Last summer, my BlackBerry bit the dust. Because I work from numerous locations — home, a radio studio, even my car — I felt incredibly lost without a portable way to check e-mail, even for a day or two.
But then, I started noticing something big: Without the constant buzzing and interruption, I was really getting things done. Instead of breaking away from writing every few minutes to check e-mail or answer a call, I was able to work straight through. Not only did that make me more efficient, what I produced was better because my train of thought was intact the entire time.
I bought a new BlackBerry about two weeks later, but I didn't forget about my experience without it. Now, I'm no longer afraid to turn it off or leave it at home
We spend — and waste — a bundle of time on gadgets and other distractions in our lives, and I'm not the only one who's noticing. Maggie Jackson, a columnist for the Boston Globe, has a new book out called "Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age."Dramatic title, I know. But so are the numbers Jackson offers to back it up. Did you know that the average office worker switches tasks every three minutes? Or that each time you're interrupted, it can take about 30 minutes to get back on track? It's true, we're wasting valuable time at work, time that would be better spent with our families, golfing or even catching up on housework and laundry. Here's how to regain your focus:Turn it off
Shut down the PDA, close the e-mail window, and let voice mail handle any phone calls. There are very few things that can't wait a couple of hours. If there's a true emergency, you'll get the message. "We don't need to accept that our cognitive lives are as cluttered as they are, or that our environments are as noisy as they are. We can't go backward, but we can use technology more wisely than we are," explains Jackson.
The beauty of electronics is that they have an on-off switch, so learn how to use it. If you can't bear the thought of not being connected in some way — I know the feeling, as does anyone else who has kids — just turn off as much as you can. If your primary worry is that a boss is on the other end of the ringing phone, relax. No boss is going to chide you for trying to maintain your focus on the job, and once you complete whatever it is you're working on, the quality will speak for itself.
You were probably taught that multitasking is a good thing. Turns out that was last decade's news. Now researchers are actually finding that juggling more than one thing at once actually slows you down. "We're really developing a culture of lost threads by thinking that we can always be bouncing around from one thing to another and actually make progress on the things that are important," says Jackson. Instead, dedicate a chunk of time to each task. Schedule it on your calendar if you have to. Then focus on that project, and only that project, for the designated time. If you're always moving from one thing to another, not only will it take longer to finish each, you'll likely forget a few things along the way.
I'm a list-maker, I always have been, because I know it's the one thing that keeps me organized, and the feeling of crossing something off my list is still empowering. At the start of every week, sit down and prioritize your work for the week. Do it by deadline, do it by importance, whatever system works for you, but make sure you include everything.
"Once you get organized, you can think better, and you can look at the process of how you do the work. How many steps is it taking you? You might take 14 steps at first, but if you streamline, you may be able to cut it down to three," advises Peggy Duncan, a personal productivity expert and author of "The Time Management Memory Jogger."
This works in the office, but it also works at home. You can group errands by location to eliminate extra trips, which means reducing your gas bill and your carbon footprint.
Create a supportive space
If your environment is distracting, you're going to be distracted. Stacks of papers, a cluttered desktop, busy artwork and a television on in the background are all things that can make your mind wander. Design an environment that allows you to focus, and set up a filing system to get the papers and clutter off your desk. It doesn't mean you're not working on them, it just means you're not working on them right now.
"In corporate America, some companies have been setting aside a room or time on the calendar for something called 'white space.' You're setting aside time or space for uninterrupted, unwired thought," says Jackson. Just taking 10 minutes in the morning to be still, collect your thoughts and plan your day can really set you on the right track and improve not only your productivity, but also your mood.
With reporting by Arielle McGowen
Jean Chatzky is an editor-at-large at Money Magazine and serves as AOL's official Money Coach. She is the personal finance editor for NBC's "Today Show" and is also a columnist for Life Magazine. She is the author of four books, including 2004's "Pay it Down! From Debt to Wealth on $10 a Day" (Portfolio). To find out more, visit her Web site, .