“Success in any endeavor requires single-minded attention to detail and total concentration.”
– Willie Sutton
Do you know that the average worker in the United States loses 2.1 hours per day due to interruptions and distractions? That’s over one-fourth of a normal 8 hour work day! Some interruptions can cost you only a minute here or there, but on average it took workers 25 minutes to return to their original task – if they returned to it at all that day (Source: PDF No Task Left Behind? Examining the Nature of Fragmented Work. Gloria Mark, Victor M. Gonzalez, Justin Harris).
A couple hours a day is significant – think of all you could do if you had 2 extra hours every day. We can use many strategies to make more time, but it’s all for nothing if we end up spending it just the same due to interruptions.
While we may not be able to shun all interruptions, here are 13 way we can limit interruptions and distractions when we’re trying to focus.
How To Limit Interruptions With a Distraction Free Work Environment
- Stop Checking Email So Often. You’ve probably heard it before, but it’s true – this is something that I’ve seen suck away days like nothing else. In 2007, the University of Glasgow released a research study showing that some participants checked their email up to 40 times per hour. I try to limit myself to 3 times per day (and never first thing in the morning!), but usually end up giving in 5-6 times, especially if I’m expecting a reply.
- Stop Answering the Phone Too. Not forever – but when I really need to focus, I’ll literally take my cell phone, put it on vibrate – and put it in the other room. My voice mail recommends for a faster response, text or email me, and that’s true – I definitely prioritize those interactions.
- Defend Your Workspace. For some this may mean closing your door. As an example, for me since I do so much work on my computer, I use different web browsers for different tasks – and don’t mix them. Keeping things separated this way means when I take a break, I open a different browser window for checking my non-productive, enjoyable websites – and once I want to go back to work, I switch to the browser with all the content I need for that. You could similarly set up different workspaces/desktops on your computer, but the details of that are out of the scope of this article.
- Clear That Desk. One of the my early productivity warning signs is a messy desk. Unfortunately, a messy desk can also lead to interruptions. I might pick up a note card and suddenly remember another task that needs to be done – and break my concentration. So before I get to work, I clear off my desk – sometimes just by tossing everything on the floor. The same goes for you desktop on your computer – and you already know how to stop wasting time online.
- Put On Headphones. If you’ve spent a significant amount of time in software development, you’ve likely come across times when software engineers are deeply focused and have headphones on. I personally can’t listen to music while I work, it distracts me, but I put headphones on to send a signal – I’m working, and if you need my attention, you’ll need to physically alert me, I can’t hear you. On a related note, the sound of a fan and/or air conditioning doesn’t bother me, so I use white noise applications to generate those noises and block noise out.
- Get All The Tools You Need Up Front. Sometimes I’ll need various pieces of software, or perhaps some documentation, or perhaps even handwritten notes. I’ll lay out my game plan before I start working, and pull out all the pieces I need. Not only does being organized like this help me accomplish my tasks, having everything at my fingertips means I don’t have to spend time looking for things to get started.
- Change Your Work Hours. If your office is flexible, try coming in a little earlier (and leaving earlier) or coming in later and leaving later. As an example, at one point I experimented with coming into the office at 5 a.m. (yes, I was up by 4:30 – ouch!). I was amazed at how much I could get done by 8 a.m. I typically finished *all* my individual tasks for the day before anyone came in, and then could spend the rest of the day answering questions, email, etc. As an added bonus, this dealt with the email distraction beautifully. Once people started coming into the office, chatting with me, etc, I’d switch into answering email mode – and barrel through all my email from the day before.
- Clarify And Ask Questions Before You Begin. I like to have a clear idea of what I’m working on before I start – otherwise, not only am I interrupting someone else to get information, I am also interrupting my own workflow. So for example, I’ll go through in my head what my plan is, and if I have questions, I’ll try to get them resolved before I get started – preferably ahead of time by email, otherwise by interrupting someone unfortunately. Even if I have to interrupt someone else’s workflow to get my questions answered, by thinking through what I need, I can limit it to one time rather than interrupting them every few minutes when I come across something new.
