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Last Updated on April 19, 2021

3 Simple Strategies for Dealing With External Distractions

3 Simple Strategies for Dealing With External Distractions

There are different types of distractions, but one of the most common types that derails our work ethic day after day are external distractions. Between email, news feeds, Facebook, notification beeps, the sound of the newspaper hitting the front door, the neighbor’s child who runs past your office window screaming and swinging from your clothesline, and all manner of aggravating background noise, paying attention to what’s in front of you can feel impossible.

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, and we need to get that concentration back immediately before we allow busywork to consume our minds.

Prevention is better than a cure, so it’s important to find ways to keep external distractions to a minimum so that you can make the best use of any given amount of time. However, it’s also important that we have strategies in place to deal with them when our attempts to prevent fail.

1. 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 external 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.

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If I find myself bypassing the software, I can go block it with my router that 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 is another major external distraction; check it only at certain pre-set times of the day and uninstall notifications. 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 when I need to focus.

2. Make It Easy to Regain Focus

I’ve decided to visit Reddit, 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 external distraction trap?

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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, like low-priority tasks, but it all depends on your system. I use special software 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. 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.

3. Be Your Own Psychologist

Much of dealing with external distractions and procrastination is about becoming your own psychologist. 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[1].

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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 when you encounter external distractions. If you get x amount of work done by the end of the day, you won’t have to work late and can go out with your friends.

Immediate rewards are the last resort. 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.

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I call it the last resort because the best work often 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.

If you’re not sure how best to motivate yourself, you can take this free assessment to discover your style of motivation: What’s Your Motivation Style?

The Bottom Line

Internal and external distractions are inevitable in today’s world. In the end, it’s all about how you prepare to confront them when they appear and how you get back on track when your attention is pulled away. This takes practice, but with dedication, you can overcome the things that are trying to keep you from doing the important tasks in your life.

More on Overcoming External Distractions

Featured photo credit: Jakayla Toney via unsplash.com

Reference

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Joel Falconer

Editor, content marketer, product manager and writer with 12+ years of experience in the startup, design and tech digital media industries.

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Last Updated on April 19, 2021

What Is Block Scheduling? (And How It Boosts Productivity)

What Is Block Scheduling? (And How It Boosts Productivity)

On August 6, 1991, the world changed forever when the internet became publicly available. Less than 30 years later, our lives have been irrevocably transformed. We can now learn, explore, and communicate 24/7, which is both amazing and, as we all know, hazardous to our productivity[1]. This is why the question, “What is block scheduling?” has become important.

To be clear, the internet isn’t life’s only distraction, and while productivity has become a huge buzzword in recent years, it’s simply a measure of progress: Are you doing what matters most? Actively moving toward your goals?

Author Neil Pasricha writes in Harvard Business Review[2]:

“As our world gets busier and our phones get beepier, the scarcest resource for all of us is becoming attention and creative output. And if you’re not taking time to put something new and beautiful out in the world, then your value is diminishing fast.”

Most entrepreneurs relate deeply to this sentiment. Pasricha solved his own productivity challenges by instituting “untouchable days” that shield him from texts, phone calls, meetings, alerts, or appointments of any kind. He says these focused sessions have enabled him to produce his most creative and rewarding work.

I love Pasricha’s approach, but it’s not always realistic for me. As the founder and CEO of JotForm, I need to weigh in on a variety of daily decisions, from hiring to product roadmaps to financial planning. I suspect other founders feel the same way. Yet, I do believe in the power of focused work, which is also why I recommend block scheduling.

What Is Block Scheduling?

Entrepreneurs often flaunt their multitasking as a badge of honor. After all, starting a business is a tug-of-war between competing priorities.

However, while multitasking might feel efficient, research shows that shifting between tasks can slash productivity by up to 40%. Task-switching leaves what Dr. Sophie Leroy calls “attention residue,”[3] which means we’re still thinking about a previous activity while we start the next one[4].

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Here’s where block scheduling can shine. What is block scheduling, exactly?

We usually become familiar with the concept of block scheduling in high school. You likely received a schedule with a certain number of classes per day, all blocked according to class time, each school year. This is basic block scheduling.

Also called time blocking, block scheduling is the practice of allocating large chunks of time to related tasks. For example, you might designate Mondays for meetings and Tuesdays for strategy. Teachers often use block scheduling when creating lesson plans. There are many different approaches, which we’ll get to shortly.

First, here’s why it matters. Business is essentially problem-solving. Creating strategies, writing code, developing products, and all the myriad activities that entrepreneurs tackle demand focus and minimal distractions. They’re also inherently human tasks that won’t easily be replaced by AI, which means your business depends on your ability to go deep.

