It may start with an inverted umbrella just as you step outside. Or spilling the first cup of coffee at work on a new suit. Or getting a call from school just as you settle in saying that your child is ill and must be picked up. Or realizing you misspelled the boss's name on an interoffice memo.
The beginning of a bad day.
What can't be helped can't be helped, but Michael Crom, executive vice president for Dale Carnegie Training in Hauppauge, N.Y., says there are ways to prevent a distraction from becoming a disturbance that's a prelude to outright disaster.
Misspelled the boss's name? "You can't dwell on that, or put off dealing with the impact of the error. So the best option is to deal with it, right then and there," Mr. Crom said. "If you put it off, it becomes bigger than it really is."
The goal is to avoid letting one stumble or unexpected disruption become a barrier to a productive day.
"You have to set your priorities at the beginning of the day. Create an agenda for all your daily tasks, then number them based on importance," he said. "I think that saves a lot of stress because you're getting the important things done first."
Distractions, of course, come in all shapes, sizes and volumes. Colleagues who stop by to chat, just as you're trying to leave for an important sales call. Or the usual daylong barrage of phone calls, emails and instant messages. "Unfortunately, those kind of interruptions do happen all the time," Mr. Crom said.
Let them get the better of you, and "you get pushed into a procrastination cycle, which is energy-draining. But when we can check off items on the list, it creates more energy. We feel better, and we become more determined."
Armed with your agenda, there are strategies to keep those interruptions from becoming serious disruptions.
"For the most important tasks, block out time where you exclude the rest of the world," he advised. That means shutting off the phone and the inbox on your computer and putting out a "do not disturb" sign on your closed door. "You can accomplish so much more in uninterrupted time."
For the other agenda items, he suggests putting them in four categories of descending importance: 1) the important and urgent, such as a crisis meeting; 2) the important but not urgent, such as a planning meeting; 3) the urgent but not important, such as answering an unexpected phone call, and 4) the neither important nor urgent, such as checking your friends' Facebook updates or filling out the office football pool.
"If you accomplish the most important items, you're going to feel really good."
If it still seems like you can't get anything done, Mr. Crom recommends putting a time log together -- for a couple of days, stopping every 15 minutes and jotting down what you've done in that quarter hour.
"Look over the sheet and look for patterns," he said. "Are you wasting time or spending too much time on low-priority items? Sometimes it is a matter of understanding what is truly important."
Steve Twedt: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1963.