5 Ways to Manage Distractions So You Can Do Your Best Work

Recently, I've been very lucky that I have had a number of fun and rewarding projects on my plate. However, sometimes there can be a little too much of a good thing. With all these new projects, I've found myself trying to meet multiple deadlines with large stretches of required self-directed work. Usually, I enjoy this process but lately, it's felt like trying to eat the proverbial whale under with a countdown clock. 

There is only a small problem with this. I'm constantly getting distracted. Be it my daughter's dance class, responding to emails, trying to be present on occasionally social media, or do the laundry, there nearly always seems to be something pulling my attention away from what I need to be doing. Below is a short list of suggestions I've been using to try to keep myself on task.

1. Realize that devices and the internet are meant to distract you
Most of the modern devices that we use on a daily basis are a wonderful boon to our lives. The ability to talk and communicate instantaneously with loved ones from around the world would have been unthinkable 120 years. Our smartphones give us the ability to stay on top of work in numerous ways, removing us from the drudgery of being chained to a desk in an office. Our ability to learn, create, share and contribute has made us all artists, photographers, writers, and filmmakers that were only available to a handful of wealthy enthusiasts a few decades ago.

But, as we all know, the price of that convenience is a constant ping from the world that wants our attention, our likes, our comments, and ever-larger piece of our grey matter. Let alone work, our devices often make it hard for us to even think properly

The first step to gaining control is realizing that many of these devices need to be treated with caution. Think of your devices like a blaring television, a glass of wine, and a chatty friend all rolled into one. There is nothing wrong with any of them, but they probably aren't the best thing to have around when you're trying to work. 

Suggestion: Turn off your phone (or at least Silent/Do Not Disturb) when you're working. Close your internet browser or, if your work requires you to it, close excess tabs so you can focus on your work. 

Challenge: Turn off your phone for 1hr a day (not silent mode; turn it off-off) for a week. Initially, it may drive you a little crazy, but you'll find that your twitchiness goes away within a couple minutes. 

2. Learn your Distraction Triggers
You know that feeling when you are searching for the right word or phrase and it just won't come? You get hit with that momentary writer's block and the desire to do anything other than finish writing that sentence/email/dissertation feels overwhelming? Yeah, that's me at least a dozen times a day. I spend a large portion of everyday writing, and there are definitely times when it is easier than others. During those moments, if I'm not aware of it, I'll say something like "I'll just check if there is anything interesting in my email/Facebook/the news". Often, it can take me 10 - 15min to realize what I did and get back to work. I'm far more likely to stay on task when I'm working without an internet connection, such as on a plane flight 

Suggestion: We all have our own triggers that pull us out of our work: food, office gossip, or the latest episode of the Expanse. Learn where your weaknesses are. You won't always stop yourself, but you should be able to limit how often it happens. 

Challenge: Write out your distraction triggers on a piece of paper or a Post-It note and keep them near you when you work.

3. Use controlled, limited distractions to keep yourself focused
Some people work well in absolute silence in a locked room. I do not. I find that closed, private offices are usually the worst place for me to work, since I easily become under-stimulated. While I need to be careful of not getting distracted, I find that playing music or white noise has a way of keeping the portion of my brain that isn't focused on the task at hand occupied. For years, I have used apps like Coffitivity (which mimic the ambient noise of a coffee shop) to keep myself from going stir-crazy. Also, there are definitely times when working in a crowded coffee shop or co-working space filled with other people furiously tapping on their laptops is a great way of keeping me focused. 

Suggestion: Try using music or ambient noise (there are dozens of apps to choose from) or a new environment to stay focused. 

4. Remove yourself from a situation where self-control is limited
In Tim Herrera's excellent article for the NY Times, Struggle With Self-Control? Take Yourself Out of the Equation, he says that what modern society rewards those that can maintain high levels of self-control (saving for retirement, obtaining numerous degrees, staying fit and healthy). Unfortunately, humans are not great at being able to maintain self-control in face of lots of temptations for extended periods. In fact, those that succeed in staying in control usually do so not because of higher levels of will-power or determination, but that they put themselves in situations where they experience less temptation. If you know that Jake will insist on talking to you about the latest football game while you are trying to get to a deadline, maybe work off-site for an afternoon. Alternately, If you know that you're trying to stay on your paleo diet, don't take a lunch meeting at Panera Bread. 

Suggestion: Before sitting down to work, take 2min to think about what might interrupt you. We can't always shield ourselves from distractions, but often we can be aware of where temptation may stop our ability to stay focused.

5. Don't rely on willpower, try gratitude and compassion instead
In our culture, we laud willpower, grittiness, and determination. However, as modern neuroscience has made clear in recent years, each of those traits has a tendency to grow less effective over time. David DeSteno writes in The Only Way to Keep Your Resolutions, those that see their goal as a harsh master only accomplished through struggle are far less likely to succeed than those that saw the work that they are doing as something positive and worthwhile. While tough goals that are fraught with challenges often call out for distraction, those that we're engaged in seem to fly by. 

Suggestion: Not all projects are naturally easy and fun. However, the next time you are working on a tough project, try to find the reasons you can be thankful for doing it.