I’m easily distracted, and that makes modern life challenging. I love technology, but between my phone and my laptop, something is always beeping or chiming to get my attention. Maybe it’s a calendar reminder for an event later today, a new text that might be (but probably isn’t) from the guy I like, a new Twitter follower, or a call from an unrecognized number that I have no intention of answering.
Distractions are all around me, even when I’m trying to work. I open a web browser to research something, and the other tabs call to me. I can see even without clicking over that I have new notifications on Facebook or new messages in my Gmail account, and it’ll only take a second to see what they are… right? It’s hard to resist that urge, but if I want to finish a project, I know there are certain steps I have to take.
Here’s what works for me:
1. Do whatever you can to limit outside interruptions.
Last weekend, a friend told me he’d been woken up early that morning by an Instagram alert telling him a friend had posted a photo “for the first time in a while.” He was really annoyed, because the notification had prevented him from sleeping in. I turn the sound off on my phone when I go to bed, but even so, he convinced me to check my app settings. If you’re getting push notifications and audio alerts about things that don’t matter to you, go into the settings on your phone (or in that particular app), and turn them off. You’ll still be able to see all of the latest activity, but only when you have time to look at your phone.
If your email inbox is full of newsletters and sales alerts that you delete unread, take the time to click the unsubscribe link to stop them once and for all.
If your friends or coworkers are always trying to chat with you on Skype, Slack, or another IM program, set your status to “Away,” “Do Not Disturb,” or “Invisible” until you have time for a break.
Take drastic steps if you have to. If you’re addicted to a certain social media site, and can’t stop refreshing it to check for new posts every few minutes, consider doing something wild and crazy like turning off your wifi. Tell your friend you’re heading into a long meeting and put your phone in airplane mode. Whatever distracting loop you’re stuck in, find a way to break it, even just for a while.
2. Don’t interrupt yourself.
If you constantly check email, this one will be challenging. It was for me. Think of it this way: Every time you refresh your email, you’re begging the universe for a distraction. When you have work to do, that’s a terrible idea. At first, I cheated at this one. I’d close email on my computer, but keep my phone nearby, because it made a particular noise anytime I got a new email. I was still letting every message interrupt me, just in a different way. A few months ago, I took the leap and turned off the “new email” noise on my phone. Now, when I’m really focused, I stay that way, until I get to the point when I’m ready to take a break. Then, I look at my phone and catch up on whatever I’ve missed.
3. Be clear with yourself about when you’re working and when you’re taking a break.
Even if you are much better at staying focused than I am, your body and mind need occasional breaks. I find it very helpful to set a timer and say “I’m going to work on this particular thing for 45 minutes, and then take a break.” If you want a more specific work/break schedule, check out the Pomodoro technique, a timer-based tool that encourages you to focused for 25-minute chunks of time. The timer I use only makes sound for a few seconds, and I’ve noticed that when I’m really focused, I don’t even hear it go off. I just keep right on working until I get to a natural breaking point.
4. Do the worst thing first.
That thing on your list that you’re dreading? Stop making excuses. Fight through your resistance and get it over with. If it’s overwhelming because it’s so big, break it down, and start on one aspect of it. Once that’s done, continue to the next step. Tackling the thing you fear most will give you confidence and make you more productive, but if you put it off, you’ll just feel lazy and frustrated. If you catch yourself thinking, “Maybe I’ll start on that after I have a little more coffee and answer a few emails,” call yourself on it. No procrastination allowed.
5. Make your breaks count.
Get up. Move around. Make a cup of tea. Do some stretches. Meditate. Basically, do anything you can to take care of yourself and make it easier for you to resume focus in a few minutes. If anything distracted you during your last work session, is there’s anything you can do to prevent it from happening again?
6. Listen to something that helps you focus.
Do you have a cubicle-mate who talks on the phone all day? Get a pair of noise-canceling headphones and play something to drown out the distractions around you. I like instrumental music, because if I hear lyrics, I pay attention to them. Coffitivity lets you work to the sound of a busy coffee house, and YouTube has all sorts of sounds available, from rain storms to video game music.
7. Keep a notebook next to you.
If you’re busy working and you have a random thought like “I have to buy more coffee on my way home,” take two seconds to write it down so you don’t have to worry about remembering it. Use an actual paper notebook for this, because if you pick up your phone to write yourself a note, you may get drawn in by Snapchat or Twitter or another phone-based distraction. Instead, wait until you finish what you’re working on (or your timer goes off), then check your notebook and deal with those things. At that point it’s OK to pick up your phone and set a “buy coffee” reminder, because it’s break time.
8. Connect with your inner hard worker.
You know you’re capable of having good ideas, focusing in, and finishing projects, because you’ve done those things before. When you feel the pull of distractions, fight them with every ounce of your being, and pretend you’re this hardworking cat. It helps, I swear.
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