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Leadership Lesson: Shiny Objects And Other Distractions

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At times we’ve all succumbed to non-value-added distractions and have wasted time being unproductive or working on something that didn’t need to be done right then. It’s when a person’s modus operandi is to allow themselves to be distracted that problems occur.

It's Monday morning and Joe gets up at 6:00. He showers, eats breakfast and makes his way to the train station to catch the 7:20 into Chicago. During the 40-minute train ride, Joe takes out his planner and lists out all of the things that he wants to get done for the week. He writes down all of the people that he needs to call, meetings that he needs to schedule, and reports that he needs to write. By the time the train pulls into Union Station, he has his entire week planned out and is feeling very good about his plan. His 20-minute walk from the train station to his office is pleasant and energizing, and Joe arrives at his office ready to get going on his plan.

Ten minutes after sitting at his desk, he gets an email from a local electronics store with the "must-have" specials of the week. Joe can't resist and goes to the website and spends 30 minutes drooling over the latest electronic gadgetry. Throughout the week, Joe has numerous events which take his attention off his work; checking sports scores, looking at stock prices, impromptu drop-ins from co-workers. Joe leaves work each night tired from the day's busy and hectic activities.

On Friday evening, Joe pulls out his planner and looks at the list of all the things he wanted to complete during the week. As he looks at the list, he grows more and more discouraged at the number of things that didn't get done. He can't understand it. Why didn't he get more done? He was always so busy, yet so little got accomplished. How could this have happened?

You may know a Joe, live with a Joe, or be Joe yourself. The Joes of the world have a difficult time focusing and are easily distracted by "shiny objects", or things that take attention off of the task at hand because of their allure, appeal, or perceived call to urgency. Sure, at times we've all succumbed to non-value-added distractions and have wasted time being unproductive or working on something that didn't need to be done right then. It's when a person's modus operandi is to allow themselves to be distracted that problems occur.

Let me put shiny objects in context; to me a shiny object isn't important to the task at hand and isn't time-sensitive. If something comes across your desk that can be done later without impact to your work yet interrupts what you're doing then this in my view constitutes a shiny object. It's also important to distinguish between shiny objects and the garden-variety fire-drill. The primary difference to me is a fire drill is something that needs to be done immediately otherwise there is some material and tangible business consequence; whereas with a shiny object there is no material and tangible business consequence if it doesn't get done. This is an important distinguishing factor because many shiny object violators that I know view their shiny objects as fire drills and take comfort in responding to fire drills because of the sense of accomplishment they feel in putting out the fire.

In conquering shiny-object-itis, I've adopted a few basic shiny object principles into my workday, as follows:

  • Schedule some brief "shiny object" time during the day to do some of the shiny object activities; preferably the same time each day. The time of day doesn't matter, just schedule it and keep to it.
  • If a shiny object comes your way and it's not during your shiny object time, PUT IT ASIDE immediately. Just as a dieter needs to resist the temptation of their favorite junk food, you need to resist the draw and allure of the shiny object.
  • If you're prone to disruption due to your view of fire-drills, ask yourself two questions:
    • Is there a tangible and material consequence to me working on this? and
    • Is the consequence important enough that I need to interrupt my current project to work on it?

If the answers are yes, then by all means pull out the hose; otherwise refer back to principle 2.

In following these principles, your ability to get things will increase because you will have fewer interruptions, be able to better discern whether an interruption is warranted, and allow yourself some dedicated shiny-object time to read the latest headlines or catch up with a co-worker. 

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