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3 Strategies for Dealing With External Distractions

3 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. 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.

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    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.

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    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.

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    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.

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    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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    The Gentle Art of Saying No

    The Gentle Art of Saying No

    No!

    It’s a simple fact that you can never be productive if you take on too many commitments — you simply spread yourself too thin and will not be able to get anything done, at least not well or on time.

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    But requests for your time are coming in all the time — through phone, email, IM or in person. To stay productive, and minimize stress, you have to learn the Gentle Art of Saying No — an art that many people have problems with.

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    What’s so hard about saying no? Well, to start with, it can hurt, anger or disappoint the person you’re saying “no” to, and that’s not usually a fun task. Second, if you hope to work with that person in the future, you’ll want to continue to have a good relationship with that person, and saying “no” in the wrong way can jeopardize that.

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    But it doesn’t have to be difficult or hard on your relationship. Here are the Top 10 tips for learning the Gentle Art of Saying No:

    1. Value your time. Know your commitments, and how valuable your precious time is. Then, when someone asks you to dedicate some of your time to a new commitment, you’ll know that you simply cannot do it. And tell them that: “I just can’t right now … my plate is overloaded as it is.”
    2. Know your priorities. Even if you do have some extra time (which for many of us is rare), is this new commitment really the way you want to spend that time? For myself, I know that more commitments means less time with my wife and kids, who are more important to me than anything.
    3. Practice saying no. Practice makes perfect. Saying “no” as often as you can is a great way to get better at it and more comfortable with saying the word. And sometimes, repeating the word is the only way to get a message through to extremely persistent people. When they keep insisting, just keep saying no. Eventually, they’ll get the message.
    4. Don’t apologize. A common way to start out is “I’m sorry but …” as people think that it sounds more polite. While politeness is important, apologizing just makes it sound weaker. You need to be firm, and unapologetic about guarding your time.
    5. Stop being nice. Again, it’s important to be polite, but being nice by saying yes all the time only hurts you. When you make it easy for people to grab your time (or money), they will continue to do it. But if you erect a wall, they will look for easier targets. Show them that your time is well guarded by being firm and turning down as many requests (that are not on your top priority list) as possible.
    6. Say no to your boss. Sometimes we feel that we have to say yes to our boss — they’re our boss, right? And if we say “no” then we look like we can’t handle the work — at least, that’s the common reasoning. But in fact, it’s the opposite — explain to your boss that by taking on too many commitments, you are weakening your productivity and jeopardizing your existing commitments. If your boss insists that you take on the project, go over your project or task list and ask him/her to re-prioritize, explaining that there’s only so much you can take on at one time.
    7. Pre-empting. It’s often much easier to pre-empt requests than to say “no” to them after the request has been made. If you know that requests are likely to be made, perhaps in a meeting, just say to everyone as soon as you come into the meeting, “Look guys, just to let you know, my week is booked full with some urgent projects and I won’t be able to take on any new requests.”
    8. Get back to you. Instead of providing an answer then and there, it’s often better to tell the person you’ll give their request some thought and get back to them. This will allow you to give it some consideration, and check your commitments and priorities. Then, if you can’t take on the request, simply tell them: “After giving this some thought, and checking my commitments, I won’t be able to accommodate the request at this time.” At least you gave it some consideration.
    9. Maybe later. If this is an option that you’d like to keep open, instead of just shutting the door on the person, it’s often better to just say, “This sounds like an interesting opportunity, but I just don’t have the time at the moment. Perhaps you could check back with me in [give a time frame].” Next time, when they check back with you, you might have some free time on your hands.
    10. It’s not you, it’s me. This classic dating rejection can work in other situations. Don’t be insincere about it, though. Often the person or project is a good one, but it’s just not right for you, at least not at this time. Simply say so — you can compliment the idea, the project, the person, the organization … but say that it’s not the right fit, or it’s not what you’re looking for at this time. Only say this if it’s true — people can sense insincerity.

    Featured photo credit: Pexels via pexels.com

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