As the telephone rang endlessly in the background during dinner (many years ago), my father would refuse to answer saying, “The phone is there for my convenience, not for the caller’s.”  I may have rolled my eyes at the time, but now I wonder if there isn’t some truth in his philosophy. I remembered those times recently as I struggled with managing the continuous flow of interruptions technology has added to our lives.

It started with incoming emails and continued with Twitter notifications, Facebook invites, and other “quickie” things that began to take over all my time instead of being mere sidetracks.  I found myself becoming conditioned to respond first to the short, easy tasks and losing the focus required for more thoughtful projects such as writing assignments or strategic plans.  Sound familiar?

Well, it doesn’t have to be that way. Today, at rbb Public Relations, of course we are accessible 24/7 to clients and media.  But rbb’s CEO Christine Barney modernized my dad’s concept for us in a recent time management training with the proposition that, “Technology is there to serve you, not the other way around.”  If the phone rings, answer it.  But if you’re in the middle of a something important and an email alert goes off, it’s OK to get to it later.

Backing up this advice comes a report from Mashable on a study concluding that social media distractions cost companies major money in lost productivity. More importantly, distractions are negatively affecting our ability to “creatively solve problems, think deeply about work-related issues, process information efficiently and meet deadlines.”

So, how do you avoid the distraction trap?  Here is a compilation of some of the best nuggets I’ve come across so far.  Got your own secrets for productivity and staying focused? Please share them here.

  • The organizational blog, Everyday Simplicity recommends breaking away from the habit of answering email and phone requests the second they come in. The key is to schedule large enough blocks of time for your primary work and try to schedule time for replies. Best not schedule that time first thing in the morning, however (read next tip).
  • Personal development trainer Sid Savara suggests you should never start your day by checking email.  The danger is any of the less-important things in your inbox on any given morning may steal your attention away from your priorities – tasks you should already know you have to tackle before even opening your email.
  • Christine Barney says from client meetings to dentist appointments, it’s impossible to avoid waiting for someone or something. Her advice? Save the easy stuff to take advantage of that “downtime.”  She also says you can do some good thinking in the car. Our strict “No Multitasking policy” means you can focus on driving and sometimes that means     creative ideas are free to flow.
  • Event designer Preston Bailey says he MUST devote at least three hours every day to nurturing creativity.
  • There’s an app for that!  In PR, we need to do a lot writing. That’s the main activity requiring good chunks of focus time. Meanwhile, your computer is packed with distractions:  blinking icons, beeping reminders, a ready web browser “ripe with the promise of internet fun.”   Lifehacker.com recently polled its readers and posted the five most popular writing applications to help you cut out distractions and focus on writing, interruption-free.  Artist Steve Lambert had a developer create SelfControl, an application which blocks access to email, facebook, and twitter for a predetermined period of time to allow you to focus on a specific task at hand. Brilliant! Turns out there are other people who needed this.
  • If you’re like me,  continuously poring over online content on behalf of clients, it’s easy to get sucked in by personal notifications and, let’s face it, entertaining stuff.  Hootsuite allows you to post updates in bulk, thereby limiting the time needed (and distraction risk) for social media activity.  With last week’s release of their new Publisher tool, you can plan your updates with even greater ease.

So maybe dad knows best,  and an old-fashioned approach to time management can solve today’s technology overload.