5 Ways to Overcome Distractions (So You Can Do the Things that Matter Most)
It’s discouraging to put in a long day at work and to feel – at the end – that you’ve not gotten anything done. At least not the things that were priorities and that you’d set out to do. From emails, meetings and phone calls to colleagues or clients with quick questions that take up most of the morning, it often feels like distractions and interruptions are more the rule than the exception.
We live in a time of almost constant background noise if not outright distraction. In fact, most of us get distracted so often and easily that an entire ecosystem of apps and tools now exists to help minimize distractions.
On the one hand, many of us have schedules that are so full that we could use more fun distractions and downtime. And yet the very things that distract us during the workday are often what prevent us from more of the unplanned time that we seek.
So what can you do to help you maximize your time at work? Learning to master distractions not only helps you feel better and perform better at work, but it can help you be sure you’ve got the time for your priorities outside of work.
Track How You Spend Your Time: If you’re wondering where your time is going to begin with, start by tracking your time for one week. What’s distracting you the most? Is it email? Unproductive meetings? The colleague or friend who always has a “quick” question? Your new boss? Or, let’s be honest, social media?
Taking the time to journal where you’re spending your time and energy is important so that you can understand where your time is really going before you try to make adjustments.
You can do this in a journal, in a spreadsheet or use an app like RescueTime – whatever works best for you. The goal is to log what you are doing both at work and outside of work. And while this may feel like an unnecessary distraction in and of itself, it can save you hundreds of hours down the road because once you’ve identified what’s distracting you, it’ll be much easier to get the best strategy to overcome it.
Schedule Your Day: We all have certain times of day when we tend to be at our best. As much as possible, schedule your most important work for those windows. If you’re a morning person, perhaps this is what you do in the first few hours of your day. If you focus better at night, perhaps you carve out a few hours to work after dinner.
I also find that scheduling to-dos in my calendar helps me to make sure that I’m allowing time for those tasks that I need to do in a day. They get a spot on the calendar right along with client meetings and other commitments. This could be anything from writing a blog post to making sure I stop and eat during the time I have set aside for lunch. You might schedule your hardest or least favorite task first thing in the morning so that you get it over with.
Remember to schedule in some distraction time. Time for distraction is essential, even healthy, and also encourages creative thinking. If you allow space for enjoyable distractions in your day, you can avoid letting it interrupt other things that require your focus and attention.
Batch Your Time: Similarly, as you are scheduling your time, batch similar tasks into chunks of time. For example, if you work in an office, chances are that you are spending way too much time checking your email. And there is a real cost to distractions such as email that may seem small and insignificant but add up to real time over the course of your day.
What’s worse, according to studies on digital distraction, once you are distracted it can take anywhere from 20 to 40 minutes to get back to the original task you were focused on before getting interrupted. So stopping to check that quick email can really interrupt your flow.
Batching your time works for more than just email. You can batch client meetings, batch phone calls, batch planning time, reading time, even batch your thinking time. Batching is a bit like mindfulness at work – it gives your brain the chance to focus on one type of activity for an extended amount of time – and enables you to be more productive with that task at the same time.
- Silence Your Phone: This one may seem obvious, but if you’re trying to minimize distractions, silence your cell phone and other devices or apps that will make a noise or otherwise distract you from what you need to focus on. Do you really need to hear a noise every time you receive an email or an update from Facebook or LinkedIn?
Unless you’re in a job that truly requires you to be on call at a moment’s notice, most of us will benefit from carving out certain times during the day where we minimize or eliminate digital distractions. At the very least, try a silent ringtone when it’s time for your most important work.
- Train Your Brain: Regardless of how much you schedule your time or silence notifications and phone calls, we can all be our own worst enemy. You’re sitting down to work on an important project when suddenly you remember that you didn’t buy your niece’s birthday present yet. And since you’re on your computer, you decide to start browsing Amazon for a gift for a 5-year-old girl. An hour later perhaps you found a present for your niece but you’re no further along with the task you needed to do today.
The good news is that there are many ways that you can train your brain for more focus. These include regular meditation or exercise as well as simply noticing when your attention is jumping away from the task at hand and practicing re-directing your focus.You can also keep a list on your phone, computer or in your journal so that you can quickly jot down to-dos that you think of that need to be done later. This prevents them from taking away your focus in the moment and gives you the assurance that it’s not going to be forgotten later.
Keep in mind that most of us would benefit from some more time for healthy distractions in our day. So as with anything, overcoming your impulse to distraction is more than likely going to be about figuring out what that middle path looks like for you.
What distractions can you avoid, delay or eliminate during the work day so that you get more of your important work done, and what healthy distractions – such as playing outside with your kids or taking a meandering walk with the dog – can you make more time for? These will not only leave you more creative in the end, but they’ll also give you something to look forward to when you’re slogging through a piece of work that’s a less-than-favorite task.
How do you overcome distractions so that you can do the things that matter most to you?
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