8 tips for fending off digital distractions

If the steady ding of email and text message notifications interrupts your concentration, use these tips to regain your focus.
By Megan Hart

IMAGE BY YOKUNEN/ISTOCK
IMAGE BY YOKUNEN/ISTOCK

Digital communication tools help accountants stay in contact with clients and co-workers, but the proliferation of emails and messages can be cause for distraction.

In most jobs, digital communication tools have changed the way we work. Americans spent an average of 149 minutes daily checking work email, Adobe found in a 2021 survey, and reading emails and answering messages often cuts into time spent on other job responsibilities. Also, it can be tough to give something your undivided attention when you're hearing the steady "ding" of notifications. In fact, it takes 15 to 25 minutes to refocus on a task after an interruption, said productivity specialist Marcey Rader, a health and productivity expert who spoke on this topic at the 2022 AICPA & CIMA CFO Conference in April.

Feeling the need to always be available can make it difficult to relax on your own time, Rader said. "We all need to feel like we can shut off."

HOW TO PREVENT DIGITAL DISTRACTIONS FROM TAKING OVER YOUR WORKDAY

"If you feel like you need to answer messages all the time when you're at work, then you're probably not getting your focus work done, and you may be taking it home with you," said Elizabeth Grace Saunders, a time management coach and remote work expert.

Here are eight ways to prevent digital distractions from taking over your time and breaking your focus:

Block off time to focus on specific tasks

For complicated projects, it can help to set designated "focus time" aside in your schedule. Jessica E. McClain, CPA/CITP, the CFO at Girl Scouts Nation's Capital — and a graduate of the AICPA Leadership Academy — has found things go more smoothly when she uses this technique. McClain said she's still available to put out fires, but she added that "the fewer distractions I have, the more quickly I can get through projects without having to go back and fix errors."

And she aims to leave Fridays as free as possible so she can finish up ongoing projects and clean out her inbox for the next week.

That's a strategy one of the nation's largest accounting firms also embraced. Grant Thornton in the summer of 2020 rolled out quiet hours — a firmwide restriction on emails, meetings, and conference calls on Friday afternoons.

"Our Working Families Group was very vocal about being overwhelmed heading into the weekends and needing time to get through things," said Michael Monahan, Grant Thornton's national managing principal of people and community.

Some staff at Grant Thornton bought in immediately, while others needed to get acclimated, but the policy has become popular with employees, and some clients have even instituted the program at their own businesses, Monahan said. He has since adopted the practice of setting aside quiet time to reflect on firmwide issues, like benefits policies, firmwide policies, and planning for the next phase of the pandemic.

Saunders also recommends scheduling blocks of time to work through your inbox, because "when you're hopping back and forth from emails to focus work, it's probably taking you a lot longer than necessary to complete that substantive work," she said.

Consider turning off your notifications

Try disabling notifications for applications like email, messaging apps, and texts — especially when you're completing focus work. They're on as a default for most programs, not because they're beneficial to your productivity but because they get you to use the software more, Rader said. "All of those notifications give you a dopamine response in your brain, and your brain gets used to it and likes it."

When you receive an email, you might tell yourself you're just going to check the subject to make sure it's not urgent. But Rader said that can be very disruptive. "It's like reading a book and then reading one line from a separate magazine and then going back to your book," she said.

Of course, some jobs — like customer service or IT — require the use of notifications, but in most cases, staff are better off processing emails, instant messages, and texts at regular intervals or on a schedule, instead of keeping notifications on all day, Rader said.

Find a system for prioritizing your inbox

Have a system for determining which emails need immediate responses and which can wait.

Tax director John Fiske, CPA, skims his emails as they come in and uses a tool to organize and prioritize tasks by urgency and importance. That helps Fiske, who works remotely for Boston-based Accountalent, to tackle what needs to be answered right away and what can wait. It also makes it easier to allow for enough time to respond to important emails that require close attention.

Saunders uses an email app to filter out mass mailings and low-priority messages.

Manage your calendar efficiently

Scheduling apps can help cut down on emails and make meeting planning run more smoothly. At times, Fiske felt as if he was being bombarded with emails, calls, and instant messages that often shared a common theme: requests to get on his calendar. He has reduced those exchanges by using a calendar management tool that allows him to send his calendar to clients or colleagues so they can schedule meetings that work for them both. "It really cuts down on the back and forth," Fiske said.

