Life is getting more and more distracting. There are so many things competing for our attention and they all seem to be winning – for a few minutes at a time at least.
As technology has made us permanently connected there’s an expectation that we are always available and it has created a perception that everything is urgent and important. We spend a lot of time reacting to other people’s requests and not focusing on what we need to get done.
I’m the same as everyone else – I have a ton of stuff to get done and I have what seems like thousands of distractions getting in my way. It used to feel like a constant battle to deliver my actual work. But over the last year I’ve tried to figure out ways to minimize the impact of distraction and focus on my work.
My conclusion is that distractions are usually our own fault.
A lot of the time we are looking for a distraction to give us the excuse to do anything other than the difficult task in front of us – how many times do you jump onto answering an email immediately when it could have waited until the end of the day? It was easy to deal with and we feel like we accomplished something.
But we didn’t progress the important work. This is classic procrastination.
When we are not procrastinating we still get hit with distraction because we usually don’t set up our environment in the right way. We leave ourselves open to the enemy.
Distractions are usually our own fault but the benefit of it being our fault is that we can improve our situation. Overall it comes down to two things:
There has to be a certain level of self discipline to mentally focus on what we are trying to achieve. And want to achieve it. But with the right preparation, the discipline gets easier.
If we get those two things right we stand a fighting chance.
The preparation techniques that work for me are listed and described below. I don’t do everything all the time – it really depends on how focused I need to get. But what I can guarantee is if I do nothing from this list then I am going to find it very difficult to effectively complete anything.
#1 Turn off notifications
If you have anything that’s notifying you of incoming messages or information, switch it off. Phones, tablets, smart watches, websites, email apps, other software etc etc. No matter how much discpline you have, you’ll want to see what that buzz or ding was about.
Log out of any instant messaging apps or change status to do not disturb.
If you use Outlook (I do in my job) permanently turn off the notification that brings up the little summary on the bottom right side of the screen no matter what application you are using. I swear that thing is the biggest destroyer of productivity out there.
#2 Go to a quiet space
Chances are you work in an open plan office. Great for collaborating and forming teams but not so good when you need to get your head down and finish something. There’s always someone wanting to ask you something or someone brought donuts back from lunch.
If you have meeting rooms you can use, book one for as long as you need and go and hide in there. Get the work done and then as a reward you can go and bug your coworkers (not really).
#3 Go outside of the office
If you don’t have meeting rooms then get out of the office. Many companies are becoming more open to the fact that we can work from anywhere with an Internet connection. Take that opportunity or if you need to convince your manager then sell it as a way you will get more done and / or higher quality of work.
Coffee shops, the park, a library at home, etc etc. Some of these places have their own distractions but if colleagues are the problem, this gets you away.
#4 Inform people
If you really can’t find a quiet space and your manager is keeping you chained to the desk then inform people that you are working on something and you can’t be distracted for the next X hours as you have to hit a deadline.
You can even make it a regular thing so everyone knows that for two hours on a Wednesday afternoon you are not to be disturbed. That also forces you to use that quiet time productively every week.
#5 Close the office door / put up a sign
If you are lucky enough to have an office then you can shut the door. As long as you team and your colleagues know that when the door is closed you are not entertaining visitors, people will stay away.
For the rest of us out in the open plan space, you can make a do not disturb type sign and put it on your desk. Sounds a bit silly but people will take it seriously when they see you head down and working. You may need to educate them the first few times and you can’t use it all the time otherwise the “power” wears off.
There are two benefits of headphones and listening to music. One, is that listening to music can put you in the zone, oblivious to everything going on around you. It’s not for everyone and some music works and some doesn’t. There are specific playlists on Spotify for focus (am sure also on other music streaming apps) or there are apps designed just for sounds that help you concentrate.
The other benefit of wearing headphones is it makes you less approachable to other people as they have to make the extra effort to disturb you. They may also think you are on a call. This works well combined with the sign in #5.
#7 Empty the clutter from your head
If you don’t have an effective way to capture thoughts, ideas and things you need to do then they will bounce around in your head and pop up when you don’t need them to. It gets a bit distracting when you’re in the middle of writing the most important presentation this year and you realise that you forgot to send your mother a birthday card.
Keep a robust task management system with an inbox (GTD style) where you can capture everything in your head.
I would also recommend journaling on a regular basis (I go for 15 minutes daily) to get all your ideas on paper. It really helps with being able to focus during the day if you’ve emptied all your thoughts about future projects and ideas.
#8 Pomodoro the tasks
I started using the Pomodoro technique in the last 6 months and have found it an excellent way getting focus on one task at a time. It also makes a bit of a game out doing the work (which fits well with my competitive nature).
If you haven’t heard of or used the Pomodoro technique before, it is simple.
- You set a timer for 25 minutes and work solidly for that 25 minutes (1 Pomodoro) on the one task you need to get done.
- At the end of the 25 minutes you take a 5 minute break. Get a glass of water or do a quick scan of email or whatever you want to do. But only 5 minutes.
- You then set the timer again and focus on one task for another 25 minutes. At the end another 5 minute break.
- After 4 Pomodoros you take a longer break of 20-30 minutes. And then continue the cycle.
The aim is to do as many as possible in your work day. The more you can fit in is indicative of how much real work you are getting done.
25 minutes is a good period of time as its not so daunting to focus on one thing for that long and you get regular wins of completing a Pomodoro and knowing that you got work done.
#9 Have your tools available
Make sure you have everything you need to complete the work available to you. You don’t want to get 10 minutes into a task and find that you don’t have a key file readily available and then need to dig around sharepoint sites or, even worse, have to start messaging people to send you a copy.
#10 Clean your workspace
Have your tools to hand in your workspace but try to keep it minimalist – only have what you need to get the job done. Clutter and other potentially more interesting things are going to tempt you away from work. That includes your laptop workspace and your physical desk and office.
When you’re next trying to get something important finished and you’re being interrupted every few minutes, try to take a step back and think about how some of these tactics can put up a barrier between you and the distractions. It really is under your control.
If you have any interesting tips to deal with distractions leave them in the comments below. I am always looking to try something new.