As you start another day at work, are you excited to see what you can get completed? If not, what is holding you back? Are you stressed? Is your plate overflowing with work you have yet to start?  If so, you’re not alone. Distractions are all around us. Between work assignments, meetings, emails, family issues, social media, and the current political climate, it’s a wonder any of us accomplish anything. Of greater concern is that the work we complete usually lacks the professional quality we expect.  Fortunately, becoming a top performer in a world of distractions is quite simple. We just need to refine a few basic skills: maintaining our focus, saying no, and managing our time. 
THE THREE SYSTEMS OF THOUGHT Before we can improve our focus, we need to understand how our mind works. In his 2011 book Thinking, Fast and Slow, the psychologist Daniel Kahneman explains that our mind has three distinct thought processes, which he calls “system one,” “mammalian,” and “system two.”  System one, which Kahneman calls the “reptilian brain,” is fast, automatic, impulsive, subconscious—a gut reaction. System one seeks out activities that don’t require much thought and are considered safe. If no threat exists, our mind is free to move to the mammalian level where our memories, behaviors, and feelings reside. The final level, called system two, is slower, conscious, reflective, analytical, deliberative, and responsible for complex decision making. This is where our mind resides when we are solving problems or completing work that needs our focus.  Our minds prefer system one because it requires less energy. If we have a task to complete that requires system two engagement, we need to ensure there are no distractions, or we will quickly resort back to system one. How many times have you had to look up information online only to find yourself engrossed in an article that has nothing to do with your research? When this happens, your system one brain is taking over in an attempt to find pleasure and reduce the level of thinking needed. If our brain is wired to limit energy use, thus reverting to system one thinking whenever possible, how do we keep our system two brain engaged? To start, we need to avoid overloading our brain with too many activities. Identify one or two activities that are important and focus on completing them before you move on to another activity. Why can’t you just multitask? Because our brain is not designed to multitask. The term “multitasking” was coined to explain how a computer can complete multiple functions at one time. But in reality, even a computer focuses on one task at a time; it just switches between tasks so quickly that it appears to be doing many things at once. 
How many times have you had to look up information online only to find yourself engrossed in an article that has nothing to do with your research?
Unfortunately, our brains aren’t designed like computer processors. When we switch to another task, we need time to refocus. For most people, refocusing usually takes a few minutes. This is why even brief phone calls and short emails are problematic: every time they take our attention away from our goals, we need a few minutes to refocus. Over the course of a day, that time adds up to a significant distraction. HOW TO MAINTAIN FOCUS How can you stay focused on one thing at a time? When you set your goals for the year, limit yourself to one or two items that will make a significant difference. If you have more than two of what The 4 Disciplines of Execution describes as “wildly important goals,” you won’t stay focused on what’s important. Your work will be substandard, or you will fail to complete your goals.  For example, let’s say your company has a high rate of injuries and illnesses, and your goals are related to reducing these events. If you discover that your company’s process for reporting injuries, illnesses, and near misses is inadequate and doesn’t allow meaningful analysis of the data, you should set a complementary goal of developing a better process and educating everyone in the company on how to report them. Only when the quality of the data improves should you set your next goal. If you try to address specific hazards without completing the reporting process, you will inevitably make decisions based on poor data, and your actions will have less impact. (I will be the first to admit that it’s hard to stay focused when your company’s leaders are breathing down your neck to reduce injuries and illnesses, but if you stay the course, the results will come soon enough.) HOW TO SAY NO As we struggle to stay focused on our current tasks, it’s easy to be drawn into other people’s problems. Our empathy works against us: we need to stay on task, but we want to show our fellow employees that we care. The problem is that when we take on other people’s problems, we can’t control the variables that contribute to the issue.  For example, if a coworker is trying to complete a noise survey and you jump in to help, you will soon find that you don’t have control over the employee’s schedule, so setting up a sampling time will be difficult. Similarly, you don’t have information on which shift is at the highest risk, so you’ll need to start researching the issue to identify the best time to perform the survey. These issues are amplified when we try to help coworkers in another department: we might not know the priority of the assigned project, what equipment is available, or the expectations of the coworker’s supervisor for the completed project.  To avoid time-consuming commitments to coworkers, you need to learn the art of saying no. Here are some examples that minimize feelings of rejection:
  • “I wish I had the time to help, but I have a time-sensitive project that I need to complete.”
  • “I’m not an expert in that area, but have you considered asking [expert’s name]?”
  • “I have too much on my plate right now to take on another project.”
  • “If I take on this project, we will need to re-prioritize my other projects.”
  • “Unfortunately, I don’t have any time to spare. Can you come back to me next week and ask again?” If the matter is truly important, your coworker will seek help from someone else. If it isn’t important, your coworker will likely focus on something else.