Scheduling apps also allow you to block off time when you're unavailable — a function Fiske uses strategically during hectic times of the year. "Last busy season, a couple of weeks before the extended corporate tax deadline, I blocked off my scheduling app for two weeks," he said.

Articulate your communication preferences

Let clients and colleagues know the best methods of getting in touch with you and the best times to do so.

From email to videoconferencing apps, there's no shortage of ways to get in touch with McClain. That's one of the reasons she believes it's important to clearly indicate your communication preferences. "With any kind of communication, you have to tell people how to best reach you to get a response. Set up expectations," McClain said. For instance, she doesn't use instant messaging often. Her team knows to call if it's urgent and to email if it's not.

It's also acceptable to share similar instructions with clients, Rader said. Her company published an email manifesto on its website that reads, in part: "We process our inbox twice a day. The majority of the time, we will respond within 24 hours. If it needs to be addressed more timely, you may text us at the number in our email signature lines." Sharing clear communication guidelines with your clients can cut down on distractions.

You should also feel comfortable asking others about their own preferences. Rader has a CPA client who was meeting with her own clients four to six times per year. "I asked her, 'Do they want to meet with you that often?' She didn't know. She asked them, and they said two was plenty. That opened well over 20 hours per quarter for her," Rader said.

Strive for consistency over speed

Try to always respond to messages within the same time period. Saunders aims to respond to emails by the following business day. "A consistent cadence is important. It creates a sense of peace for clients that you're not dropping the ball," Saunders explained. Clients might feel unnerved if you respond to some emails immediately while others take days, she noted — they may think you've forgotten them.

Your clients and colleagues learn from your behavior, Rader explained. If you always reply to your supervisor immediately, that's likely to become their expectation. It's something to keep in mind when starting a new job, she said. To course-correct in your existing role, she recommends letting your supervisor know you want to experiment with a new response time by telling them: "If you feel like I'm dropping the ball, then we can revisit it."

Schedule your communication

One way to develop consistency is by scheduling your emails and messages to send at specific times. Rader likes an email management tool that allows her to schedule messages and pause her inbox. She noted that a popular messaging app has a function called "Send Later," which allows her to schedule chats. That way, when she's working remotely in the early morning or late evening, she won't message her colleagues outside of business hours.

This practice can also help you to not get bogged down in real-time exchanges. "I'll schedule emails for 30 minutes later or 15 minutes later. Sometimes people don't even want you to respond right away because then it turns into a conversation and people don't want the conversation," Rader said.

Take real breaks

In her role as a time management coach, Saunders sees lots of clients who feel overwhelmed and put in long hours just to keep up. She encourages them to set boundaries and take time to relax. In fact, taking breaks can help reduce the threat of digital distractions, she said. Recharging — through things like exercise or spending time with your family — can help you stay focused. When you lose the level of focus required to complete more complicated tasks, you're more likely to switch over to email, messaging apps, or social media, she explained. Then you may wrap up the day feeling like you worked 10 hours straight but that it wasn't that productive.

Perceptions also play a role. Generally, more people work more hours from home than they did back in the office, Rader said. But many CPAs who work remotely may worry that their supervisors think they're slacking if they're not extremely responsive. Also, supervisors can over-communicate because they want their remote workers to feel included, she said.

This is why it's important for organizations to cultivate a culture of trust that allows employees to ignore digital distractions more easily. One of the core values at Grant Thornton is respect, Monahan said. "Respect was a big component of the messaging around this new way we operate. We felt it was important to have our partners embrace the notion that we need to respect our colleagues and their lives inside and outside of the workplace," he said.


About the author

Megan Hart is a freelance writer based in Florida. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Courtney Vien at Courtney.Vien@aicpa-cima.com.


AICPA RESOURCES

Articles

"5 Tips for Overcoming Your Pandemic Screen Addiction," CPA Insider, May 10, 2021

"How to Set Professional and Personal Boundaries," FM magazine, Dec. 2, 2019

"How to Practice Mindfulness and Lessen Stress," CPA Insider, April 23, 2018


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