How to Deal With Distractions Stealing Time Away From Your To-Do List

New research says gripping tightly to your to do-list might actually be harming your productivity.
How to Deal With Distractions Stealing Time Away From Your To-Do List
Image credit: Stígur Már Karlsson/Heimsmyndir | Getty Images

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Many successful entrepreneurs swear by some variation of the to-do list. Barbara Corcoran maintains several on her phone at the same time. Casper’s Jeff Chapin prefers using sticky notes. Postmates CEO Bastian Lehmann is a fan of apps such as Clear. Randi Zuckerberg sets regular alarms to spur her back into action.

But in any given day, there will be things that will throw you off course: an unexpected meeting, dealing with a customer complaint, or maybe you just didn’t get enough sleep and your third cup of coffee isn’t cutting it.

Your impulse might be to stay the course as best you can and not let distractions sap your productivity. But a recent study from University of Texas, University of Maryland and UCLA sought to explore how effective that approach really is, by comparing what the researchers identified as more classic “time management planning” to “contingent planning.”

With contingent planning, the idea is to account for the disruptions that can seep into your day and structure your day around them. “Contingent planning is less commonly used than time-management planning because individuals frequently make plans that overestimate how much they will get done and underestimate (or fail altogether) to account for how their work will be disrupted,” the researchers explained in a summary of their findings in Harvard Business Review.

Related: 27 Founders Reveal Their Favorite Tool to Keep Them Organized

The researchers monitored the work of 187 employees from different industries over the course of two weeks. They found that time management planning was effective for the participants' engagement in their work and daily productivity.

But this kind of planning worked best when there were a limited amount of interruptions. Ultimately, they found that on days when up to 20 percent of the time was taken up with interruptions, time management planning did very little to help the employees get things done. When it came to the employees who utilized the daily contingent planning, the researchers found that the positive influence of that mindset was maintained even in the face of a lot of interruptions.

“While the benefits of time-management planning are less effective when interruptions occur, contingent planning continued to be beneficial regardless of the level of interruptions employees faced,” the researchers explained.

As you go about your day, there will be all manner of distractions. Acknowledging that isn’t a failing, but rather a key to making the most of the time you have.  

Does this strategy make sense to you? Let us know in the comments.

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