The most important career skill -- possibly even the most important life skill -- of the new decade will be successfully managing distractions to get important stuff done.
If you think you're a great multitasker, you're wrong. For example, people's performance and safety drops while talking on cell phones, as if they were drunk. It's well known that using a mobile while driving is unsafe, but here's the key issue that much conventional wisdom on this topic misses: it's not about being hands-free. Multiple studies have shown, whether hands-free or not, the attention we spend on talking on the phone comes at the expense of safety. The effect includes tunnel vision and slowed reaction times.
Meanwhile email, instant messaging, meetings and voicemail are embedded into workplaces. New forms of communication, social networking, games, and mobile apps arrive constantly. It's up to you to police your time; no software will do this for you, and most employers take time management skills for granted.
Here are some techniques to minimize the deleterious effects of task switching:
1. Prioritize and work in sequence. Whenever you can, attack your tasks in priority order, one at a time. You might have more control over this than you think.
2. Block out specific times to work on specific tasks. Studies suggest that people are most productive when they switch tasks on a schedule, rather than based on when one's email pings.
3. When you're interrupted, make a mental bookmark. Take a moment to jot a note, or just repeat to yourself where you were, before you answer the phone.
4. Change your setting when you need to focus. This is one of my favorite techniques. Most offices have a free conference room, lounge chairs, or other area where you can hide from your phone, turn off your IM client, and get some work done.
5. Ask about interruptions when interviewing for a job. Hiring managers can ask "How do you deal with interruptions at work when you need to get the job done?" or "How do you work when you need to juggle multiple projects that demand your attention?" If you're interviewing, ask about hot-button topics like putting out fires, or what communications technologies coworkers use.
6. Unplug regularly. Make reflective time for yourself at least a few times a week, when you turn off your smartphone and walk away from Twitter. Give yourself a chance to actually think about your projects and priorities, instead of reading and reacting 24/7.