- Toss It In the Inbox. Credit where credit is due, this is from my mentor David Allen. If I’m working on something, and someone comes to me with a new task, I don’t get to work on it right away unless they require me to – I’ll throw it in the inbox to process later. Too often, our default response is to just immediately take on whatever new task comes our way, even if it doesn’t have to be done right now. Take a few seconds, write it down – and continue what you were working on, and process the interruption later. This applies to ideas I have as well – oftentimes in the middle of working on software, I’ll discover something I can change or improve. Rather than taking it on right away, I’ll write down my thoughts – and then get back to what I was working on.
- Make It Uncomfortable to Distract You. I think Randy Pausch suggested keeping folding chairs in your office – and no guest chair for a visitor to sit down in. That way if you wanted to have a long discussion, the option was available to pull unfold a chair. I have never resorted to this myself, but I think it’s funny – and likely effective.
- Just Have Less Stuff To Do. This may just be my personal experience so I’d love to hear yours. When I have a ton of projects to work on, I always end up being distracted. I’ll be typing up a software program and in my head I’ll be thinking about a meeting I have that afternoon, and when I look at my todo list I’ll remember that I have to prepare a presentation, or whatever it is. The more I have to do, the more opportunities I have to distract myself – so if there’s too much on my plate, I let some commitments go.
- Unplug from the Internet. I can hear the collective gasps, but the fact is that if I am online, and my willpower isn’t up to the test, I know I’ll eventually falter. I can’t remember who gave me the idea, but one great article I read suggested having a separate offline and separate online computer. I haven’t gone that far, but I will go into my Control Panel and manually disable my wireless card. That’s sufficient for me to save me from my own distraction =)
- Take Breaks Before You Lose Focus – And With a Clear Idea of Where To Pick Up. Sometimes we just can’t help it, after spending too long on a task our mind starts to wander. I try to preemptively extend my attention span by regularly taking breaks. So lets say I’ve found a good milestone to stop at after 15 or 20 minutes but I could work longer, and I know what the next step is I need to do. I take note, and then spend a few minutes perhaps stretching or just closing my eyes for a couple minutes to reflect and focus. When I come back to work, my attention span has reset – and I’ve pre-planned a place where it’s easy for me to pick up and get back into it.
Final Thoughts, and What Do You Think?
The caveat with many of these techniques (especially where it involves limiting interruptions by limiting contact with other people) is this: be careful to balance being efficient with being too stand-offish. This is similar to my discussion about why focusing on projects that you are truly passionate about is important, but it can be beneficial to once in a while take on a project as a Hell Why Not?. As a practical example, one trick I use to limit incoming commitments incidentally tries to balance saying no to the person, but doing it with warmth – I call it saying no with the empathy sandwich. This helps maintains close connections and relationships, but still manages to protect my time.
What are your thoughts? Do you find yourself distracted when you try to get down to work? How do you deal with it? Or are some of these strategies way off base?
- How To Actively Take Control of Your Time and Your Life
- Are You Really Working – or Just Using Metawork as an Excuse to Avoid Real Work?
- How to Track Where You Spend Time With A Time Log
- How To Use Gimme Tasks On Your Todo List To Kick Start Your Day
- Seven Reasons You Check Email So Frequently – And How To Stop
- Stop Wasting Time Online! Tips and Start Pages To Improve Concentration Online
Favorites This Week
- Alex Blackwell on Why You Have To Write Compelling Content over at BlogcastFM
- What Makes You Happy? over at Aliventures
- In The Pursuit of Happiness over at Advanced Life Skills
- Is Your Face Real? by Pete Michaud
- Why You Should Stop Chasing Success over at The Skool Of Life
- Part 3: Blogging Fears and How To Overcome Them over at Remarkablogger
Read These Popular Articles Now:
|Learn To Take Better Notes – 3 Note Taking Strategies Compared||The Definitive Guide to Organize Your Life And Get Rid of Clutter||Free Time Is Never Free|