Distractions are hiding everywhere, ready to pounce at a peak productive moment. They are one of the biggest obstacles to doing meaningful work. Below are the some of the most common distractions and tips for how to minimize them.
Anyone remember when e-mail was hailed as a great invention that revolutionized the way we communicated? I do. Now, e-mail is the bane of everyone’s existence. It did not take long for a great new way to communicate to become a way to send useless junk to as many people as possible. Forwarded moral stories and dad jokes, ads for questionable products and businesses, and far too long or far too pointless (oft times both) messages made everyone grow to hate e-mail. Like it or not, e-mail is here to stay, so we need to learn ways to manage e-mail to keep it from being a giant time suck.
- Checking E-Mail. This is a standard productivity tip: do not check your e-mail first thing in the morning. The first items on your to do list should be the work of the big, important projects. Checking e-mail when we first start working can distract us from our important work and deplete our energy. Save e-mail for when you have finished the first couple of big items on your to do list.
- E-Mail Notifications. Every e-mail client has pop-ups, sounds, and flashing icons to let you know a message has arrived. Turn these off. You do not need to know the second an e-mail arrives. Even if you do not read the e-mails when they arrive, these notifications distract you from your work. Even a brief distraction can derail your train of thought. Some people worry that if they are not connected to their e-mail every minute of they day, they will miss an emergency or very important e-mail. Almost no one is ever told of an emergency via e-mail. Emergencies are communicated by phone or face-to-face, so you can rest easy. And if an e-mail is very important, then why would it require an immediate response? Important e-mails should require time for their important responses.
- Get Rid of the Junk. Unsubscribe from and block e-mails that are time wasters. Do you really need to be on all those listservs? Can you get a daily or weekly digest where you can look over the messages and decide what is important for you to read? Are those e-mails from companies asking you to buy things important? Or can you block/unsubscribe from them and save yourself the time and hassle of opening and deleting them?
- The Two Minute Rule. This is another idea from David Allen’s Getting Things Done. When reading an e-mail decide if you need to take action on it. If the answer is no, then ask yourself if you need to save the information for reference in the future. If yes, then put the e-mail in its appropriate folder. If no, then delete the e-mail. When you have an e-mail that requires action, take action if it will take less than two minutes. For any action that will take longer than two minutes, put it on your project list and move the e-mail to its appropriate folder.
The Internet, social media, and apps are incredible. We can learn fascinating things, share our new ideas, and have an endless stream of data at our fingertips. We can also waste time playing games, reading about Big Foot sightings, and “liking” the seemingly never-ending photos of our former high school classmates’ kids. The Hemingwrite is a Kickstarter funded gadget that helps people write and avoid digital distractions. The idea was quickly funded and has sold out numerous times. People are so desperate to be rid of distractions that they will pay an incredible amount of money for what amounts to a portable word processor. We have to be smarter about how and how often we use digital media.
- Browser Blockers. Browser extensions and apps block you from visiting certain websites for a set amount of time. You decide which sites you want to block and for how long. When you are ready to start working, you turn on the blockers to keep yourself from getting distract by the latest sports news and celebrity gossip. Chrome has several extensions that allow you to temporarily block sites: Self Control, (a different) Self Control, and Stay Focused. Self Control is also available for Macs. Another great tool is Momentum a browser extension from Chrome. In the morning you can enter your day’s focus and to do list, and each time you open a new tab or window in Chrome that screen appears to remind you of what you should be doing.
- Phone Apps. A smart phone is a wonderful device. The smart phone I now own has about 4 times the storage space that my first computer did. I can get directions, look up obscure facts, and keep up with the world news all on a device that fits in my pocket. But phones can be a giant source of distractions. Every smart phone has multiple screens. To access the screens you just need to swipe right or left. On the home screen, place all the apps that are important and that you need access to on a daily basis. This can include apps like Evernote, Dropbox, and Google Drive. On another screen, place your social media, news, and game apps. It might seem minor to have to swipe to another screen to look at pictures on Instagram, but any extra effort you need to take to waste time makes it that much harder. Plus, in the time it takes to decide to swipe over and open Pokemon you can gently remind yourself of what you should be doing.
- Phone Notifications. Just about every app will notify you of something new by dinging, flashing, and appearing on your home screen. Turn off all these notifications, except the ones that are most important to keep up with. Set important phone numbers to have a special ring or vibrating pattern. This will alert you to a call or text you need to answer and allow you to ignore the others.