If you were going to design the perfect distraction, you’d probably make it irresistibly urgent, gossipy, and/or funny. You’d design it to be able to reach you any way possible, whether by e-mail, web site, or smart phone. You’d have it come from a trusted voice that you want to hear from, like a friend or an inspirational leader. And you’d make it small enough that you could squeeze it into the tiniest gap in time you might have available. Let’s say, 140 characters long.

That’s one way to look at Twitter: as a perfectly engineered weapon of mass distraction. Goodness knows, that’s often how I experience it myself, if you’re judging by the number of retweets that I somehow manage to send out only when working towards a looming, anxiety-provoking deadline.

But you can’t cut out distraction by cutting out Twitter: there are too many other screen-based temptations. You’ll check email on your Blackberry, or read a few blog posts while you wait in a line, or veg out with some TV when you’re bored with your spouse. You may while away more hours on Facebook, or FourSquare, or Chat Roulette to avoid a looming deadline.

Instead of resenting Twitter as yet another front in the battle for your attention, you can use it as a training ground for paying attention to what matters most. Here are five practices that can help you use Twitter to fight distraction:

  1. Watch your lists, not your home feed. If you follow more than a dozen people, it’s easy for the most frequent tweeters to drown out the less-frequently heard but equally important voices of your dearest friend or most valued colleague. Organize the people you care about into context-specific Twitter lists. I have lists for people I love, writers who inspire me, and social media geeks from whom I want to learn. Catching up on one of those lists helps me connect to a priority (“stay in touch with my best friends”; “work on my writing”; “build my relationships with fellow social media pros”) instead of getting lost in a sea of tweets.
  2. Rig searches for humanness. Twitter feeds on itself by encouraging you to engage only with those people who mention your username or your company’s username. It’s less skillful at picking up on people who are using your actual name or company name in their tweets. Yet these are often the people you most want to hear from and talk to. Set up a Twitter search on your actual name(s) so you can engage with the people who talk about you by name, and use Topsy or Backtweets to find and engage with the people who have tweeted about your blog or website.
  3. Queue up your tweets. The desire to keep your own Twitter feed updated — which is valuable if you’re using Twitter to build professional profile — fuels continuous distraction if it leads to you logging into Twitter or your Twitter client every hour throughout the day. An alternative is to queue up a day’s worth of tweets at a time (or even a few days’ worth), using a tool like HootSuite to schedule tweets to send later. If you decide to take a Twitter break mid-day, you can still tweet in real time, but you won’t step out of whatever you’re doing simply because your next tweet is overdue.
  4. Replace e-mails with Twitter messages. Twitter may be distracting, but at least its messages are short. E-mail messages are just as distracting and ten times as long. For many purposes, exchanging private Twitter messages (DMs) can be a lot more efficient, since the 140-character limit encourages your correspondents to get right to the point. You can spend the time you reclaim on anything else more productive, whether it’s walking in the woods and reconnecting with nature, or reconnecting with friends.
  5. Remember: You are what you tweet. If you achieved the kind of professional recognition you dream about, how many people would follow you on Twitter, and what would they expect to see there? Answer those questions and start tweeting today as if you had those 100,000 followers or that reputation for a specific kind of expertise. Tweeting as if you’re the person you want to be is great practice for being that person…and a great way to focus your attention on getting there.

At its best, Twitter can be a tiny gym for your attention: one that continually strengthens your capacity to focus on what is crucial to accomplishing your personal and professional goals. The very qualities that often make Twitter feel so distracting — its brevity, its ubiquity, its irresistibleness — also make it the ideal platform for developing a practice around using social media with intention.

There will always be other distractions — if not Twitter, than other social networks; if not other social networks, then other social media platforms; if not social media, then a world full of screens and flashing lights. You can hit the off switch, and try to cope with distraction by limiting the number of competing claims on your attention. Or you can come to terms with what it means to live in a world with ever-more claims on attention, and develop the muscles that keep your attention on what truly matters to you.