Avoid distractions if you want to get stuff done. It is that simple. Strip away the unessential and you can focus. There is no better productivity tip other than avoid distractions. But it’s not that easy, is it? Scroll down to gain insights on how to avoid distractions and increase your focus so that you can get more work done.
Why are distractions so hard to avoid
The world we live in, however, is full of distractions. Right now, for example, there are more than sixty social media platforms. Of these, fifteen are so popular, they’re long past the 100 million user mark. Imagine receiving notifications from all of these.
Most people today have at least 10 accounts. From which they receive regular notifications. What’s more, each and every one of them is an incentive, an invitation. You are sucked into a fascinating journey: the world of procrastination.
The issue with social media distractions is very serious. Hence, you can now find a plethora of apps to block or limit access. Imagine the situation people find themselves in. They become aware of how long they spend on various social media channels. Despite feeling aggravated, they can’t help themselves.
They go ahead and install one of many apps that limit access. There are many choices available precisely because the issue is serious and widespread. People can’t seem to be able to avoid distractions. Indeed, the future does not seem too bright. Particularly since there seems to be some sort of ADHD pandemic at the horizon.
Social media, however, is not the only culprit. There are countless other opportunities to stifle focus and productivity. From our own misguided attempts at self-management to natural work-related interruptions. It seems like it gets tougher and tougher to avoid distractions. Meanwhile, work piles up because stuff isn’t getting done. Everything has to suffer when we can’t avoid distractions.
But managing our attention and focusing on the work at hand should not be that challenging. Especially when there are so many ways to avoid distractions.
#1 Hack away the unessential
You might feel like your life is hollow without social media. Hence, you list your essentials. At least one account for sharing photos. Another one for videos, one for messaging. And another for displaying a public profile. These seem to be the essential pack. Perfect, everything else is not important. Hacking away these “essential” accounts might feel horrible. Perhaps even invasive.
To be sure, there are many people that would enrich the human rights declaration with “the right to free wifi”. Today, no internet access feels like some sort of punishment, some type of mild torture. In fact, people online brag about going as far as one or two weeks without internet. Somehow, this seems to be an achievement of sorts. Let us not judge, rather, we should aim to clarify.
It is only natural to feel compelled to spend time online. After all, it is a gamified experience. The more successful the app or the webpage, the more gamified it is. But you don’t have to quit all of it, or even part of it.
Hacking away the unessential is contextual. It does not mean that you need to quit social media. It does not mean that you need to quit anything really. All that it means is that you need to avoid distractions by preventing them.
To hack away the unessential, consider what it is that’s required of you. Be it that you work or study, consider the bare necessities. A desk, a chair. Pen and paper. A book. Access to the internet for reading scientific articles. A code editor. The latest edition of Android Studio. Music that can help you focus. Anything else? Put it on hold. Remove everything that you will not use, put it out of your reach. Enjoy the silence.
#2 Clean up unwanted interactions
We tend to get distracted because we have so much stuff we need to buffer through. Take unread emails as an example. There always seems to be far more emails than you can process.
Some of them are essential, while others simply flood your inbox for no good reason. Sure, go ahead and start organizing. Filter your inbox, add folders and everything else. In just a bit of time, you will start reading (and clicking on) various newsletters and offers. See, you’re already procrastinating.
Instead, simply hit unsubscribe to as many things as possible. Most often when you hit subscribe, you are not considering the consequences. Hundreds of emails over a whole year, each making it harder to avoid distractions.
Cleaning up means that you can have some freedom. Extend this to contacts on various social media accounts. Limit your feeds. Go ahead and disable notifications.
But cleaning up also works for other things in your life. Clean up your workspace. Clean up your sleeping area. In fact, regular cleaning can improve various aspects of your life. As little as making your bed can build up to being able to avoid distractions.
#3 Avoid multitasking
Multitasking is a myth. Imagine you are trying to do 3 things at the same time, A,B,C. When you multitask, you don’t “load” them into your memory. To perform operations simultaneously. Rather, you do fragmentary work on each. You have three separate streams of work, interrupting each other. For project A, B and C are interruptions and therefore distractions. This holds true for any of the things you try to multitask.
Naturally, we are talking about high-level multitasking. This is not the same as low-level multitasking. You should be fine to do both breathing and at the same time, for example. Even in this situation you might find one distracting you from the other.
When you pretend you multitask, you are creating your own distractions. The various activities you are engaged in. They become distractions, each for all the others. Switching between them is an operational cost that takes away a lot of your performance.
