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Have you ever been through days when you simply cannot focus on work and finish your tasks? When distractions seem to knock on your door one after another and don’t let you concentrate?
Much of the distractions that harm our productivity at work are a product of our own carelessness and inactivity to eliminate them. Even though we try quick fixes or easy solutions to increase our focus, they last only for a short period of time and, after a few hours or days, we are stuck back with productivity issues.
This article doesn’t present quick solutions to avoiding distractions. It presents how a change in your habits and in your mindset can bring permanent changes on the way you structure and go through your routine. We avoid presenting a one-size-fits-all list of steps to eliminate distraction at work exactly because the term “distraction” is relative. Perhaps what distracts you is exactly what your colleague needs to focus. Noise, for example, might be counterproductive for some, but others may depend on it for productivity improvements.
With that in mind, we present 10 techniques and tools that are universally applicable to everyone (except, perhaps, to the 2% of the population who are true multitaskers, as well as other outliers who overcome attention and productivity barriers most people can’t). We present why each technique is necessary, and how to use mobile and online apps to boost the results from each one.
Understanding the basics of productivity
Before we move into practical insights of how to reduce distractions, there are a few principles related to productivity that we need to discuss.
First of all, it’s crucial to understand that changes in habits do not come overnight. It will not be from one day to another that you will stop peeking at your phone to check for new messages or emails. Changes in productivity need an incremental approach, with multiple corrections as soon as we identify a deviation from the desired behavior. Only with discipline and consistency we are able to develop healthier habits that last.
The second basic aspect of productivity is accountability. When deciding to reduce distractions and increase productivity at work, it is important to find a person or group of people who will help you track your progress. By setting yourself goals and deadlines and sharing them with someone else, you are committing to being publicly accountable for your behavior. This alone has dramatic effects on productivity levels.
The third aspect is clearly defining where you want to be. Your journey towards fewer distractions will not be smooth. There will be days when you will forget to turn your Pomodoro timer on, or you will spend more time at the cafeteria than you should. These small relapses should not be considered the end of the world. They are natural for anyone who wants to change their work habits. It is essential, however, to have a clearly defined final goal to avoid losing motivation due to these small bumps.
With that said, the remaining of this article will focus on providing a variety of tools, apps, and techniques that will help you reduce your distractions at work. As we already said, not all the tips lead to positive outcomes for everyone; some might even have negative effects on productivity. Our advice, however, is for you to give it a try at each one before dismissing them under the premise that they will not work. Your intuition might be wrong, and empirical personal evidence is the best way of finding out what works and what doesn’t for you.
3 techniques to avoid distractions
These three techniques are more than simple step-by-step routines that you should follow blindly. They are scientifically backed up by evidence, and they constitute deep principles of productivity optimization. As you practice them over time, you will notice that they stop becoming simple techniques and start becoming part of who you are and of your working style. Reaching this stage might take some time, but it’s definitely worth it in terms of better and more efficient work habits.
One task at a time: Monotasking
You will be as good at monotasking as you are at keeping distractions away
Extensive research shows that multitasking decreases productivity and increases stress, and yet many people insist on it. We all have a limited amount of attention we can dedicate to thoughts and memory, and multitasking creates an illusion that we are effectively splitting these resources efficiently over several tasks. In reality, we end up dedicating insufficient resources to all our efforts, leading to inefficiency and need for rework afterwards.
The best option? To focus on one task at a time, as simple as that.
Why multitasking does not work
Biologically speaking, our brain cannot multitask. It cannot focus on two things at the same time. What it can – and that’s what it does – is to quickly change focus between two or more “parallel” tasks. This change of focus might lead to the impression that we can carry multiple activities simultaneously, but in fact, we are dedicating our undivided attention to one single task for very short periods of time.
This leads to two major problems. The first one is the energy we spend on the switching phase. While our brain doesn’t need that much time to switch its focus, the process requires a considerable amount of energy and effort. The consequence? Increased stress and levels of fatigue. The second problem is related to the neural connections our brain needs to produce efficient, relevant contributions. If you’ve ever written a piece of content before, you know that it takes several minutes (or even hours) to start producing something meaningful. If you keep switching your attention between tasks and do not give your brain the time it needs to adapt itself to the activity at hand, your productivity and the quality of your work will be seriously harmed.
