There are various types of distractions, but external distractions are one of the most common types that derail our work ethic on a daily basis. With email, news feeds, Facebook, notification beeps, the sound of the newspaper hitting the front door, the neighbor's child screaming and swinging from your clothesline, and all manner of aggravating background noise, it can feel impossible to pay attention to what's in front of you.
We often succumb to distractions because we are looking for them, such as when we check email or feeds when we should be working on something more important. Other times, those distractions happen to us and can shake our concentration, and we need to regain it quickly before we allow busywork to consume our minds.
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Because prevention is better than cure, it is critical to find ways to minimize external distractions so that you can make the best use of any given amount of time. However, it is also critical that we have plans in place to deal with them if our efforts to prevent them fail.
1. Firewall Your Attention
Attention firewalling is a popular productivity concept, popularized in recent years by people such as Tim Ferriss, Gina Trapani, and Merlin Mann. It's just a nerdy term for keeping distractions away from you in the first place.
Finally, with a little thought, you should be able to prevent most external distractions from bothering you. You must identify your distractions and how you get from productive work to those distractions without blowing up the bridge. For example, if a particular website is wasting too much of my time, I can use software to restrict my access to it.
If I find myself bypassing the software, I can go block it with my router, which is a little more difficult to bypass because it needs to be reset to save the change. I won't have the Internet to distract me during that time, and I have a good chance of realizing what I'm doing and getting back on track.
Email is another major external distraction; check it only at pre-determined times of day and disable notifications. Tell your iPhone not to make any noises when it receives a message. Some people even set up autoresponders to “educate” those who email them about their email habits in the hopes of reducing the incoming flow in the future.
Because I work from home and am easily distracted by the sound of my son playing, I can put on some (non-distracting) music, preferably with headphones, to block out that sound when I need to focus.
2. Make it simple to refocus
I decided to go to Reddit, which I found so distracting that I blocked it with my router. I make up a reason why I should read the site and unblock it, but as I previously stated, I need to wait for my router to restart.
How can I make it easier to get back on track while I'm waiting? What about keeping my focus clear while working to reduce my chances of falling into the external distraction trap?
Begin by keeping a to-do list handy. It should be easily visible and readable from your usual working position, such as right next to your monitor. It also implies that you should not write in tiny print with 100 items on a page. Keep to-do lists short and reductive.
Keeping to-do lists short may appear to cause you to miss or forget important tasks, such as low-priority tasks, but it all depends on your system. I use special software to capture and organize everything I need to do, followed by paper to create daily to-do lists, and this system works great for me.
If you find yourself constantly wandering, it can also be useful to add a small reminder, such as “Are you on task?” The key here is to keep your top priorities in plain sight at all times, and to stay aware of the list and your progress toward completing it.
3. Serve as Your Own Psychologist
Dealing with external distractions and procrastination requires you to become your own psychologist. Simple reminders are sometimes effective, and they can be brief and ubiquitous if desired. That's why putting “Are you on task?” at the top of your to-do list, right next to your monitor, works if you train yourself to be aware of the list.
Staying on task requires motivation, or a compelling reason to complete work.
I believe it is best to start with the carrot and only use the stick when that fails; there is no need to introduce more frustration and guilt into the workplace.
Begin by reminding yourself of the long-term advantages of finishing your work. You'll finish a large project, such as a new website, or you'll have a work-free weekend if you finish all of your tasks for the week.
When confronted with external distractions, the second stop is to remind yourself of short-term motivators. If you complete x amount of work by the end of the day, you will not have to work late and will be able to spend time with your friends.
Immediate rewards are only used as a last resort. Tell yourself that if you finish 600 more words on your article in twenty minutes, you can take a five-minute break to play with your kids or do something fun. Set a timer, especially if it's something that could derail you, like reading feeds or checking emails.
Try not to waste your five minutes on such things. Get out of the home office, or if you work in a corporate setting, get away from your desk if you can do so without being “managed” by one of those obnoxious bosses.
It's a last resort because the best work is rarely done in twenty minute increments, but if you're not doing anything to begin with because you're too distracted, it's a good place to start.
If you're not sure how to motivate yourself, you can use this free assessment to determine your motivational style: What Motivating Style Do You Have?
Distractions, both internal and external, are unavoidable in today's world. In the end, it all comes down to how you prepare to deal with them when they appear and how you get back on track when your attention is diverted. This takes practice, but with dedication, you can overcome the obstacles that are preventing you from accomplishing the most important tasks in your life.
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