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A classic 2007 study of Microsoft workers found that when they responded to email or instant messaging alerts, it took them, on average, nearly 10 minutes to deal with their in-boxes or messages, and another 10-15 minutes to really get back into their original tasks.

As Carson Tate, a productivity consultant and founder of Working Simply, puts it, “We’ve reprogrammed ourselves that bright shiny object–whatever flashes next–is probably more interesting than what we’re doing.”

Peter Bregman, author of 18 Minutes: Find Your Focus, Master Distraction, and Get the Right Things Done, reports that he recently went out to dinner without his phone.

A lack of sleep is also associated with inability to focus, as anyone who’s tried to work on a difficult project after being up all night with a screaming baby can attest.

Says Bregman: “It’s much more effective to create an environment that predisposes you to do the things you do want to do or don’t want to do than to use willpower.” … To be sure, you probably have good reasons to carry a phone, but keep in mind that parents left their kids with babysitters before cell phones existed, and businesses grew and thrived before their invention as well.

If you’re deeply absorbed in a difficult but doable project–in a state termed as “flow” by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi–other tasks are naturally less interesting.

Without the ability to multitask, “suddenly one-hour meetings were turning into 30-minute meetings because I didn’t have the tolerance for sitting around doing nothing.”

Another major culprit in multitasking is that we don’t have clarity on what we should be doing at any given time. … With those questions in mind, decide on your most important tasks for a day, then look at your schedule and see where you can do these tasks. That way, when one meeting ends, you know what you need to get done before the next one–and you’ll be more disciplined about focusing until finished.