There are different types of distractions, but one of the most common types that derails our work ethic day after day are external distractions. Email, news feeds, Twitter, Skype, those old kettles that squeal, the sound of the newspaper hitting the front door, the neighbour’s little monster who runs past your office window screaming and swinging from your clothesline.

Ahem. Moving on.

Much of the time, we succumb to these distractions because we’re looking for one, such as when we check email or feeds when we should be working on something with substance. Other times, those distractions happen to us and can shake our concentration (the little monster comes to mind), and we need to get that concentration back immediately before we allow busywork to consume our minds.

Prevention’s better than cure, so it’s important to find ways to keep distractions to a minimum in the first place. But it’s also important that we have strategies in place to deal with them when our attempts to prevent fail (and they always will at some point), and we are distracted.

Firewall Your Attention

Attention firewalling is a popular concept in productivity circles, made popular in recent years by people like Tim Ferriss, Gina Trapani and Merlin Mann. It’s just a geeky term for preventing distractions from reaching you in the first place.

Ultimately, you should be able to prevent most distractions from disturbing you with a bit of thought. You need to identify what your distractions are and how you get from productive work to those distractions and blow up the bridge, so to speak. For instance, if a certain website is wasting too much of my time, I can block my access to it using software.

If I find myself bypassing the software, I can go block it with my router which is a bit harder to bypass, specifically because it needs to be reset to save the change. During that time, I won’t have the distractions of the Internet, and I have a good chance of realizing what I’m doing and getting back on track.

Email’s another one; check it only at certain pre-set times of the day and uninstall notifiers. Tell your iPhone not to make sounds when you receive messages. Some people even set up autoresponders to try and ‘educate’ those emailing them about their email habits, hoping that it’ll reduce the incoming flow in the future.

If I’m easily distracted by the sound of my son playing, since I work from home, I can put some (non-distracting) music on, preferably with headphones, to block that sound out while I need to focus on that level.

Make It Easy to Regain Focus

So, I’ve decided to visit Boing Boing, which I’ve found so distracting I’ve blocked it using my router. I make up an excuse as to why I should read the site and unblock it, but as I mentioned earlier I have to wait for my router to restart.

How can I make it easier to get back on task during that waiting time? What about keeping my focus clear as I’m working so I’m less likely to fall into the distractions trap?

Start by keeping a to-do list nearby. It needs to be readily visible and readable from your most common working position, such as right next to your monitor. It also means you shouldn’t be writing in tiny print with 100 items on a page. Be reductive, and keep to-do lists short.

Keeping to-do lists short seems like something that might cause you to miss or forget some important but low-priority tasks, but it all depends on your system. I use software (Things at the time of this writing) to capture and organize everything I need to do, and then paper to create day-to-day to-do lists, and this system works great for me.

It can also be handy to add a little reminder, such as “Are you on task?” if you find yourself constantly wandering. But the key here is to keep your biggest priorities in plain view at all times and be mindful of the list and your progress in tackling it.

Be Your Own Shrink

As that last paragraph indicates, much of dealing with distractions and procrastination is about becoming your own shrink. Sometimes simple reminders are effective, and they can be short and ubiquitous if you so desire. That’s why “Are you on task?” at the top of your to-do list, right next to your monitor, works if you train yourself to be mindful of the list.

Motivation – that is, a compelling reason to complete work – is important to staying on task.

I think it’s best to start with the carrot and introduce the stick only when that doesn’t work; no need to introduce more frustration and guilt into the work environment.

Start by reminding yourself of the long-term benefits of completing your work. You’ll get a big project, such as a new site, online and completed at last, or you’ll have a work-free weekend if you can complete all your tasks for the week. Reminding yourself of short-term motivators is the second stop. If you get x amount of work done by the end of the day, you won’t have to work late and can have your five o’clock beer (works for me, at least).

Immediate rewards are the last resort stop. Tell yourself that if you complete 600 more words of your article within twenty minutes, you can have a five minute break playing with your kids or doing something entertaining. Set a timer, especially if it’s something potentially derailing like feed reading or email checking. Try to avoid using your five minutes for that sort of thing. Get out of the home office, or if you work in a corporate facility, at least away from your desk if you can do so without getting “managed” by one of those unbearable superiors.

I call it the last resort stop because as far as I’m concerned, the best work isn’t done in twenty minute increments, but if you’re not doing anything to start with because you’re too distracted it’s a good start.

You can go all “meaning of life” and ask yourself if you’d be proud of what you’d done today if you died tomorrow. You might want to put that at the top of your list of motivators, since it tends to be an effective one, but it can be an unpleasant topic to think about and could have you spending the day with the kids “just in case.” We can’t have this existential thinking destroying your productivity completely.

At Least a Million Implementations…

There are at least a million ways to put each of these strategies into play. I’m interested in how Lifehack readers do so. What do you do to firewall your attention? Make regaining focus easier? How do you psyche yourself up to work? Let us know in the comments.

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