Expert Advice: Eliminate Distractions to Stay Focused

Multiple Distractions Can Stop Your Goals

Photo credit: solar22/shutterstock.com

Email. Twitter. Blogs. Instagram. Facebook. Podcasts. TV. Video games. Text messages. Telephone calls. Google. YouTube. Smartphone apps. SnapChat. CandyCrush. “Surfing the Web.”

What does each of these things have in common? They are distractions keeping you from doing the work you need to get done. Yes, distractions – while you may feel like you may be missing out if you don’t immediately attend to that “ping,” not one of these things will help you to focus on the task-at-hand, whatever that may be. Distractions, especially those related to social media, can be extremely time-consuming. 

In this post, I’ll talk about how distractions can derail you and how to begin to untangle yourself from the temptations all around you!

Distraction Defined

“Work is hard. Distractions are plentiful. And time is short.” Adam Hochschild, American Author

What is a distraction? Is it always a bad thing or can it be a boon for creativity? It depends on how you are using the distractor. Is it a tool for procrastination or creativity? The Association for Psychological Science reported that, according to researchers from George Mason University, “even small interruptions” can decrease productivity. 

Distraction is defined as “a thing that prevents someone from giving full attention to something else.”  Some of those things I listed above can be fun or informative by themselves. But when they prevent you from concentrating on getting the work you need to get done (school, work projects, etc.) — that is, stopping you from giving your full attention to your work — they become a hindrance, not a help. 

The Internet is a wonderful thing. But using the Internet for research is my major distractor. I have gone down quite a few rabbit holes that have taken me a while to climb back out — I get engrossed with interesting articles or facts. Or I find items that I want to use for a future blog post or teaching/learning assignment for a class I’m teaching. Before I know it an hour or two has gone by and I’m no closer to the information I needed from my original search!

One way for me to get out of that rabbit hole quickly is to save those interesting articles and content to either Pocket or Evernote. These are free apps that allow you to save or “clip” an article, webpage, or other content to read t a later time; there are paid plans with more features, also. When I save content, only the content is saved — no ads or other web site distractors. See Dooley’s article (2017) for more detailed information about Pocket and Evernote. 

I’m getting better at disciplining myself to focus and to eliminate distractions. Here are some of my other strategies:

How to Manage Distractions

“One way to boost our will power and focus is to manage our distractions instead of letting them manage us.” Daniel Goleman,  American Author

I talked about a few of these strategies in my previous blog posts on productivity habits and work-life balance, but because digital distractions can be extremely time-consuming they need to be reiterated. 

Disable Notifications or Delete Apps

First, write down which apps are likely to cause you to spend time using the app and not working on your project. 

Second, disable those apps or all social media applications from your phone or work computer. What does that mean? Disable the notifications of tweets or Facebook updates or new snaps so you won’t be tempted to retweet that celebrity you follow or watch the latest cat video your mother posted.

Turn off the sound on your phone or computer or put your devices on airplane mode so that you are not distracted by email or social media audible alerts. You also might want to reconsider some of the sounds you’ve enabled when the phone is back on — a train whistle? Really?

You can also install apps on your computer, phone, or tablet that will stop you from checking your social media accounts and other distractions for a predetermined amount of time.  Productivity apps such as FocusMe (PC, Mac),  Cold Turkey (PC, Mac, Android), and SelfControl (Mac only) are a few options.

Andrew Sullivan (2016), a writer for New York Magazine, suggested creating a “digital Sabbath each week” where you unplug (or at least disable notifications) for at least 24 hours. Because the world seems so “connected,” that this is a hard thing to do for a lot of people (Sullivan, 2016). 

Schedule Checks of Email and Social Media

Tell yourself you will only check email or social media at scheduled times – and stick to it!

Today, I’m getting better at not checking my Twitter or Facebook accounts multiple times every day. But I used to get distracted by a Facebook or Twitter update or a sudden desire to check my personal, faculty, and work email accounts many times throughout the day.  

I am disciplining myself to not check my email during the time I’ve set aside for focused work. And I’m happy to say, this habit is on its way to being ingrained! Now I schedule a predetermined amount of time to clear and respond to email in the morning and in the evening at the end of my work day.  You can do the same for your social media accounts. 

Schedule Concentrated Work Periods to Eliminate Distractions

When you are working on a project for which you need concentration, make your work schedule known to your work colleagues or your family members. 

  • If you can make a habit of always working on priority projects during certain time periods, your colleagues will know you are not available during those times. Close your office or study door and refuse casual interruptions. 
  • Put earbuds in and listen to music without lyrics (Patel, 2016) to help your concentration and to discourage those casual interruptions. If that doesn’t work, Patel also suggested telling the interrupter: “I am working on a big project right now and need to focus; can you wait and tell me what’s going on, at lunchtime or after work?” You can also just make a sign (“I’m working and need to focus”) and place it on your door or study area.
    • My office is in our loft above our kitchen and family room. When my husband is watching TV, I put on my noise-canceling headphones and listen to Pandora’s New Age Ambient Radio channel. These block out the sound and I have peaceful, beautiful music to help me concentrate. 
  • These strategies work if you work at home or need time to study for school, also. Keep your focused work time sacred, if possible. Let your partner or significant others know that you need uninterrupted time to focus your energy on your priority tasks. When the kids do their homework, maybe that is the time you do yours, too! Do what works for you — but don’t sacrifice the time you need to get your work done.

If you don’t value your time, others won’t either (Patel, 2016). I will talk more about scheduling focused work sessions in a future post. 

Track Your Productive Time

It is very likely that you really don’t know how much time you are spending on your devices. Patel (2016) reported that Americans spend almost half their work week (3.2 hours per day/16 hours per 5-day work week) on social media. 

Rescue Time is one app I’ve recommended in the past. This app tracks how productive you are by tracking how much time you are spending on websites. You fully control what to track – you identify the websites you visit as productive or non-productive time and can set goals for how you are spending your time. Once a week you get a report sent to your inbox with a comparison of where you spent time this week versus last week. There is a free and a paid version and you can install the app on as many devices as you like. Rescue Time is available for Mac, Windows, Linux, and Android devices.

References

Dooley, R. (2016, November 9). Two free tools to help you fight distraction and boost productivity. Forbes Magazine. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/rogerdooley/2017/06/05/productivity-tools/#35937353697b

Patel, N. (2016, November 9). 5 Distractions that are productivity poison (and how to avoid them). Entrepreneur. Retrieved from https://www.entrepreneur.com/article/279307#

Sullivan, A. (2016, September 19). I used to be a human being. New York Magazine. Retrieved from http://nymag.com/selectall/2016/09/andrew-sullivan-technology-almost-killed-me.html