I’d just taken some notes for this blog post of ways to avoid distractions, and my phone lit up and told me that North Korea fired a missile over Japan. I turned my phone over so I could get started on this post. I logged into my site and then Facebook made a sound in my browser that a friend commented on one of my posts. I closed the Facebook tab and came back to my post. I just started typing in the subject, then my Fitbit vibrated and said it’s time to go do 250 steps for the hour. I’ll be right back…
Mastery IS Practice
As much as I’d like to convince you that I am a master of distraction-free work, I’m afraid I can’t do that. In fact I’m a bit more prone to distraction than most. My primary job is doing IT support. My work life IS distraction and interruption. It can be a little chaotic but I still manage to get things done.
The skills of avoiding distraction are constantly in practice. The only mastery is the continual growth and learning of new tactics to avoid distraction in the many ways we have yet to even imagine!
I might even argue I’m just the right person to talk about this as I manage that and a couple blogs, websites, and other projects fairly well. So I’m going to share with you some of my struggles and what really works well for me.
1 – Rabbit Holes
This is one of my greatest challenges really. I start with a minor distraction and it becomes a really big deal. That email I got a little while ago from someone I’d been working with on a time-sensitive IT project led to 30 minutes of research and a phone call or two about a vendor’s capacity. After that, I had an order form to complete and proofread for accuracy (which means a little more research on dates and locations).
The Facebook notification on a particularly important topic to me led to nearly 15 minutes of research on what the other person was talking about. Then looking up a couple different historical sites (which of course led to some analysis about a vaguely related topic from World War II which made up another 15 minutes), and word-smithing a non-confrontational response.
In both cases I avoided distraction from what I was working on. I avoided it because I was doing my email check on a schedule. Just once per hour, I can spend time responding to email. When done, I move on. Likewise with Facebook – I was taking a quick look at my messages when the notification happened.
We have a notification world where we get alerts about all kinds of things. It’s great to be connected but when it impacts getting things done, it’s bad. Schedule yourself for these and you can still reserve a little time to catch up on this fast-paced world.
2 – Wandering Minds
If you manage to get your external distractions handled, your mind can take over.
Working away and you happen to see the word “dinner” and you wonder if you got out some food to thaw for tonight. Maybe you didn’t, so you wonder what might be in the fridge. Did you have a dinner date tonight? Did you call back your best friend to tell them about your last date when you texted that you’d tell them later? Another second and that phone is in your hand…
There’s a mental skill I like to call “acknowledge and release”. Kind of like catch-and-release fishing. You suddenly catch this big fish. You spend a few minutes admiring it and praise your hard work and clever fishing tactics. Then you let it go back in the water to live on and you go back to fishing.
The same thing goes with these distracting thoughts. A question pops into your mind about something you needed to do. You’ll probably remember immediately if you did and will drop it, but if you don’t, you have to acknowledge it and let it go. Is it at all important? Most of the time it isn’t. You can get take out for dinner. You’ll check your calendar after work. Your friend will call back. So just let it go.
Of course you might be thinking, “easier said than done buddy!” Yes, I know. It takes practice and I have an exercise to try.
If you have a social media account or a list of news articles that you scroll through from time to time, try this tip. Scroll as you might usually do but don’t click a single link. Simply read the teaser or whatever and move on. This is how you avoid getting distracted by those thoughts in your mind too. You just glance at the item, acknowledge it, and release it to move onto the next.
This is also a good tactic during a mindfulness meditation when you are very prone to distraction.
3 – Knock, Knock – The World is Calling
Distractions can also come in the form of interruptions by others. These are probably the hardest to deal with.
As an IT professional, I get phone calls from customers demanding help with issues, techs who need help with challenging problems, and technology buyers looking for details on new purchases. They’re pretty hard to escape.
Not to mention the interruptions of noise! I think I was distracted the other day at the office for a good 15 minutes trying to figure out where some tremendous vibration was coming from. Turns out there was construction just down the block doing something underground.
Many of these we can’t avoid, but with a little planning and communication, we can reduce the chances of an interruption.
In your office or at home at your desk you might find that people come up and start talking. They might be there to ask a question, tell you a story, or need something only you can give. If you have a door, you might try closing it and hang a note to say “Unavailable until 10 AM”. You obviously can’t block out a whole day (especially at work) but you can make a request for a little time.
I turn my desk phone off and make it a point to check voicemails on hourly breaks. Of course my smartphone is on do-not-disturb as well.
Lastly for those auditory distractions I use instrumental music (words distract me from writing). You might try some noise-canceling headphones to drown out some simple auditory annoyances.
What ways to avoid distractions do you have? I’d love to hear them in the comments!