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Time management masterclass: Avoiding distractions

In the second instalment of our series on time management for GPs, performance coach Sarah Christie gives techniques to maximise your effectiveness in the time you have available.

If you read the first article, it is to be hoped that you have now set yourself some compelling, motivating goals for the year, the month and the week. This is a fantastic start; however, feeling motivated is one thing but actually implementing good techniques and practices can be quite another.

The main problem facing many of us is our willingness to become distracted during the course of the working day and there are many causes: emails, the telephone, badly run meetings, colleagues, talkative patients, feeling unable to say no to the requests of others and, of course, our own bad habits, many of which are completely unconscious, but form part of our daily routine.

Start by identifying your poor habits and the people that distract you or keep you talking longer than you wish. Do you take too many coffee breaks? Do you need to be more assertive with patients and keep them to their appointment time? Do you offer to do things for other people when you should be focusing on your own workload? Are you an agony aunt for colleagues? Do you read each email as it arrives or check your Inbox at regular intervals?

No one is perfect but you will soon discover that there are many ways in which you could be more effective and that doesn’t just mean by becoming busier.

Pareto principle

A helpful theory to understand is The Pareto Principle, or the 80/20 rule as it is also known. This originated as a mathematical formula by an Italian economist, Vilfredo Pareto, who observed that 20% of the people owned 80% of the wealth.

Many people have since applied this formula to their field of work and as a time management technique, it suggests that 20% of your activities yield 80% of your results.

Why not review your daily activities and identify which ones yield the most results? That will help you bring some initial clarity to your situation. Start to eliminate or at least put to the bottom of your ‘To Do’ list, any items which keep you busy but do not bring you great results. Review your goals again, particularly the ones for the month and current week. If those activities which keep you busy do not progress you towards your goals, you should not be doing them. Either give them to someone else or ditch them altogether.

Daily goals

Another great tip to help you clear some of your back-log is to set yourself one or two priorities to be achieved each day. When I feel overwhelmed I often revert to this technique. Even though there is a lot to do, I choose one or two things that I must get done that day and focus on them.

You will, of course, have lots of things in your diary which are fixed items. You have a daily list of patients to see, practice meetings to attend and similar engagements but some of these may need to be reviewed, particularly if you have important tasks or projects to complete by a deadline.

Do you need to attend all the meetings you currently have scheduled? Are some for information only where a set of minutes would suffice? Could someone go in your place and take notes or give you a quick brief afterwards? Are there some which actually do not require you but you have gone out of habit without questioning the merits of doing so?

Telephone and email

If you have something important to do, could you divert your telephone to voicemail or some other kind of messaging service? A ringing telephone is almost impossible to ignore so it may be worth diverting it just for the duration of the important task you must complete.

Do not be tempted to review your emails just because you are working on the computer. You may want to consider a new system for managing your emails. Perhaps reviewing them only three times a day, such as first thing in the morning, lunchtime and later in the afternoon, would be a more effective way to spend your time.

It is possible to create an auto-responder message which informs the sender of the email that you will only be reading your emails at certain times in the day. This sets expectations and will stop people pestering you for an answer. As tempting as emails are, they make great excuses for procrastination and many people who work in a crisis management mindset often use emails as a great way to escape for a moment or two. Be more effective than this and you will soon get much more done.

To summarise: identify your distractions and distracters, apply the 80/20 rule to your priorities for each day and consciously replace your bad habits around emails, telephones, meetings and people.

Sarah Christie is an author and performance coach who leads management and leadership programmes for clinicians and non-medical managers. Her website is

Credit: Flickr, smemon87 Time management series