Many of us have a tough time keeping our focus on what we want and need to do when there is so much swirling around us. Being responsive and helpful are wonderful, much-needed traits at work. That's why they can become a time-sucking trap. Continuously responding to emails or stopping what you're doing to help someone is both the right and the wrong thing to do.

And we do this partly because deep down we believe that we're earning goodwill points with our colleagues or showing our bosses that we're on top of things. You believe you did a big favor for someone else and, it turns out, that our colleagues don't always see it that way. Studies show that reciprocity doesn't apply at work in the same way it does in our personal lives. For email, there is little gained by hitting reply faster than your office's typical response time. If your organization is like most, about half of the emails exchanged between two people is responded to 47 minutes later and, by the end of the day, 90 percent have been answered.

Of course, we can't just stop responding to email (without putting other communication options in place) or end all contributions to a team effort. Too little causes breaks in your office's collaborative environment and too much means that nothing on your priority list can get done.

The trick is to find the right balance between being there for others and being there for yourself. We inherently know this, but it's tough. How do you find that right balance exactly?

  • Know the impact of email on your day. Recently, I heard someone say that email is an excellent organization system for other people's priorities. The average person spends 13 hours (or approximately a quarter of the time in an average workweek) a week responding to email. Interesting, when that figure is multiplied across the US workforce, an estimated $1 trillion in productive time is lost. I actually would have guessed more but, either way, that's time that most of us would love to have back. My frustration with email is that while it feels productive, I struggle to point to anything tangible that resulted from that time investment. I think like most people, I'd love to have that time to make progress on any of my business's strategic goals.
  • Practice saying "no." You absolutely can say "no" and do it politely and still have friends at work--if you're similar to me and worry about stuff like likeability. Saying "no" does require practice if you've been in the habit of saying "yes" to everything for a long time. Make a commitment to yourself to say "no" (or the softer "not now") at least once today. Saying "no" can be tremendously enjoyable. Getting comfortable with the word once a day for a week makes it a lot easier in weeks to come. Let people know in advance when you're going to be available to help. You can block offset hours for the day or days in the week.
  • Reflect on the most common questions or requests that you get. Are there any themes? Can you proactively come up with a solution to those problems and roll it out? Earlier in my career, I was often asked to write introductions to other people's client proposals. It became a time-sucking loop. At first, I was flattered and then, over time, it just got to be too much. I couldn't produce their content plus my own. In hindsight, a solution might have been to take an hour or so and paste together a collection of some of my favorite executive summaries and proposal introductions and turn them into templates. It would have given me a way to say "no" but still support the business need by empowering others to create their material and base it on a couple of great examples.
  • Get clear with yourself about what your goals are and the actions you need to take today. I find myself more vulnerable to distractions, including email and pop-in requests, when I'm not sure what I should be prioritizing on my own to-do list--or, even worse, when my to-do list doesn't have much on it that supports my priorities for the week. The best way to deal with distractions for the long-term is to spend the time you need to get clear. You can do that with an exercise like this one (select the Goals and Action Items Worksheet from the bulleted list of printable downloads.)

As a side note, it's easy to spot whole organizations that have lost their focus on their strategic goals. Everyone is in react mode, super busy with day-to-day operations. Most managers mistakenly attribute their team's busy-ness with the volume of work that needs to be done. They think, "Everyone is so busy. We don't have time to take on anything new." More often, the problem is that employees allow themselves to be consumed with busy work because they're not sure what they're supposed to be doing to move the organization forward on big strategic goals.

Knowing the impact on your day and building in some response strategies will help you strike a better balance between answering others and making progress on your own priorities. This effort might be the most important thing you do for yourself and your career because all of those little interruptions add up over time and can really derail you from your future goals.