Cal Newport, author of Deep Work: Rules for Success in a Distracted World, said in a 2017 interview:

“Focus is now the lifeblood of this economy.”

Entrepreneurs use their minds to launch ideas and create value, so the ability to concentrate is “almost like a superpower”[5].

Block scheduling can also help you to produce higher quality work in less time. Parkinson’s Law holds that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion,”[6], which is why setting time limits can deflate a ballooning task.

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How to Use Time Blocking to Boost Productivity

We all have different rhythms and responsibilities. Personalization is the key to successful time blocking, and it will require some trial and error. Here’s how to get started.

What is time blocking?

    1. Assess Your Calendar

    Evaluating your current schedule can be surprisingly difficult because few of us can accurately estimate how much time a task requires. If it feels easier, track how you actually spend your time for a full week. Note each activity—even 10 minutes of email and 15 minutes of social media scrolling between meetings.

    Once you know how you’ve been spending your time, it’ll be easier to know what to keep and what to throw out when you begin to make your new schedule.

    2. Look for Patterns

    After you’ve documented a full week, group tasks into categories. For example, you can include the following categories:

    • Administrative
    • Meetings
    • Creative work
    • Email
    • Personal time.

    You can also label tasks based on how you feel while doing them, or how they influence your energy levels on a scale from 1-10. Do whatever makes sense for you.

    3. Arrange Your Time Blocks

    Experiment with different block scheduling patterns. For example, one morning may look like this:

    • 8-9am: Respond to emails
    • 9-10am: Write up marketing proposal
    • 10-11am: Brainstorm and plan for Client A’s project
    • 11am-12pm: Meet with Client A to discuss ideas

    However, you may find that you’re more creative immediately after waking up. In that case, you’d want to move “brainstorming and planning” to an earlier slot. If responding to emails is best for when you’re feeling a little lethargic after lunch, put it there.

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    Read your emotions and abilities throughout the day to tap into what is going to work best for you.

    Ultimately, the goal is to avoid switching mental gears throughout the day, week, and maybe even the month. I realize this isn’t easy, especially for entrepreneurs, but it can be incredibly valuable.

    Spending a full day on projects you dislike, such as administrative work or meetings, might feel daunting, but blocking them into a single day can make the rest of your week infinitely more productive and more enjoyable. You’re free to tackle all the entrepreneurial challenges that get your blood flowing.

    4. Create Day Themes

    If you’re someone who has to focus on many things during a single day or week, you may find it more beneficial to create themes for each day instead of blocking up your day into individual tasks. For example, you can set Mondays as Brainstorming/Planning days, Tuesdays as Administrative days, etc.

    If you take this route, I suggest always scheduling in at least one Family day. It will ensure you make time for the important people in your life and give your brain time to rest.

    Benefits of Block Scheduling

    Once you’ve answered “What is block scheduling?” and know how to use it correctly, you’ll find that you receive many benefits. Here are just a few.

    Battle Procrastination

    If you have your schedule set and know you only have an hour to get a particular task done, it will be significantly easier to avoid procrastinating.

    For more on how to stop procrastinating, check out this article.

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    Create Realistic Time Estimates

    Once you’ve been working with time blocking for a while, you’ll learn which activities take the most/least time. You may have to adjust your schedule during the first month or so to get it right, but be patient. You’ll continue to learn to realistically estimate how much time a particular task will take.

    Develop More Focus and Attention

    When your schedule doesn’t leave much room for scrolling through social media or chatting with coworkers, you’ll find your brain is more devoted to paying attention to the task at hand. You’ll respond to the limits you set for yourself and will focus to get things done.

    Final Thoughts

    Most founders crave freedom. Yet, school schedules, jobs, and social norms condition us to work with a traditional schedule and reactive mindset. Before we know it, we’ve re-created a working schedule that traces back to the 19th century, even in our own companies. Block scheduling is not only a tool to maximize productivity; it’s a way to reclaim your time[7].

    In my 14 years at JotForm, I’ve realized that business growth means doing more of what makes the biggest impact. I don’t always succeed, but I try to focus my time and energy where it matters, and I know that busyness is not synonymous with productivity.

    If you feel the same way, give time blocking a try. Share your experiments in scheduling with colleagues and family members so they understand the changes and can support you.

    Finally, don’t worry about getting it right immediately. You may need to get under the hood of your calendar and tinker around a bit. Find what works for you, then protect your new schedule at all costs.

    More Tips on Time Management

    Featured photo credit: William Iven via unsplash.com

    Reference

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