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.
How to Deal with External Distractions
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 and stay focused. 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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
Featured photo credit: Jakayla Toney via unsplash.com
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