Overcoming Distraction to Get Things Done

“If you chase two rabbits, both will escape.” ~Native American saying

Despite our best intentions, sometimes it can be really difficult to focus and work on a task that needs to be completed. We might have both external and internal distractions.  Interruptions are inevitable and they can deter our momentum and cause us to waste a lot of time trying to backtrack when we re-engage in our work.

External distractions can be from email, phone, internet, or open/shared workspaces (either from co-workers or from family if we’re trying to work from home).  Because of this, there are endless possibilities for losing concentration.

Besides these external distractions, we also have the ones that are playing in our mind about what needs to be done at home, who needs to be contacted, and what tasks need to be completed for other projects we have. It is often during the time that we are focusing on our primary task that we think of these things and are tempted to switch gears and take care of them.  But flitting between things never gives us the time we need to do the profound thinking and apply the focus necessary to do a job well.

Our society seems to value multi-tasking but the only time multi-tasking is truly helpful is when one of the tasks that we’re doing simultaneously with another doesn’t require any attention, like folding laundry while having a phone conversation.  I think there is a lot of productivity to be gained by single-tasking.  That is, doing one thing at a time until the task is completed.

One great way I have found to help beat distraction and accomplish a single task in the time it was meant to be completed is to do the following:

  •  Close email so you aren’t interrupted by incoming messages.
  • If your compulsion to check other things during your task is strong, check out some tactics listed in Leo Baubata’s  book Focus.  You may know Leo from the blog zenhabits.  He has lots of good ideas for programs that can be used to lock yourself out of potential distractions (e.g. blocking access to sites like Facebook, or the internet in general for a set period of time) or to clear your desktop.
  • Silence your cell phone, turn away the lighted screen and turn off vibration.  Change your voicemail to let callers know when you are available, if necessary.
  • Do the same with your office phone if you have one.
  •  If you have a shared calendar, mark an appointment for “Focused Work” so that others can see you aren’t necessarily available if this might be a source of distraction.
  • Make sure you have your coffee, tea or water ready to go and you have gone to the bathroom.
  • Close or partly close your workspace door if this is acceptable. It will signal to others that you are in the middle of something.
  • Put some headphones on and find some tunes that help you work.  This can be a way to tune out external distractions and signal to others that you are focused.
  • Close any browsers and access to external email.
  • Set a timer for a designated amount of time you are designating to the task. I have found 45 minutes to be a reasonable chunk of time from a productivity and biological standpoint. There is an online timer at ticktocktimer.com that I like. It sounds a gong at the end to signal your time is completed. Whatever you do, don’t stop your task during the time this timer is going.
  • Have a small notepad nearby so you can jot down any thoughts that come up in regards to the internal distractions. It is often times these little thoughts regarding other tasks that don’t allow us to focus on the things we’re working on. For example, “return Ted’s call” or “buy pet food” or any new ideas that bubble up.  I have found that I often have great ideas when my mind is humming along with focus. According to David Allen’s book Getting Things Done we need to move tasks out of the mind by recording them externally. By doing so, it frees the mind from having to use that brain power to remember to complete the task. Just write it down and deal with it after your timer has gone off.
  • Force yourself to work for the full amount of allotted time on whatever singular task you set your timer for. It might be helpful to have access to relevant emails prior to beginning your task. If not, you may be distracted by new, incoming emails and people needing solutions to new problems when you go to check the relevant emails for your task.
  • If it is extremely important for you to be available at any given minute for family or work-related reasons, you can set an automatic reply telling people how to contact you if your attention is necessary and immediate.. For example, you can manage your phone or email to play a sound only if you get an email from a particular person or set of people.

Once you have finished your task, you can allot yourself 20 minutes for a reward (check Facebook!), get a fresh beverage, pee, and communicate in regards to anything you missed during your focused time.

I really liked the idea in Focus that you should have designated times for creating, consuming, and communicating.  All of these things are hard to do simultaneously.

In the case of trying to determine what needs to be done, it can be helpful to keep a list of all tasks that require your attention. This prevents things from falling through the cracks and for prioritizing. For example, you may want to try setting your top two to three priorities each morning. That is, things that must be accomplished that day. Then try the tactic of turning off disturbances and setting the timer until the necessary components of your top two or three major tasks are completed. At that time, you can begin tackling the less demanding or lower priority tasks. If you know there is a time of day that you are prone to distraction, or not at your sharpest, pick a task that needs to be completed but doesn’t require vast stores of brain horsepower. For example, if 2-3 pm is your sleepy time, delegate a task such as data entry, inbox filing or making phone calls.

I have found this workflow to be extremely helpful for me both at work and during my creative pursuits.

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