How to beat the distraction monster
I’m the quintessential student of productivity. I’m always looking at new ways to become more productive, improve my focus; get more out the door and generally just feel that I’m getting stuff done. Some days I feel that I’m actually getting stuff done, other days I feel that I’m just spinning my wheels.
Productivity is not a competition
I don’t know where I am on the scale of productivity. I don’t feel superior to people who admit to not being able to get stuff done. I don’t feel inferior to people who proclaim themselves as masters of the art of getting stuff done. Productivity is not a competition for me; it’s about feeling satisfied that I had a productive day, week or year.
But even so, I’m staring at 5 weeks before the end of the year and wondering how the heck I’m going to get everything done.
Mindfulness disguised as organisation
I recently started experimenting with Bullet Journalling. Invented by Ryder Carroll, bullet journalling is a way of keeping a physical, paper journal to organise your life, work and stuff that you have to do.
There are two genius parts to Ryder’s methodology. The first is the flexibility designed into the system - you can adapt your journal to suit your life and work almost any way you want.
The second genius part is that the process of keeping your paper journal up to date is, as Ryder describes it, mindfulness disguised as organisation. The process of keeping your journal up to date requires that you review different parts of your journal on a regular basis. That review forces you to be mindful of what you’re doing, where you’re focusing, and what you get done every day.
Over the last few weeks that I’ve been keeping my bullet journal (or bujo as it’s known), has taught me at least one thing about productivity:
I still get distracted way too much.
Beating the distraction monster is a journey
One part of my business is developing DIY guides - self-study courses - for small business owners. To develop these courses, I have to produce a ton of content. And to produce a lot of content I have to be very focused and very productive.
I like to think I’m a lot better now than I was a year, two or five years ago. But still, the distraction monster rears its head and I find myself off doing things I shouldn’t have been doing. Checking my email more than I should; looking up references or articles I want to use in my work; flitting from one piece of work to another.
So I’ve come to realise that beating the distraction monster is a journey - not a goal. Here then are the three steps that I am using keep the distraction monster under control.
Step 1: Control your environment
The first thing you need to beat the distraction monster is control your environment. And by control your environment I mean getting rid of external distractions.
This is, by far, the easiest thing you can do to stay focused and become more productive. It’s as simple as doing the following:
Turn off all notifications on all your devices.
No social media notifications, no email notifications, no notifications from websites. The only notifications I allow on any of my devices is from my calendar (I don’t like being late for meetings).
The next step is a lot more difficult.
Step 2: Control yourself
One of my distraction sins is checking email too often. I have designated times of day when I’m supposed to check email - after my morning writing, around lunch time and before I close down for the day. I’m not in a business where I need to respond to client requests in less than a couple of hours, so this frequency works well for me.
But still, I find that I’m checking my email more often than I should. And every time I do, I break my rhythm, end up reading and responding to stuff that could have waited an hour, and completely screwing up my focus.
This is a tough monster to beat, and wandering off to check email is not my only distraction sin. There is software that can help by preventing you from opening apps or websites or tracking where you’re spending your time. I’ve tried one or two of them but never really found something that worked for me; perhaps I feel that I should have more self control than to have to rely on software to keep me from using software.
Bullet journalling is, surprisingly, help me focus better on what I’m doing and not getting distracted. The mindful practice of reviewing my calendar and tasks every day, reviewing my weekly plan and the stuff I aim to get done each week - these all help me remain focused on the goals I set and not get distracted.
The key to controlling yourself is to be aware of what’s important.
By reminding myself of what’s important, every day, I am much better able to focus on those things.
Step 3: Focus on smaller chunks
A journey of a thousand miles begins with one step. So goes the old saying, and it holds true for almost any big thing we want to achieve. You don’t achieve a big thing all in one go. You get one small thing done, then the next and then the next, and before you know it you’re most of the way there.
I get distracted when I’m not absolutely clear on how what I’m doing right now fits into the big thing I’m trying to get done.
It’s very seldom that I can sit down and write an article like this from nothing. Most of the time, there’s the idea followed by an outline. The outline gets a couple of key words in each part, and then I write by focusing on just one part at a time. It’s a lot easier to get just one part done than it is to get the big thing done. But by getting each small part done you’re making progress and before you know it the big thing is actually done.
The point is that all of us get distracted when we’re not clear on what we should be focusing on now. And we can get clear on what we need to focus on now by taking the big goal and breaking it into smaller parts, to the point where we can get one small part done in one go, without interruption or distraction.
This is not just about planning your work. You need to plan, but the key to planning effectively is to break big parts down into smaller parts so we can focus just on the small part to get it done.
Stop beating yourself up for getting distracted
Beating the distraction monster is still a journey, and perhaps it will always be. But every time we beat the monster a little bit it becomes easier to beat it next time.
Surprisingly, one of the best ways to beat the distraction monster has been to stop beating myself up when I get distracted. Beating yourself up just leads to feelings of guilt, and guilt does not help you get less distracted - it just makes you feel guilty.
So accept that you will get distracted - more or less - and when you do, let it go so you can get back to focusing on what matters.
And when you take time off, let it all go. We need time to relax, and sometimes getting lost in distractions is the best kind of rest and relaxation.