When saying no, remember to be assertive. If needed, say it twice.  Also, beware of people who provide assistance when you haven’t requested help. Chances are they will ask you to reciprocate at a later date and you will feel obligated to help, even if you don’t have the time.  Finally, trust your instincts. If coworkers say they need only a little of your time, but your gut tells you otherwise, don’t commit to the project.  HOW TO MANAGE YOUR TIME Time management is probably the hardest skill to master. If you don’t schedule your time, you’ll find yourself spending enormous effort completing tasks that don’t help you meet your goals.  Start with planning. Each year your organization should have a planning session where you set your goals for the following year. Once you have your goals, schedule your time accordingly. As discussed in Cal Newport’s 2016 book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, research has shown that we are able to maintain only about two hours of intense focus at a time, so break your day into two focused work sessions, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. For example, set up recurring meetings on your calendar every day from 9 to 11 a.m. and from 1:30 to 3:30 p.m. Label these meetings “deep work.” Scheduling them on your calendar ensures you have time set aside to focus on important tasks. The rest of your day can be used to complete other tasks such as checking emails, responding to phone calls, or scheduling project meetings. Once you have “deep work” meetings on your calendar, you need to schedule that time in more detail. Looking two to three days ahead, fill in your deep work time with tasks and meetings necessary for you to accomplish your goals. Don’t use this time for recurring project meetings. As your schedule fills up, you may find opportunities to use some of your unscheduled time to accomplish important tasks related to your goals. If you finish a task early, start on the next task, or quickly review your emails. Should you keep a to-do list? If you are regularly assigned side tasks that are important even though they don’t support your goals, then yes, keep a to-do list—but with a twist: identify the importance of each task. If a task supports your goals, rate it as the highest priority. Tasks that your boss wants you to perform are always high priority, but goal- related tasks are higher priority. Helping coworkers is a low priority. The high priority items should take precedence on your schedule. It’s okay if low-priority items eventually drop off your list without being completed. What about emails? The number one rule for emails is you don’t need to respond to every email. If someone is giving you information, just send a note back that says “thank you” or “got it.” When you get an email that has an open-ended question—for example, “What do you think about [topic X]?”—send a response asking for further clarification. Never answer an open-ended question, or you will find yourself spending valuable time writing a lengthy response. If coworkers can’t specify their needs, don’t feel compelled to spend time providing an answer. The only exceptions are for your boss and highly valued coworkers, but instead of replying via email, pick up the phone and call them. This is a much quicker way to respond and will provide the exact information they need. Toward the end of each day, look over your schedule to identify tasks you didn’t complete, then schedule more time during the week for those tasks. Move things around on your schedule if necessary. Finally, if you have important tasks to complete that haven’t been scheduled, put them on the schedule. The purpose of this exercise is not only to ensure you complete your work. If you know all your work is schedule, it’s much easier to go home and relax with friends or family. Having time at the end of the day to unwind and rejuvenate your mind is vital and will actually make you more productive. A secondary advantage of closing out your workday by updating your schedule is that it will help you sleep better at night: you won’t need to worry about work you need to complete or how you will find time to get it all done. SINGLE-TASKING FOR SUCCESS The tips discussed in the article sound simple, but they are challenging to follow. We are easily distracted by our reptilian brains, and if we don’t manage our time, we will find ourselves surfing the internet when we need to complete a project. Remember that your brain is not designed for multitasking, so don’t fool yourself into thinking you can do two things at once. But if you schedule your time wisely, people will be fooled into thinking you’re a great multitasker.   CARL O. SALL, CIH, CSP, is associate vice president for health and safety at WSP in Exton, Pa., and a past chair of AIHA’s Leadership and Management Committee. Send feedback to The Synergist.

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Work-Management Tips for Overcoming Distractions
Battling the Reptilian Brain
Bard Press: The ONE Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results (2013). Farrar, Straus and Giroux: Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011). Free Press: The 4 Disciplines of Execution: Achieving Your Wildly Important Goals (2016). Grand Central Publishing: Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World (2016).
Although the print version of The Synergist indicated The IAQ Investigator's Guide, 3rd edition, was already published, it isn't quite ready yet. We will be sure to let readers know when the Guide is available for purchase in the AIHA Marketplace.
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- Ed Rutkowski, Synergist editor
Disadvantages of being unacclimatized:
  • Readily show signs of heat stress when exposed to hot environments.
  • Difficulty replacing all of the water lost in sweat.
  • Failure to replace the water lost will slow or prevent acclimatization.
Benefits of acclimatization:
  • Increased sweating efficiency (earlier onset of sweating, greater sweat production, and reduced electrolyte loss in sweat).
  • Stabilization of the circulation.
  • Work is performed with lower core temperature and heart rate.
  • Increased skin blood flow at a given core temperature.
Acclimatization plan:
  • Gradually increase exposure time in hot environmental conditions over a period of 7 to 14 days.
  • For new workers, the schedule should be no more than 20% of the usual duration of work in the hot environment on day 1 and a no more than 20% increase on each additional day.
  • For workers who have had previous experience with the job, the acclimatization regimen should be no more than 50% of the usual duration of work in the hot environment on day 1, 60% on day 2, 80% on day 3, and 100% on day 4.
  • The time required for non–physically fit individuals to develop acclimatization is about 50% greater than for the physically fit.
Level of acclimatization:
  • Relative to the initial level of physical fitness and the total heat stress experienced by the individual.
Maintaining acclimatization:
  • Can be maintained for a few days of non-heat exposure.
  • Absence from work in the heat for a week or more results in a significant loss in the beneficial adaptations leading to an increase likelihood of acute dehydration, illness, or fatigue.
  • Can be regained in 2 to 3 days upon return to a hot job.
  • Appears to be better maintained by those who are physically fit.
  • Seasonal shifts in temperatures may result in difficulties.
  • Working in hot, humid environments provides adaptive benefits that also apply in hot, desert environments, and vice versa.
  • Air conditioning will not affect acclimatization.
Acclimatization in Workers