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How to Minimize Distraction to Get Things Done

How to Minimize Distraction to Get Things Done
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If you’re like me, you’ve had two back-to-back workdays where, one day, you feel extremely productive and the next day, you feel like you didn’t accomplish a single thing. Having a productive day feels amazing, as if you’ve just conquered your profession. And those non-productive days, well, you’re just glad they’re over.

What I’ve learned through trial and error is that most of those unproductive days are, gasp, nobody’s fault but my own. Even if I was distracted by coworkers, or last-minute urgent projects arose, or I had a splitting headache, I should be able to tell people that I’m busy, or leave space in my schedule for unexpected work, or take a Tylenol and find a quiet, dark place to sit for 10 minutes. There are remedies for almost every distraction.

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I’m not saying we can’t have a slack-off day every now and then, but if your unproductive days happen more and more often, it’s time to do a little soul-searching, organizing, and planning to make distractions go away.

How to Minimize Distraction to Get Things Done

1. Learn to anticipate yourself.

According to a study conducted by the University of California Irvine, office workers are only able to focus on any single task for an average three minutes and five seconds before they’re distracted. And, surprisingly, 44 percent of those distractions are internal — hunger, boredom, stress, sleep deprivation. The good news is that internal distractions are the only kind we can truly control. Know your patterns for hunger, bored, stress, and sleepiness and plan ahead. Keep snacks at your desk, mix up your to-do list by interspersing boring and interesting tasks, or find a quiet place to take a short nap.

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2. Send out busy signals.

If 44 percent of distractions are internal, than 56 percent of distractions come from external sources. People, email, phone calls, pets (if you work from home like I do), and chatter from other cubicles fall into this category. To stop external distractions before they start, you have to give the right signals to the outside world.

Put up your “busy” message on instant messenger and wear headphones (even if you’re not playing music). Stand to greet cube visitors to show them you want to move the conversation along. If you face the entrance of your cube or office when seated at, move your computer to the back of the cube to face the wall when working. Subtle queues like these might seem a tad passive-aggressive, but they might also save you from annoying distractions.

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3. Make technology work for you, not against you.

Even though it might seem like the enemy most times, technology can be your anti-distraction friend. Turn off email alerts, set your phone to go straight to voice-mail or create an auto-response to text messages you receive that says something like, “In the middle of something; will get back to you later.” Block chunks of time on your calendar as “busy.” Unless your job involves life-or-death situations, everyone will manage just fine for the few hours when you’re off the grid.

4. Ask for a more flexible schedule.

In a recent study of 800 job seekers looking for flexible jobs conducted by FlexJobs, the number one reason for wanting to work from home was to avoid distracting coworkers. Even if you can’t work from home full-time, maybe your boss will let you telecommute one or two days a week in the interest of productivity. Or, try rearranging your work hours to be in the office earlier or later than typical work hours for some quiet time. Even escaping to Starbucks for an afternoon of coffee-fueled, solitary work can help you be more productive.

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5. Stop being so darn accommodating.

Are you a people-pleaser? A “yes man?” Is your favorite line from any movie, “I’m right on top of that, Rose!” from 1991’s Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead? The nicest people are often the busiest people, and when asked if they can help with something or take on a new project, they immediately accept to be polite or a team player. But if you’re already overloaded with work and feeling like you never get anything done, the last thing you should do is take on any new projects. Let people know that while you’d love to help, your plate is full.

If your unproductive days are starting to win out over your productive ones, it’s time to figure out where your distractions originate, and put a stop to them. By being proactive, silencing technology, working a more flexible schedule and letting people know, both passively and actively, that you are b-u-s-y, you’ll be less distracted and more productive.

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Featured photo credit:  Man and woman working in office via Shutterstock

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Brie Weiler Reynolds

Senior Career Specialist at FlexJobs

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Last Updated on July 21, 2021

The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work)

The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work)
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No matter how well you set up your todo list and calendar, you aren’t going to get things done unless you have a reliable way of reminding yourself to actually do them.

Anyone who’s spent an hour writing up the perfect grocery list only to realize at the store that they forgot to bring the list understands the importance of reminders.

Reminders of some sort or another are what turn a collection of paper goods or web services into what David Allen calls a “trusted system.”[1]

A lot of people resist getting better organized. No matter what kind of chaotic mess, their lives are on a day-to-day basis because they know themselves well enough to know that there’s after all that work they’ll probably forget to take their lists with them when it matters most.