Simply put, don’t multitask. In fact, the fewer priorities you have, the better you perform. Even minor changes, such as using a standing desk, can become a distraction.
Some types of work, however, require a certain level of multitasking. For example, a teacher presents the lesson. Pays attention to students. Walks around to better monitor the classroom. When repeated for long enough, multitasking becomes a skill.
You can mix high-level with low-level without much difficulty. Riding a bike while talking on the phone, for example. But never going through your social media stuff while trying to write an essay.
Pretending you can multitask is one clear way to welcome distractions. Multitasking invites procrastination. Oftentimes, however, we are not aware that we are unable to multitask.
#4 Do preemptive scheduling
Some things are unavoidable. At work, all sorts of interruptions can happen. It doesn’t always have to do with coworkers who willingly interrupt. Rather, it is all so very common that we ourselves opt out of work.
It’s only human. All it takes is for any sort of distraction to occur. We immediately redirect our focus and waste time. It doesn’t take a fire drill for us to get distracted. Whenever we work on something strenuous, we find it hard to avoid distractions. Unless we use intelligent communication technology that spares us from unwanted interruptions.
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Naturally, developing better focus would be a great solution. However, it is also one that is difficult to implement. An alternative would be to simply schedule our distractions.
If it’s only human to not be able to avoid distractions, we might as well meet them at our convenience. Hence, let us schedule distractions. One great way to do so is to get as distracted as possible during breaks.
We should therefore attempt to take small, repeated breaks. And flood ourselves with as many distractions as possible. Can’t avoid them? No problem, let’s hunt them down.
Firstly, it would be a great idea to take a small walk. Check out everything colorful or loud. From posts to T-shirts and conversations. Secondly, go and stimulate senses with a refreshing cup of something. Coffee, tea, or whatever it is your fancy.
Moreover, dive right in your social media stuff. Check out those 2-3 unrelated things you’re curious about.
To be successful, make sure you keep track of these breaks and of overall productivity. After all, the whole point of preemptive scheduling is to avoid distractions. In a sense, you are indulging in a controlled way that should boost your productivity. So stay productive.
#5 Learn to focus
Modern school systems around the world fail students in one key aspect. They don’t teach them how to focus or study. Indeed, learning how to avoid distractions is possible. In fact, some people make it a skill to avoid distractions.
And, like many other things, it is something you can learn. Meditation is more and more popular as training to avoid distractions. There are numerous schools and practices for meditation. Some, rigorous; others, permissive.
To make one thing clear, meditation has been proven to have several effects. Research on meditation points to several quantifiable changes that occur with the practice. For example, an 8-week meditation course actually increases cortical thickness. Moreover, there are clear transformations occurring in the prefrontal cortex and improved attention.
Even amateur meditators perform better than average in certain tests. For example, they do better with unexpected stimuli. And can sustain attention for longer periods of time. There are clear benefits with regards to emotion regulation, and inhibiting attention disruptors.
Sure, you can meditate and learn how to avoid distractions. But you could also meditate and learn how to better control your emotions. After all, improved emotional awareness is a key factor at work. The effects are real, demonstrable, and sham-controlled.
Meanwhile, learning how to meditate can be as simple as downloading an app. There are countless guided meditation videos or tutorials out there. And if you imagine that you need great flexibility and fancy poses, think again. You can meditate while sitting on a chair, or riding the bus. If anything, the context provides better opportunities for training to avoid distractions.
Also, if you think that meditation during work breaks is weird, think again. People at Apple do it. And so do people at Google, Nike, McKinsey, Procter & Gamble, HBO. So maybe try it out.
#6 Cherry-pick your tasks
Cherry-picking tasks is a productivity-enhancing strategy. It allows you to work on what you like while still being productive with what you don’t like. Essentially, you get to do the work you love while still being a productive.
We already know that attention is limited in capacity. Therefore, it has to be selective. Task prioritization is essential for success. By cherry-picking your tasks, you default on prioritization. In fact, you are creating a subjective list. This in return generates improved performance on secondary tasks.
Scientists call this the attentional boost effect. This effect is temporally specific. Hence, you can use cherry-picking to select tasks you like. And then ride the productivity wave on tasks you like less.
Many people can feel, at times, overwhelmed. Or perhaps bored beyond bearable. Work pressure also factors in. What cherry-picking does is great because it eases the load. And studies suggest that it works.
To clarify, think of the 10-20 tasks on your list. Many of which branch out in various sub-tasks. Now make two columns. Tasks you really like, and tasks you don’t like. In fact, pair them, one on one. Start your work with one task you like. Then do the one that you don’t like.
