Blog Short #167: 6 Ways to Outfox Distractions
Photo by SeventyFour, Courtesy of iStock Photo
Distraction is a growing problem. Nothing new. It’s always been around, but with tech taking over our cultural landscape and online access to everything, we’re more distracted than ever.
How do you fight that when you need to focus and get things done?
Today, we’ll go over the most used and effective strategies so you can pick and choose which ones will work for you.
First, let’s get a quick understanding of what happens in your brain when you get distracted.
Two Things Instead of One
When something interrupts your focus involuntarily or because you’re attempting to do two things at once, your brain has to shift. This entails two tasks:
- Goal shifting: Deciding to turn your attention from one thing to another.
- Rule activation: Changing from the previous task’s rules to the rules for the new task.
Although these shifts happen in microseconds, they still require time and energy, slowing you down.
If you’re working on something on your computer and a Facebook notification comes up in the corner of your screen, you shift your attention and lose track of your focus on your work task. It then takes time to shift back.
If the interruption is longer or requires extended attention, the time lost in making the switch is only part of the problem.
According to a study conducted by Gloria Mark, Professor in the Department of Informatics at the University of California, Irvine,
It can take on average 23 minutes and 15 seconds to return to the original task after a significant interruption.
Sometimes, you can’t avoid distractions, but by using some simple strategies, you can keep them in check. Here are six of them.
1. Set up the right environment.
There are two parts to this strategy, which James Clear outlines clearly in his book Atomic Habits. These are:
- Remove sources of possible friction.
- Prime your environment to make things easy.
To avoid friction, you must remove any obstacles that might interfere with your focus before starting your work.
- Put your phone where you can’t see it and silence it.
- Turn off notifications so nothing can hop up on your screen.
- Let people know who typically might call you or drop by your office that you don’t want to be interrupted, and close your door.
- Tell people you won’t access email for the next three (or how many you need) hours.
If you’re at home, you can do similar things. However, if being at home is a distraction because you notice all the house things that need doing, then go somewhere you won’t see them.
In short, remove anything and everything you think might be distracting so you won’t be tempted to deviate from your chosen task.
That’s the “removing friction” part.
Prime your environment.
Priming your environment means setting it up before you start to make your process as easy as possible.
- Clean off your desk.
- Have all your supplies readily accessible.
- If you want coffee, have it ready.
- Have your favorite pen, paper, computer screen, or whatever you need set up and available.
That will help you avoid getting up and down to get something, looking for something you need, or being uncomfortable and having to go get that pillow to put behind your back.
Get all of that ready upfront.
2. Table emotional issues.
If something’s bothering you and taking up emotional space in your head, write it down. You can do this in journal style or list style.
As you write it down, remind yourself of three things:
- You can’t resolve the problem right now.
- You will return to it later (you can specify a time) and work on it.
- You won’t lose track of it by turning your focus away from it right now and engaging fully in your work. You might even find that new solutions pop up more easily later by leaving it for now.
Time-blocking is a great way to focus your mind on any task because it counteracts your resistance.
When you decide to work with complete focus for a specific amount of time, you know the endpoint.
When you decide to complete a task, you don’t know the endpoint because you don’t know how long it will take you.
You might find yourself dreading the process, which often leads to procrastinating, allowing more interruptions, and not fully engaging.
Decide to work for 30 minutes (or any time you choose), and let yourself stop when the time ends. If you get fully engaged when your time’s up, you might take a break and dive into a second-time block. It works!
You can also set an artificial deadline for yourself within a time block. I’ve done this with writing. I decide to write a thousand words in 20 minutes, which helps me let go of my internal critic and write as fast as I can. I call this “ugly writing,” and it works!
4. Do your hardest tasks first.
The best and most famous treatise on this idea comes from Brian Tracy in his book Eat That Frog. If you’ve never read it, get it and do so. It’s short and easy to read and provides all the details on how and why doing your difficult tasks first works.
Four quick ideas about this are:
- Your willpower decreases over the day, so doing your hard work first thing is more likely to get it done.
- Instead of hanging over your head all day, doing that hard thing early in the day relieves you and frees up your emotional energy for other things.
- Doing hard things first consistently sets up a habit that reduces friction.
- You get an immediate sense of accomplishment that stays with you all day.
5. Plan the work week ahead.
There’s an art to this to make it work well. Try these things:
- Set three goals to accomplish for the week ahead. You can set more if you like, but it’s best not to overdo it. Make them specific and measurable.
- Calendar all the tasks you need to do in time slots to complete those goals.
- Create each day’s to-do list the night before. It should sync with your calendar.
You don’t want to get up in the morning and ask yourself what you need to do that day. You should know already and be ready to dive in once your day begins.
Be sure to set aside a specific time each day to answer phone calls and emails, check social media, or create posts. That way, you know you’ll get to it, but without it interfering with your focused work.
I find it helpful to put everything on my calendar, including house chores, errand time, etc. That way, I don’t waste time figuring out what to do and when.
6. Build concentration with exercise, meditation, sleep, and a good diet.
Focusing is a muscle. You can improve it with practice and keeping your brain in good shape.
Meditation is a practice of focusing your mind. Doing it regularly naturally increases your ability to attend for greater and greater amounts of time. It also helps you harness your unruly desire to indulge in mindless activity. It’s an excellent antidote to chronic anxiety and stress.
Sleep? Need I say more? You must get at least 7 hours a night. Some people do fine with that, and others need 8. My sweet spot is 7 1/2. Know yours and make sure you get it. Your brain gets cluttered with “brain trash” over the day and needs deep sleep to wash it out. Read more about that here.
Exercise and a good diet, especially together, keep your brain sharp and your mood steady. They also enhance your overall energy. Exercise, in particular, is a great stress reliever. You don’t have to do much. Just make it regular.
Distractibility is less when you’re engaged in something you love that naturally interests you. You’ll be less inclined to let your attention shift under those circumstances.
Still, it’s good to be prepared. For more mundane tasks or those you don’t have an interest in, it’s paramount that you set yourself up ahead of time for success.
Hopefully, these strategies we’ve gone over today will help!
That’s all for today.
Have a great week!
All my best,
Buetti, S. & Lleras, A. (2016). Distractibility is a function of engagement, not task difficulty: Evidence from a new oculomotor capture paradigm. Journal of Experimental Psychology, General, 145(10), 1382-1405. https://doi.org/10.1037/xge0000213
Clear, J. (2018). Atomic Habits. Avery.
Cherry, K. (2023). How Multitasking Affects Productivity and Brain Health. Very Well Mind. https://www.verywellmind.com/multitasking-2795003
Gupta, S. (2021). Keep Sharp: Build a Better Brain at Any Age. Simon & Schuster.
Mark, G., Gonzalez, V. M., & Harris, J. (2005). No task left behind? Examining the nature of fragmented work. University of California, Irvine. https://ics.uci.edu/~gmark/CHI2005.pdf
Pattison, K. (2008). Worker, Interrupted: The Cost of Task Switching. Fast Company. https://www.fastcompany.com/944128/worker-interrupted-cost-task-switching
Tracy, B. (2017). Eat That Frog! (3rd Ed.). Berrett-Koehler Publishers.