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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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    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 September 18, 2019

    How to Take Notes Effectively: Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

    How to Take Notes Effectively: Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

    Note-taking is one of those skills that rarely gets taught. Almost everyone assumes either that taking good notes comes naturally or, that someone else must have already taught about how to take notes. Then, we sit around and complain that our colleagues don’t know how to take notes.

    I figure it’s about time to do something about that. Whether you’re a student or a mid-level professional, the ability to take effective, meaningful notes is a crucial skill. Not only do good notes help us recall facts and ideas we may have forgotten, the act of writing things down helps many of us to remember them better in the first place.

    One of the reasons people have trouble taking effective notes is that they’re not really sure what notes are for. I think a lot of people, students and professionals alike, attempt to capture a complete record of a lecture, book, or meeting in their notes — to create, in effect, minutes. This is a recipe for failure.

    Trying to get every last fact and figure down like that leaves no room for thinking about what you’re writing and how it fits together. If you have a personal assistant, by all means, ask him or her to write minutes; if you’re on your own, though, your notes have a different purpose to fulfill.

    The purpose of note-taking is simple: to help you work better and more quickly. This means your notes don’t have to contain everything, they have to contain the most important things.

    And if you’re focused on capturing everything, you won’t have the spare mental “cycles” to recognize what’s truly important. Which means that later, when you’re studying for a big test or preparing a term paper, you’ll have to wade through all that extra garbage to uncover the few nuggets of important information?

    What to Write Down

    Your focus while taking notes should be two-fold. First, what’s new to you? There’s no point in writing down facts you already know. If you already know the Declaration of Independence was written and signed in 1776, there’s no reason to write that down. Anything you know you know, you can leave out of your notes.

    Second, what’s relevant? What information is most likely to be of use later, whether on a test, in an essay, or in completing a project? Focus on points that directly relate to or illustrate your reading (which means you’ll have to have actually done the reading…). The kinds of information to pay special attention to are:

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    Dates of Events

    Dates allow you to create a chronology, putting things in order according to when they happened, and understand the context of an event.

    For instance, knowing Isaac Newton was born in 1643 allows you to situate his work in relation to that of other physicists who came before and after him, as well as in relation to other trends of the 17th century.

    Names of People

    Being able to associate names with key ideas also helps remember ideas better and, when names come up again, to recognize ties between different ideas whether proposed by the same individuals or by people related in some way.

    Theories or Frameworks

    Any statement of a theory or frameworks should be recorded — they are the main points most of the time.

    Definitions

    Like theories, these are the main points and, unless you are positive you already know the definition of a term, should be written down.

    Keep in mind that many fields use everyday words in ways that are unfamiliar to us.

    Arguments and Debates

    Any list of pros and cons, any critique of a key idea, both sides of any debate or your reading should be recorded.

    This is the stuff that advancement in every discipline emerges from, and will help you understand both how ideas have changed (and why) but also the process of thought and development of the matter of subject.

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    Images

    Whenever an image is used to illustrate a point, a few words are in order to record the experience.

    Obviously it’s overkill to describe every tiny detail, but a short description of a painting or a short statement about what the class, session or meeting did should be enough to remind you and help reconstruct the experience.

    Other Stuff

    Just about anything a professor writes on a board should probably be written down, unless it’s either self-evident or something you already know. Titles of books, movies, TV series, and other media are usually useful, though they may be irrelevant to the topic at hand.

    I usually put this sort of stuff in the margin to look up later (it’s often useful for research papers, for example). Pay attention to other’s comments, too — try to capture at least the gist of comments that add to your understanding.

    Your Own Questions

    Make sure to record your own questions about the material as they occur to you. This will help you remember to ask the professor or look something up later, as well as prompt you to think through the gaps in your understanding.

    3 Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

    You don’t have to be super-fancy in your note-taking to be effective, but there are a few techniques that seem to work best for most people.

    1. Outlining

    Whether you use Roman numerals or bullet points, outlining is an effective way to capture the hierarchical relationships between ideas and data. For example, in a history class, you might write the name of an important leader, and under it the key events that he or she was involved in. Under each of them, a short description. And so on.

    Outlining is a great way to take notes from books, because the author has usually organized the material in a fairly effective way, and you can go from start to end of a chapter and simply reproduce that structure in your notes.

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    For lectures, however, outlining has limitations. The relationship between ideas isn’t always hierarchical, and the instructor might jump around a lot. A point later in the lecture might relate better to information earlier in the lecture, leaving you to either flip back and forth to find where the information goes best (and hope there’s still room to write it in), or risk losing the relationship between what the professor just said and what she said before.

    2. Mind-Mapping

    For lectures, a mind-map might be a more appropriate way of keeping track of the relationships between ideas. Now, I’m not the biggest fan of mind-mapping, but it might just fit the bill.

    Here’s the idea:

    In the center of a blank sheet of paper, you write the lecture’s main topic. As new sub-topics are introduced (the kind of thing you’d create a new heading for in an outline), you draw a branch outward from the center and write the sub-topic along the branch. Then each point under that heading gets its own, smaller branch off the main one. When another new sub-topic is mentioned, you draw a new main branch from the center. And so on.

    The thing is, if a point should go under the first heading but you’re on the fourth heading, you can easily just draw it in on the first branch. Likewise, if a point connects to two different ideas, you can connect it to two different branches.

    If you want to neaten things up later, you can re-draw the map or type it up using a program like FreeMind, a free mind-mapping program (some wikis even have plug-ins for FreeMind mind-maps, in case you’re using a wiki to keep track of your notes).

    You can learn more about mind-mapping here: How to Mind Map: Visualize Your Cluttered Thoughts in 3 Simple Steps

    3. The Cornell System

    The Cornell System is a simple but powerful system for increasing your recall and the usefulness of your notes.

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    About a quarter of the way from the bottom of a sheet of paper, draw a line across the width of the page. Draw another line from that line to the top, about 2 inches (5 cm) from the right-hand edge of the sheet.

    You’ve divided your page into three sections. In the largest section, you take notes normally — you can outline or mind-map or whatever. After the lecture, write a series of “cues” into the skinny column on the right, questions about the material you’ve just taken notes on. This will help you process the information from the lecture or reading, as well as providing a handy study tool when exams come along: simply cover the main section and try to answer the questions.

    In the bottom section, you write a short, 2-3 line summary in your own words of the material you’ve covered. Again, this helps you process the information by forcing you to use it in a new way; it also provides a useful reference when you’re trying to find something in your notes later.

    You can download instructions and templates from American Digest, though the beauty of the system is you can dash off a template “on the fly”.

    The Bottom Line

    I’m sure I’m only scratching the surface of the variety of techniques and strategies people have come up with to take good notes. Some people use highlighters or colored pens; others a baroque system of post-it notes.

    I’ve tried to keep it simple and general, but the bottom line is that your system has to reflect the way you think. The problem is, most haven’t given much thought to the way they think, leaving them scattered and at loose ends — and their notes reflect this.

    More About Note-Taking

    Featured photo credit: Kaleidico via unsplash.com

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