It’s incredibly easy to get distracted while trying to focus on what needs to get done in our current digital lives.
Notifications, popups, infinitely available new browser tabs; it can be an endless cycle of one distraction after the other.
When completing quality work, one of the most important aspects is quality of time on task. Often, the more time we’re able to focus on a particular task in sequence, the easier it is to get to a high level of focus.
But getting to that point can be quite a challenge.
Here are seven proven strategies to reduce distractions and get things done.
1. Create a System
A very popular method for staying focused while working is the Pomodoro system. It’s built around the concept of dedicated work and relax time periods throughout the day. A popular ratio is 45 minutes of work followed by a 15 minute break, then repeating as desired throughout the day. A 25 / 5 minute ratio may work better depending on the day and the task at hand – it’s completely customizable to fit the style that works best.
There are even physical timers that have become popular for use with the Pomodoro system. It’s not necessary, but sometimes the physical setting of the timer can help trigger a focus period. When a timer is not available, use something like Eggtimer which makes it easy to track time right in a browser window.
Smartphones can be a major distraction when trying to focus on a particular task. A great way to reduce the desire to constantly check the phone is by making a game out of it. Create a small reward to receive for every successful 20 minute period that you don’t look at the phone.
Draw five to ten squares on a piece of paper like a to-do list. Each square represents a length of time that can be customized to fit the total work time needing to be accomplished. If there is two hours of work to do, create six boxes of 20 minutes each and see how many boxes can be crossed off in a row without stopping.
There are apps available that help gamify the removal of distractions as well. ‘Forest‘ for iOS offers a fun way to block usage of an iPhone by planting digital trees during work periods. If the user leaves the app during the set interval of time it kills the young seedling – this leaves a dead tree on the plot of land for the day. If the app is left open for the duration of the work period, making it impossible to check other screens on the iPhone, the tree grows successfully. I’ve found this app to be useful, but it does cost $0.99.
3. Silence Notifications
While this may seem obvious, turning off notifications is one of the best ways to reduce distractions while trying to get things done. Close TweetDeck, put the phone on silent (silent, NOT vibrate – this is just as distracting as ringtones) and try to eliminate anything that may pop up and pull attention away while trying to focus and work. It can be difficult to remove all possible notifications and distractions because well, life happens, but any effort into this area will pay dividends.
Take the time to turn off things that might disrupt your productive work time.
If turning off notifications still wasn’t enough to reduce the desire to check social media and see if there are any snapchat messages waiting, just uninstall the app. While apps can be easily reinstalled it can be reassuring to know that there is no possible way a notification is waiting simply because there is no app there to receive it.
Remember: The tide will come in and the tide will go out whether or not we are there to ensure that it does.
5. Make a Bet
Have something to accomplish? Make a friendly wager with a friend or family member to stay accountable to the task. Make sure that the bet is something that would actually sting a bit if lost. Whether it’s money or something else important, make a wager that will help maintain focus for the fear of losing the bet. If this is done correctly, where the person will stay accountable for the wager it can be super effective.
I’ve seen this done at restaurants where everyone at a particular table would put their phone in a pile, directly in the center of the table. The first person to grab their phone from the pile (while the meal is ongoing) has to pay for the entire bill. If that’s not good motivation to be present and leave the phone alone, I don’t know what is.
6. Make Distractions Difficult
The concept of the ‘twitch’ (this site’s namesake) came about when I realized I had established a muscle-memory pattern to open a new tab in Google chrome (cmd – n) type ‘fac’ and hit ‘enter’. As most people will realize, this pattern is what would auto-fill www.facebook.com in a new browser tab and almost immediately open the newsfeed. This pattern would happen whenever I’d reach a difficult point in writing or a pause during a complex problem. I would complete this action without even realizing that I was doing it, then suddenly be staring at Facebook for no reason at all having just checked it a few minutes earlier. If that’s not a twitch, I don’t know what is.
If there is a pattern often used to open an app on the phone, change the location of the icon – put it in a weird folder or a completely different place on the homescreen. Use Strict Workflow to block pages that shouldn’t be visited during focus periods. Turn off auto-complete in the web browsers menu options. Make the things that often become ‘twitches’ and more muscle memory than actual intention difficult to access so that you have a moment to pause.
7. Intentional Pause
Whether it’s manufactured by making distractions difficult as described above or by sheer power of discipline: Pause. When the urge to check social media approaches and the mouse moves over to a favorite app, or a new tab to a frequented website; Stop. Take two seconds to pause and ask; “Why am I doing this? Do I really want to do this right now, or am I doing this out of habit? Would doing this help me reach my goal?”
I’m often able to catch myself using this series of questions and taking a simple moment to pause and get back on track.
What are some ways that you help yourself stay focused and on track while working on your important tasks?