Reading time: About 4 minutes
Can you ignore your phone, your email and your boss while settling down to write? Or have you never learned how to stop getting distracted while working?
Do you get distracted too easily? You’re trying to work and — ZING — a squirrel runs in front of you?
I use the image of a squirrel because it’s a bit of a joke in my family. When someone interrupts their own conversation, or wanders off on unrelated tangents, the rest of us yell, “squirrel,” as a sign that the person is going off topic.
Why do we get distracted so easily while working?
There are three main reasons:
We live in a world filled with distractions: We’re no longer living like characters in the book Little House on the Prairie. Instead, we inhabit a busy, increasingly complex world. At the office, we’re beset by email, meetings, phone calls and the chatter of colleagues. At home, we have family concerns, personal email, social media, visits with friends and Netflix. Oh, and the need to cook meals, do maintenance, and, occasionally, to clean.
Human beings have short attention spans: Our concentration doesn’t arrive in a continuous stream, like a waterfall. Instead it’s delivered in a series of short bursts, like a malfunctioning tap. A Harvard study tells us that 47% of the time, our minds aren’t where we think they are. Instead we’re already thinking about something else.
We don’t know how to manage our attention: Most of us don’t organize our days terribly well, don’t declare priorities and aren’t nearly mindful enough about what we want to achieve. Instead, we allow ourselves to get sucked into busy but unimportant tasks that don’t help us accomplish our most important goals.
How to stop getting distracted while working
Here are four ways to stop yourself from getting distracted.
1-Identify your most important tasks: If everything is equally important to you, then nothing is. Time is not unlimited, and we’re all working towards a deadline for something. You’ll be much more successful — and happier — if you take the time to identify your priories. Most people can’t handle more than three, so figure out what your three are and make sure you’re earmarking enough time for them. Every day. It may seem counterintuitive that you can get more done by focusing on less, but this is the approach successful people always take. Moving at a slower pace will help you do your most important tasks better and in a healthier frame of mind.
2-Time block your day: First thing each morning, I schedule my entire day in 30-minute units of working time called pomodoros. Well actually, I allow only 25 minutes for each task, and following each, I take a five-minute break. The best, most compelling result of time blocking is that it forces me to be modest with my goals. It also makes me hyper-aware of my most productive time, which for me is usually morning. (As a result, I schedule any task I’m inclined to procrastinate on for before noon.) I also block in several units of “recovery time” each day, in case I get behind, and I allow a 25-minute block for short tasks that I can do quickly, one after the other. I know time blocking sounds complicated — I resisted it for years myself — but it’s actually really simple, and it has made me remarkably more productive. And it’s made my working life so much more pleasant, too.
3-Remove external distractions: External distractions are the ones presented by other people. You know what they are. That noisy TV show your partner is watching while you’re trying to work. The friend who drops by your home office for a “chat” during working hours. The boss who expects you to drop everything and attend to his or her needs on a moment’s notice.
Of course, it’s impossible to deal with all external distractions in the same way, so work out a plan for each individually. For the TV-watching partner, suggest they use headphones or move yourself to a different room. To block the friendly neighbor, put a note on your door that says something like, “Working from 9 am to 3 pm and unable to answer the door.” For the needy boss, try negotiating some distraction-free times you can devote to writing (or other tasks requiring intense concentration.)
4-Prepare to deal with internal distractions: Much as we might like to blame other people, some of the worst distractions we face are internal ones. The email we can’t wait to read. The daydreams about our next big vacation. The need to check our phone. The impulse to grab a latte. Now, you can block some of these distractions, just as you did for the external ones. For example, I had an IT guy set up my computer so it gives me no signals when email arrives. There’s no beep. No text swooshing in from the corner of the screen. No little red number imposed on my email icon showing me how many unread messages I have. All I face is blissful silence. As a result, I have no urge to check my email. Another trick you can use is to get some software to block your ability to collect email, visit certain sites (like Instagram or TikTok) or even use the Internet altogether. Two good options are SelfControl (Mac only), and Freedom.
5-Schedule your mind wandering: But the tough thing about some types of internal distractions is that they’re so seductive. After all, who wouldn’t prefer to plan their next dream vacation — rather than review boring interview notes or read a tedious spreadsheet? But telling yourself not to do something is often a sure-fire way to cause yourself to do it. Research about what’s known as the “white bear problem” suggests that meditation is a useful tool for preventing rumination. But if you don’t want to meditate, at least consider restricting your mind-wandering time to certain times of day. For example, you might allow yourself 15 minutes of rumination right after lunch. Or use it as a reward for finishing 25 minutes of work you really didn’t want to do. Just be sure to set a timer so you’ll know when your time is up.
Distractions are everywhere, and they distract, well, everyone. But if you want to be a productive writer, make sure you figure out how to deal with these time-robbers — before they distract you.
Need some help developing a better writing routine? Learn more about my Get It Done program. There is turn-over each month, and priority will go to those who have applied first. You can go directly to the application form and you’ll hear back from me within 24 hours.
Do you know how to stop getting distracted while working? What do you do? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section below. Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by Sept. 30/23 will be put in a draw for a digital copy of my first book, 8 1/2 Steps to Writing Faster, Better. To enter, please scroll down to the comments, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join Disqus to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest. It’s easy!