Distraction is a big drain on our potential work productivity, relational efficacy, and personal fulfillment. The brain only has so much focus power and is drained by distractions. Not fully understanding this ultimately has a negative impact on our health -- leaving us more isolated and less fulfilled. Some distractions are purposeful, externally-forced, or subconscious.
Purposeful distractions are where you willing stop doing a task because it is difficult to give your mind a break. Social media, work email, checking the news,and checking other digital communication fall into this category.
Externally-forced distractions are things that block us from working optimally when we can. For instance, meetings scheduled for early morning when our brain is fresh. Another example is a pop-up email notification from a colleague.
Subconscious distractions are background anxieties that prevent us from being fully present at the current task. Learning tricks to turning off these can be a big boon to our overall productivity and happiness.
Combined, these distractions lead to a never ending anxiety-inducing rabbit hole. This wastes your time, your employer’s dollars, and, most unfortunately, your God-given potential.
Here are 5 concrete steps you can take TODAY to help be more focused and less stressed (especially important in crazy times like these!).
Establish your Work, Relational, and Personal Highlight Before You Go To Bed.
Instead of just eliminating all of the things that could distract us, we need to have an even bigger DRIVE toward what we want to have happen. It’s easy to get distracted when you don’t know where you’re going or why! So let’s get to figuring that out!
A highlight isn’t just a goal. A highlight is something you would be proud of doing, something that energizes you and fills you up -- these aren’t easy, they take planning, hard work, but move you toward your life’s goals.
For example: Tomorrow, I want to draft 2 marketing proposals for my clients. Tomorrow, have that half-hour chat with my grandma to make sure she’s doing well. Tomorrow, I’m going to workout for 30 minutes.
Put a big calendar on your wall specifically for tracking your Highlight sessions with a big fat X. Try to get as many X’s on the calendar in a row. Let your brain see and feel the reward of your hard work and sacrifice. Soon, it’ll be easier for you to turn away from distraction, seeking out hard work more often!
You can take this practice and extrapolate it out for the whole week, month, or year. Give it a try!
Turn Off Notifications On Your Phone and Computer.
Go to your phone settings in your personal and work email and social media platforms and disable your pop up notifications. Disable push notifications on your computer as well: email dings, website alerts, and whatever else distracts throughout the day.
If you want to take it up a notch, force yourself to put your password in any time you want to check email or social media. Any barrier you can create to getting on the distraction train, do it.
This hack will reduce all three types of distraction. It’ll make you dig a little deeper to focus on the task at hand; it’ll stop others from interrupting your focused work; and it’ll prevent subconscious anxiety of missing out (and likely the disappointment of finding out you didn’t miss out nor were people wanting to communicate with you on social media -- ever get let down when you don’t have a message for a while? Yeah, that’s why.)
Schedule When You’ll Check Social Media and Work Email
Since you’re not getting immediate notifications, literally put on your calendar or day planner when you’ll check social media and email. When you schedule time to check social media or email, you free up extra focus and processing power in your brain. There are several cool ways this is accomplished.
First, by setting aside the time, it's easier to focus (hard work) and finish the task you’re on without getting distracted. With all your apps open, an external force could distract you, ie, a new, unrelated email notification causing your brain to completely shift focus from topic A to topic Q. An internal force could distract, ie, this focus really sucks and its not fun and I’m not getting endorphins, let me take a “quick break” to check how many likes your post got.
Second, setting a time to check those things gives your brain certainty. I imagine when I said to close your work email, you had a moment of panic. “But how will I know when I get a message; if I don’t respond right away my co-workers will think I’m slouching!!”
But if you know that 11 a.m., 1 p.m., and 4:00 p.m., you’ll check your email, it frees up that subconscious uncertainty. “I know when I’ll get a message when I open my email to respond and when I respond, I’ll be more focused and not distracted by other projects.” And is monitoring your email like a hawk really proof you’re not slouching? It’s more like reactivity, not value-add productivity.
How about social media? Again, have a plan. If you just say “I’m not going to check social media today,” the whole day your brain will have one big case of FOMO. Instead, when you feel that itch to find out what’s going on, you can say, “You’re not missing out, you’ll see at 12:30 the latest cat memes.”
Schedule Your Priorities First, Then Your Meetings
This will limit externally-forced distractions that drain your creative and productive capabilities. You were hired because you have a skill set and bring value to the company. If you’re going from call to call to call, when will you actually get your work done?
First, determine when you get your best work done -- if you focus well in the morning or in the evenings.
Next, block that time on your schedule so people (including yourself!) don’t schedule meetings at this time.
Finally, assign the task you’ll do in that period. If you’re better able to process information, set the time to “Read Latest Report” or if you write particularly well at that time, set the time to “Draft Policy Analysis.” Controlling your schedule makes you the most productive for your company.
It may seem like a discomfort or a pain to put that limit in place, but in the long run, it will increase your overall contributions.
Create and Communicate Work and Personal Boundaries
Now that we’re working from home, we need to make your boundaries clear to yourself, your external audience (boss, co-workers, work in general) and internal audience (your spouse, your roommates, whatever the case may be).
These boundaries limit the amount of subconscious distraction your brain has to do throughout the day: with no boundaries, your brain will feel like it's being unfair to other priorities when working on the other; but with boundaries, you can tell your brain, no it’ll be fine, we’re all on the same page, you will get to that at its appointed time. Boundaries will also help you reduce externally-forced distraction of your other priorities, ie, checking work email during dinner.
First and foremost, set boundaries for yourself on when work starts and stops and when home starts and stops.
Write these down and remind yourself of them or else they’ll always keep shifting. For instance, “Work will begin at 8:30 every morning and I will be done by 5:00. I’ll take an hour break for lunch, take a walk, and to help with XYZ. I will log off from my work email on my computer and phone so I can be present for my family and friends from 5 to 8:30. I’ll check my work email at 8:30 to make sure no crisis broke out. From 9 to 10:30, I’ll relax, check social media, and get ready for the next day” Again, writing it down will help make them stick. This will also force you to be more productive with your allotted time -- whether that’s work or relational time.
Next, communicate clearly with your external audience about THEIR expectations for “working” and “at home” time. If that conflicts with YOUR vision of work-life boundaries, then let them know and see if it can be changed. Let your colleagues know you’ll sign out of email and not to expect a reply until your designated times. Put up an out of office reply if need be. These last two actions will give your brain peace of mind that people aren’t being left out on a limb.
Finally, treat your internal audiences the same way. Figure out all your boundaries and have a grown up conversation about working from home, what your boundaries are, what work boundaries are, and how and when you’ll be prioritizing family. If you’re not clear to them about what your hours will be, then you’ll be distracted and being pulled in different directions -- for example, when it’s 3:30 and beautiful out and you can go have fun with friends and family immediately or cranking out that last bit of work the boss is expecting tomorrow. Also communicate to your household what kind of work environment is best for you.
To wrap this all up: distraction is a big drain on our potential work productivity, relational efficacy, and personal fulfillment. Some distraction is on purpose, some distraction is brought on by others, and other distractions are subconscious.
There are ways to control this distraction -- hopefully these 5 tips can help you work from home a little better, improve your relationships, and help you reach your personal goals -- ultimately leading to a happier, relationally rich, fulfilled life.
For further reading on time management, I recommend Make Time by Jake Knapp and John Zeratsky, Deep Work by Cal Newport, and Boundaries and John Cloud and Henry Townsend