Fortunately, there are ways to make sure we remember to check our lists — and to remember to do the things we need to do, whether they’re on a list or not.

In most cases, we need a lot of pushing at first, for example by making a reminder, but eventually we build up enough momentum that doing what needs doing becomes a habit — not an exception.

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From Creating Reminders to Building Habits

A habit is any act we engage in automatically without thinking about it.

For example, when you brush your teeth, you don’t have to think about every single step from start to finish; once you stagger up to the sink, habit takes over (and, really, habit got you to the sink in the first place) and you find yourself putting toothpaste on your toothbrush, putting the toothbrush in your mouth (and never your ear!), spitting, rinsing, and so on without any conscious effort at all.

This is a good thing because if you’re anything like me, you’re not even capable of conscious thought when you’re brushing your teeth.

The good news is you already have a whole set of productivity habits you’ve built up over the course of your life. The bad news is, a lot of them aren’t very good habits.

That quick game Frogger to “loosen you up” before you get working, that always ends up being 6 hours of Frogger –– that’s a habit. And as you know, habits like that can be hard to break — which is one of the reasons why habits are so important in the first place.

Once you’ve replaced an unproductive habit with a more productive one, the new habit will be just as hard to break as the old one was. Getting there, though, can be a chore!

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The old saw about anything you do for 21 days becoming a habit has been pretty much discredited, but there is a kernel of truth there — anything you do long enough becomes an ingrained behavior, a habit. Some people pick up habits quickly, others over a longer time span, but eventually, the behaviors become automatic.

Building productive habits, then, is a matter of repeating a desired behavior over a long enough period of time that you start doing it without thinking.

But how do you remember to do that? And what about the things that don’t need to be habits — the one-off events, like taking your paycheck stubs to your mortgage banker or making a particular phone call?

The trick to reminding yourself often enough for something to become a habit, or just that one time that you need to do something, is to interrupt yourself in some way in a way that triggers the desired behavior.

The Wonderful Thing About Triggers — Reminders

A trigger is anything that you put “in your way” to remind you to do something. The best triggers are related in some way to the behavior you want to produce.

For instance, if you want to remember to take something to work that you wouldn’t normally take, you might place it in front of the door so you have to pick it up to get out of your house.

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But anything that catches your attention and reminds you to do something can be a trigger. An alarm clock or kitchen timer is a perfect example — when the bell rings, you know to wake up or take the quiche out of the oven. (Hopefully you remember which trigger goes with which behavior!)

If you want to instill a habit, the thing to do is to place a trigger in your path to remind you to do whatever it is you’re trying to make into a habit — and keep it there until you realize that you’ve already done the thing it’s supposed to remind you of.

For instance, a post-it saying “count your calories” placed on the refrigerator door (or maybe on your favorite sugary snack itself)  can help you remember that you’re supposed to be cutting back — until one day you realize that you don’t need to be reminded anymore.

These triggers all require a lot of forethought, though — you have to remember that you need to remember something in the first place.

For a lot of tasks, the best reminder is one that’s completely automated — you set it up and then forget about it, trusting the trigger to pop up when you need it.

How to Make a Reminder Works for You

Computers and ubiquity of mobile Internet-connected devices make it possible to set up automatic triggers for just about anything.

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Desktop software like Outlook will pop up reminders on your desktop screen, and most online services go an extra step and send reminders via email or SMS text message — just the thing to keep you on track. Sandy, for example, just does automatic reminders.

Automated reminders can help you build habits — but it can also help you remember things that are too important to be trusted even to habit. Diabetics who need to take their insulin, HIV patients whose medication must be taken at an exact time in a precise order, phone calls that have to be made exactly on time, and other crucial events require triggers even when the habit is already in place.

My advice is to set reminders for just about everything — have them sent to your mobile phone in some way (either through a built-in calendar or an online service that sends updates) so you never have to think about it — and never have to worry about forgetting.

Your weekly review is a good time to enter new reminders for the coming weeks or months. I simply don’t want to think about what I’m supposed to be doing; I want to be reminded so I can think just about actually doing it.

I tend to use my calendar for reminders, mostly, though I do like Sandy quite a bit.

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Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

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Reference

[1] Getting Things Done: Trusted System

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