Overall, getting stuff done helps you avoid distractions. Obviously, you start with the first task you chose. Now go for the second task. Once you finish, indulge in a small break. As shown above, it helps you avoid distractions. Take a small walk. Then start over with cherry-picking tasks.
For larger tasks, create sub-tasks. Cherry-pick sub-tasks as well. The main effect this has is enhancing productivity for dull tasks.
However, it does a lot more. By mapping tasks, you have control. Cherry-picking is the next level. In effect, you control and avoid distractions.
#7 Put those headphones on
One practical way to avoid distractions is to shut them off. Granted, using headphones to manage interruptions is not always practical. In some professions, you clearly cannot stop listening.
Most types of work, however, grant you at least a window of opportunity. You know the moment. That interval in which you have tons of tasks to finalize. And you don’t want to be distracted. In fact, there’s little to no need for you to do anything.
Music is magic. And it has amazing effects on cognition. From boosting cognition to improving moods. It gets your brain all “in tune”, so to speak. They improve your ability to focus, and even the quality of your work. Music at work also helps you finish work sooner.
So grab the largest over-the-ear headphones you can find. Put them on. If you’re lucky, they might even have some noise cancellation. Now play something nice.
Classical music vs. video games soundtracks
Most research studies pointing out to the benefits use classical music in experiments. It makes sense. Most classical compositions have unobtrusive harmony.
To be fair, we still don’t know if classical music is inherently better. Or if it was merely the main choice in most studies. It’s not like you can use progressive trash metal in academic studies.
Meanwhile, it seems that video game soundtracks are more immersive. Hence, they can help you concentrate better. And once you’re hooked, you’re in.
Funk, bob dylan, patterns and the unpredictable
Preferably, listen to songs without lyrics. It is perhaps normal, lyrics can be distracting. Familiar songs, however, may serve the same purpose. To be fair, few people can deal with lyrics at Bob Dylan level. Some songs are so dense, they’re borderline protorap. No wonder Dylan got the Nobel Prize for literature.
In a sense, a very familiar song with lyrics can be better than classical music. When a song is familiar, you start experiencing it as a pattern. The optimal range, however, is somewhere between pattern and surprise. Early funk does the trick brilliantly. Overall, your safest bet is to not listen to music with lyrics.
Don’t listen to nature sounds, it’s a trap
Nature sounds have a soothing, calming effect. We seldom get to experience nature to its full extent. And whenever we do, sight is the main sense engaged. We process nature through most of our senses. But sounds are special.
Why? Because nature sounds help you relax. To be fair, you can avoid distractions while sleeping. But productivity-wise, nature sounds are not optimal. You are better off with something more fast-paced.
Try the white noise
White noise is that sound between TV channels or radio stations. It’s an annoying “shhhh”. Yet it may well boost your memory and help you learn new things for longer time. Learn more about it in this paper on white noise.
White noise also affects your attention regulation. And, most interestingly, it helps with learning new pathways in the midbrain. These pathways can regulate reward mechanisms.
Yet not all types of white noise can help. In fact, only certain frequencies are helpful. Further research might elucidate the matter. Meanwhile, there are countless apps that you can try out for yourself.
Bottom line is this. If you can have an interval of peace and quiet to work, take it. If that interval is something you gain by listening to nature sounds or trash metal, do it. You have science on your side on the fact that your productivity will increase.
The short takeaway
Overall, avoiding distractions is as easy as you decide to make it. To be sure, you can choose a number of ways to work on your productivity. We have explored some of the best.
To list, you can organize, declutter and restructure your work habits. Moreover, you can hone your focus, use breathing techniques and learn to meditate. Alternatively, you can listen to music or nature sounds and disconnect.
You can use an even wider array of strategies, many of which draw from the latest research in science. What’s more, knowledge on how to avoid distractions keeps evolving. Soon you will be able to do a lot more at work.
At the same time, be aware that no matter what you do, being distracted is normal. In fact, it is part of how the brain works. Dedicating time for distractions is also a worthwhile remedy.
To be fair, most of us do not balance life and work too well. Hence, distractions are welcomed as pauses. Consider them a way you’re being informed that you might need some rest. But not all distractions are welcomed breaks. Some just insinuate themselves by infecting our reward mechanism. It’s human nature.
Hence, you cannot fully fix distractions, you can only avoid distractions. On the other hand, it is precisely distractions that allow us to be creative. Or even happy at work.