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How to Fight Distractions and Win

American Red Squirrel

Is your mind running around like one of these little guys?



How many times have you sat at your computer, intending to work on that project you’ve been putting off, but finding yourself distracted and unable to focus?

You’ve cleared your schedule, turned off the phone, and closed your office door. You sit down, intending to work. You try to get started, but, unbidden, you start wondering what your friends are doing on Facebook or Twitter. Or it occurs to you that you haven’t checked your email in at least ten minutes. Or you suddenly realize you have a pressing need to get up and talk to a colleague, right this second!

We’ve all been there. That’s why many time management gurus recommend minimizing distractions so you can focus better. It makes sense, after all: if you’re less distracted, you’ll be able to get more done. It’s pretty obvious that checking your messages every five minutes like an animal trapped in a Pavlovian conditioning experiment is hardly a productive use of your time.

The fact is that distracting thoughts are your brain’s way of trying to avoid an unpleasant task. Instead of focusing on the work at hand, your brain casts about for something–anything–it can do rather than start this scary project. (You may remember this feeling from your school days!)

Well, just as no-one can force themselves to relax, it’s my belief that you can’t force yourself to work on something, either. You can only set the conditions under which you are best able to make decisions and overcome obstacles to action.

Think about relaxation for a moment: if you were planning to relax, you might set aside a particular time, find a warm, comfortable place to lie down, dim the lights, and so on. If it was noisy, or cold, it might be quite hard to relax under those conditions.

Creating a productive work environment and routine is similarly helpful in overcoming resistance to doing things you don’t really want to do. The keys are:

1) seek clarity on the task at hand

2) set a time limit


3) give yourself a reward at the end.

1. Prepare

Choose a time of day when you are normally quite productive. For most people, this is the morning.

Give your brain something to listen to. Listening will siphon brain power away from worrying and distracting thoughts. Just make sure it’s not something too interesting, otherwise it risks becoming its own distraction. White noise, classical or mellow music are all good. I use headphones and the White Noise app on my iPhone that combines three different water sounds at once.

Set a timer for a period of time, say 30 minutes. After the time is up you will stop working. Or, set a stopwatch that shows you how much time you’ve spent, and then stop after you get to 30 minutes. The idea is to spend a preset, short amount of time on the task, and then stop when the time is up.

Start a distraction log. Every time you are tempted to stray from the task, write down the time instead of actually doing the distracting activity (checking email, Facebook or Twitter). At first, it might be every two minutes. As you get into the task, you’ll be distracted less often.

Decide on your reward for after the time is up. Make it something enjoyable. “As soon as I’m done, I can make myself a cup of tea (or go for a walk, check Facebook or Twitter, etc.).”

2. Begin

Go slow at first. Lower your expectations about how fast you will be able to progress at the start. It’s normal to take some time to build up momentum on a task.

Just start anywhere. Locate the folder where you gathered information. Open a program you need. Start typing some words–any words. Anything can become a starting point.

Pick the low-hanging fruit. To help you ease into it, do the easiest things first, and ignore the more difficult parts for now.

Ask yourself questions about what you are doing. This gives your brain something else to do besides worry. “What is the very next step that I can actually take on this project? Can I do that step?” No? Break it down further, until the answer is Yes.

If you feel anxious, take a few deep breaths and count to ten slowly. Anxiety when you don’t quite know what you are doing is normal. Just don’t give up because of it. Acknowledge your anxiety, but don’t let it derail you.

Make it purposely messy. Try doing a terrible job at it. Make it really bad! The idea is to just begin, no matter how sloppy. You can always fix it later.

3. Reward Yourself!

Gather your reward after you get through the time. Congratulations, you did it!

Leave off in the middle of something. That way you’ll have a clear starting point to pick up from when you get back to it later, and you’ll know exactly what needs to be done next.

Write down the next step so you remember where you were the next time you start working on it.

People blame email or Facebook, but the truth is that being distracted is nothing new, and a lot of distractions are self-created. It’s a coping mechanism your brain uses to avoid making decisions about what to work on. This translates into resistance and poor productivity.

Once you overcome your resistance, though, work flows more naturally and being distracted becomes less of an issue.

Think about your optimal conditions, and try to use them when you work. If you start using these conditions frequently, then even the act of setting them up will signal your brain it’s time to get down to business, making your next difficult project easier to tackle.

Everyone is different. Have you tried any of the above tips? Do you have any other techniques you find helpful to get through roadblocks in your work? Let me know in the comments.

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