a future 20 Days to Build a Better Business Post. That email tip is coming up soon!

    The taskcoach programme sounds good. I will have to have a look at that, thanks for the tip off.

    Cheers, Matthew

  • johns online!! said:

    FOCUS is the key time and again especially in this media and information driven society.
    I was thinking and wondering how the industrial revolution must have changed society back then.
    Family time – working away and not on the farm etc etc

    I wrote something about procrastination recently
    why do it today rather than tomorrow

  • Matthew Needham said:

    Absolutely criticial to success John. Focus is definitely the key and social media is the biggest theft of time. Thanks for the comment.

  • Patricia@lavenderuses said:

    And some of us are even older Matthew lol I have a diary and have a “to do” list. What doesn’t get done is on tomorrow’s list. I can see how productive I have been.

    My distraction is more social media. It’s amazing how time flies on Twitter. Sure I find helpful posts there and keep in touch with my contacts, but it is easy to stay too long. I don’t get involved in Facebook chatter when I am working.

    2011 is my year for taking my blog and fledgling business to the next level. So I know I need to be laser focused. Set myself goals for the day and that way I know what I have to accomplish.

    Patricia Perth Australia

  • Matthew Needham said:

    Lol. Thanks for the comment Patricia! There is a danger though that some of the more ‘challenging tasks’ get put off until tomorrow and of course we all know tomorrow never actually comes. I think your approach to your goals in 2011 will pay dividends in spades and I’m sure you will be achieving your success quickly.

  • Henway said:

    I agree with you. Distractions are evil… pure evil. When I work, I decide to just shut down all IM, and email clients. I also activate a Firefox plugin that prevents me from visiting any non-work related sites (’cause I can’t trust my discipline).

  • Matthew Needham said:

    I think that’s a great idea. I understand there are some plugins which can restrict the times you can browse, which has got to be great for being super productive.

  • Alex said:

    Great Post Mate!!!

    Definitely some tips here I need to take on board, already configured my email to not tell me like you suggested (thanks for that)

    Of course, being here is a diversion in itself isnt it! LOL,

    Good to catch up again my friend, it’s been too long between visists 😉

  • Matthew Needham said:

    Hi Alex, glad you enjoyed it. You’re absolutely right, visiting any website can be a huge distraction. I recall a comment on this a few months ago which really made me smile where someone said they’d came to read one article and had ended up being here an hour and a half! Unless your time is ring fenced you can spend a huge amound of time surfing and achieving very little. Thanks for your comment buddy. Hope to see you around soon. Matthew

  • Brandon@Make Money Blogging said:

    Man, I would have to disagree that diversions are bad. I actually work full time from home, and I sit here on the couch with my laptop watching tv most of the time. I tend to get lots done while I am doing that. Distractions are only distractions if you let them be. If you can be productive while there are other things going on, then do not change your ways or you might get distracted 😉

  • Matthew Needham said:

    Brandon, presumably you have a beer in hand at the same too? I think you have truly managed the art of multi-tasking my friend. Maybe that should beyour next information product? 🙂

  • Brandon@Make Money Blogging said:

    If I did that Matthew, I would never get out this massive ebook on traffic generation methods and sources.

  • Matthew Needham said:

    Good for you Brandon! Keep up the good work and I’ll be sure to check it out. Matthew

  • Timo Kiander said:


    Great stuff!

    I would like to add to this list that especially when you work at home, there may be other distractions as well.

    For example your family members might automatically assume that you are available for them – even when you are working.

    I think that the best way to handle this situation is to communicate with them and set clear boundaries, when you are working and when you shouldn’t disturbed.