Pre-pandemic, many of us looked at days spent working remotely as a respite from the distractions of the office, where the colleagues, the coffee bar, and the ambient noise all seemed to be conspiring against the very concept of deep work. But this year we’ve seen, en masse, that working from home comes with plenty of its own diversions and interruptions: kids to feed, dogs to walk, grocery deliveries to unpack, the Siren call of a spice rack we’re reorganizing for the seventh time since March.
You might not be able to clear away these obligations or temptations, but there are steps you can take to keep them from completely taking over your time and concentration. Indistractable author Nir Eyal offered his advice, along with a useful framework for thinking about distractions, in a Quartz at Work (from home) workshop held Oct. 15. We also got an important pep talk and additional tips from productivity coach (and Quartz staffer) Phoebe Gavin.
Watch the complete replay of the one-hour session by clicking the large image above, or read our recap below, highlighting nine tips Eyal and Gavin shared:
When you find yourself scrolling through social media feeds or re-shelving your books, or doing anything but the thing you intended to do with your time, stop and think. Articulate, in writing if you can, what you felt in the moments before you got distracted, and consider what occurred. Do not chalk it up to the modern world or your inability to focus or your addictive personality, Eyal says. There was something specific that caused you to move toward the thing that pulled you away from your actual goal.
Don’t blame yourself for it, just identify it, so that you can become aware of your triggers and discomforts.
You wake up with an important report to work on, or with plans to devote an hour to some strategic thinking for your business. But first you’re going to quickly scan your inbox to see emails came in overnight. Hold up! Before you click anything, just set a timer for 10 minutes. Use the time to get back to the task at hand, or even just to sit with the feeling of wanting to do something other than the thing you need to do. “Allow it to crest and then subside,” Eyal says. More times than not, you’ll find yourself able to resist the temptation of the distraction.
“You cannot call something a distraction unless you know what it distracted you from,” Eyal says. Identify the things you need to get traction on, and make room for them on your calendar. After all, Eyal says, “if you don’t schedule your day, someone will schedule it for you.”
To-do lists can be fun because we get a dopamine hit when we check things off of them. But because they have no constraints, they can easily get unruly and cause feelings of overwhelm. Eyal instead suggests timeboxed calendaring (check out his free schedule maker here). It comes with the build-in constraint of a maximum 24 hours a day, can be used to carve out everything from urgent projects to strategic thinking to dinners or Zoom calls with family or friends, and helps prevent you from overcommitting yourself.
“If you want a competitive advantage over everyone else in your industry, you must make time to think,” Eyal says. It’s easy to get sucked into what Eyal calls reactive work: email, phone calls, chats with the boss, appointments, spontaneous interactions. Make sure you’re also setting aside time for reflective work, where you’re thinking big-picture and coming up with new ideas. Set aside an hour a day for this, or even just 20 minutes. But remember it’s time you need to spend without any distractions at all.
Got kids at home with you? Borrow a tip from Eyal and his wife, who got some silly headpieces they wear when they want to let their daughter know it’s not a good time to be interrupted.
Yes, technology can be a distraction, but it also can be used to prevent distractions. Eyal recommends the following hacks:
Set your phone to “Do not disturb while driving” even when you’re not driving. You’ll train yourself not to feel you have to answer every message right away.
Change the notification settings on your phone. Two-thirds of smartphone users don’t do this and are distracted by more pings and alerts than they actually need.
Try some SelfControl. This free app will prevent you from checking selected websites during periods meant for focused work.
Nurture a virtual tree. With the Forest app, you can set a timer for reflective work and plant a virtual tree that will flourish as you stay focused and off your phone. If you break the pact you made with the app (and yourself) and pick up your device, the tree dies—”and you don’t want to be a virtual-tree murderer,” Eyal advises.
Find a partner. If you don’t have a friend or colleague to keep you honest about how you’re using your time, try a site like FocusMate.com, where you can book a time for reflective work and get matched with another person on a similar schedule. “You would not believe how effective it is to have another person doing the kind of focused work that you’re doing as well,” Eyal says.
If you find yourself easily distracted, make sure you’re putting the proper weight on personality (which we tend to overemphasize) and context (which we tend not to consider deeply enough). When you think thoughts like “I have a short attention span,” “I’m a scatterbrain,” “I’m disorganized,” you are describing traits as though they are part of who you are and can’t be changed.
Instead, consider the specific things that are getting in your way and develop a plan to fix them. “If you’re distracted all the time,” Gavin says, “instead of attributing it to a flaw [of your personality] think of it as a problem you’re going to solve.
Changing up your approach to distraction takes time and effort—which can be discouraging even if we know the investment is worth it. So don’t rush it. “If boxing out your entire calendar feels uncomfortable and scary… start with one chunk of time,” Gavin advises. She started time-boxing two mornings a week, telling herself “the rest of it can be chaos” while she got used to being more regimented. Long story short, her Tuesday and Thursday mornings, which she booked on her calendar for specific tasks, were impressively productive. “It gave me the opportunity to learn and grow and get used to it over time,” Gavin says, “and it proved to me over and over and over again that it worked.”