How to be better at monotasking
You will be as good at monotasking as you are at keeping distractions away. Both your brain and external events will play tricks on you: thoughts to check your social networks will cross your mind while you are trying to focus on work, people will call or message you, emails will be arriving constantly to your inbox. It is your responsibility to keep these distractions away and allow yourself to be immersed in a constant, undistracted workflow.
Other actions involve getting up for a walk from time to time and working in intervals. The Pomodoro technique, explained in more details below, will help you to create a more structured routine for work. We also present several suggestions for apps you can install on your computer and phone to keep distractions away while working and help you monotask.
Focused time intervals: The Pomodoro technique
Managing distractions is not about eliminating them completely. It is about separating them from your actual work to limit their impact on productivity. The Pomodoro technique is a widely known (yet rarely applied) method for dividing your work into chunks of undistracted time with small breaks for distractions in between. Its standard application is with a work time span of 25 minutes, followed by a break of 5 minutes. After four work sessions, you may allow yourself a longer break of 15 minutes.
This creates cycles of 30 minutes (and a total of two hours before a long break) that include both time to work and time to rest. The problem, naturally, is that we tend to overestimate the number of things we can fit into the 5-minute breaks. Opening social networks or replying to messages on WhatsApp can easily extend the break to 20 or 30 minutes. How can you avoid this? By avoiding distractions that are designed to capture your attention. Instead of peeking at your phone during this 5 minutes, dedicate them to go to the toilet or to close your eyes and reset your brain for another 25-minute work block. No message is urgent enough that it needs your immediate response (if it is, switch it to the work block and work actively on the issue).
There are several online and mobile apps that offer the Pomodoro functionality. We will discuss one of our favorites – Productivity Timer – in the apps section of this article.
Effective to-dos: Clearly define your tasks and keep track of them
To-do lists can be effective, but you need to build them right. They are an important aid against one of the major sources of distractions: thoughts of unfinished tasks that we need to deal with. To handle this issue, David Allen and his book Getting Things Done discuss a thorough framework to help you organize and define your to-do lists to remove these thoughts from your mind and free it to be more productive. There are three principles to the technique.
Clearly define your tasks
If you simply write “check emails”, what does that actually mean? Which emails should you check? How many minutes should you dedicate to the task? Clearly defining your tasks involves writing actionable and detailed to-dos, and establish a time limit to accomplish it. Use action verbs, and offer a good amount of detail so you know exactly what you need to do as soon as you read your to-do.
Keep track of the progress of your to-dos and of your activities
We might start the day with a great to-do list, but distractions make it very easy for us to ignore the actual tasks and switch to what Dan Ariely calls structured procrastination. As the professor of psychology and behavioral economics explains, structured procrastination “is the ability to do nothing while feeling that we are actually doing something.” A few examples include the zero-email inbox goal, reordering to-do lists just for the sake of “putting things in the right order”, and other time wasters that barely bring any real progress.
Keeping track of your actual activities is essential for later comparing them with the initial goals set on your to-do list. If both sides match, then you are on the right track for being more productive. If they are widely different and you barely accomplished any of your to-dos despite the feeling of progress, then you need to adjust your strategy to eliminate the distractions that keep you from achieving real results.
Organize and communicate your schedule
The modern culture of immediacy leads us to demand immediate results or immediate progress in basically every single task we are working on. And that’s not all: other people (namely, our bosses, colleagues, friends, family) also expect us to be readily available to act on their demands. The third major principle behind an effective to-do list is an effective schedule. Which part of your day will be dedicated to each task? During which periods will you make yourself available for external contact? And when will you turn off all the notifications on your laptop and phone? In his book Deep Work, Cal Newport mentions that communicating your schedule and availability to other people is as important as building it in the first place. This will help you not only avoid distractions but also set the expectations of others regarding your response time and work routine.
Even if we take into consideration the techniques discussed above, it’s important to admit that we are all prone to the planning fallacy. In simple terms, this psychological bias says that we perform very poorly when estimating time and cost requirements for accomplishing a specific task. When it comes to time estimation, one of the reasons for discrepancies is exactly our inability to account for distractions and their impact on concentration. Therefore, we should keep in mind right from the beginning that our time estimations are likely to fall short and create a safety margin to account for any setbacks (be it distractions or other urgent matters that we cannot avoid).
Online tools and apps
This section will focus on presenting a few apps that will help us potentialize the results of our new routines. We have a list of seven computer and mobile apps that cover all the three techniques, and will definitely offer valuable help in focus on removing distractions and helping you get your day organized and structured.
Source: Productivity Timer
One of our all-time favorite (we already mentioned it in our article about mobile apps to increase productivity), Productivity Timer (iOS, Android) is a great ally in implementing the Pomodoro technique. Intuitive, straightforward, and minimalist, the app lets you customize the length of each work and break intervals before starting the routines. It also offers the functionality of turning off your Wifi (although it doesn’t turn off the mobile data, which you have to turn off yourself).
Better yet: when starting the Productivity Timer, put your phone on airplane mode and away from your workplace. You will meet two of our techniques by doing that (monotasking and the Pomodoro technique), and you will immediately notice the benefits related to concentration and to the quality of your work.
Source: Google Chrome Store
StayFocusd is an extension for Google Chrome that helps you block specific websites that harm your productivity. Its principle is very intuitive: create a list of websites you want to use responsibly, and set a maximum time per day for each website or for the entire list. If, say, you don’t want to exceed 30 minutes per day on Facebook and on Twitter combined, simply create a list with these two websites and activate StayFocusd.
Once these limits are set, the extension prevents you from shutting down the control or from extending your time. Naturally, you can always change the settings or uninstall StayFocusd altogether, but that would be going exactly in the opposite direction as your first goal of removing distractions and increasing productivity levels.
If you really want to go serious about distraction-blocking, then Freedom is one of the best options in the market. The software is integrated throughout your devices (mobile, PC, Mac, and web), and it offers advanced blocking functionalities for both apps and websites. It’s also possible to create sophisticated calendars to block specific websites during certain parts of your day if you want to.
The software is not free (it starts at $2.42/month if you subscribe for an annual contract), so it’s up to you if you are willing to pay in order to delegate the job of keeping distractions away to a third party. The app offers you the possibility of trying 7 blocking sessions for free, but after that you will have to subscribe to continue using it.
Price: Starts at $2.42/month
Marinara: Pomodoro assistant
Source: Google Chrome Store
Marinara (yes, the name of the sauce) is a simple Chrome extension with the Pomodoro functionality. It’s extremely simple to use and offers basic customization options for both the duration of each session and the notification sounds of the extension. It also presents several usage statistics, which you might find useful for improving the efficiency of your Pomodoro sessions.
The extension does not offer any other advanced functionalities, but it delivers exactly what it promises: a timer that can be activated in one click and that helps you focus on work if you have enough discipline not to sneak around to online and offline distractions.
Source: Focus Booster
Focus Booster is a paid Pomodoro and time tracking app that offers more functionalities than Marinara. To start with, it offers a true time tracking service, not just general time usage statistics. You can link each of your Pomodoro sessions to a specific task and analyze how you spent your working hours. This is a great way of implementing the parallel comparison between desired and actual to-dos we mentioned earlier.
Focus Booster also has a mobile version which synchronizes with the web to help you track time when you are not in front of your computer. The basic version starts at $2.75/month (if billed annually), and the full version is priced at $4.75/month (also in the annual subscription).
Price: Starts at $2.75/month
If you listen to music to help you concentrate, Brain.fm is definitely a tool you should check. Noise is one of the most common and harmful sources of distraction, and eliminating unwanted external noise brings sensible benefits to productivity. Brain.fm offers you an AI music service that creates individually tailored songs based on the task at hand. Their work is backed by some scientific background, which makes it a somewhat more reliable tool for improving performance (although, yes, its results can be contested and they cannot be generalized to every human being).
The service is naturally not free, but it offers a trial period during which you can test whether it is worth it or if it’s just as good as your Spotify playlist. Make sure to test whether it is effective for you before committing your money to it!
Price: Starts at $3.95/month
Another personal favorite, SquidHub addresses the issue of to-do lists and how to best create them. It offers an intuitive interface that does not create any obstacles for adding and completing tasks. In addition to that, you can create several different lists and organize your todos with different categories. It’s definitely one of the best options in the market for helping you focus on tasks that need your attention.
The free plan comes with subtasks, recurring tasks, reminders, assignees (if you collaborate with others) and much more.
Price: Free, with premium options being released in 2018.
Avoiding distractions at work and increasing productivity is first and foremost a matter of self-discipline. While there are immediate benefits from using the techniques and apps mentioned here, the real gains can only be identified if you regularly use them over an extended period of time. Reflect on your routine to identify the most harmful distractions that keep you from focusing on work, and make sure to address them consistently to develop a new, more productive mindset. We guarantee you will experience major improvements very soon!