Distractions come. They always do. We’re enjoying ourselves in a rabbit hole of irrelevant research or Facebook and suddenly remember that we’ve got important things to get done. What we choose to do in that moment of awareness, and others like it, make the difference between mediocrity and excellence.
My method of staying optimally productive is to schedule periods of uninterrupted focus. When I disarm my distraction triggers proactively, I avoid my common interruptions.
The first step is to identify which triggers are likely to divert my attention and premptively take care of them. For example, I know that hearing the ping signifying that I’ve received a text will disengage my focus. (Even momentary disruptions take significant time to recover, especially during creative work.) So, before my focus period starts, I put my phone in airplane mode and turn off its sound notification. Then I put it behind me or under something so I won’t see the flashing light. During my breaks I check my messages.
The second step is to identify triggers I can’t necessarily prevent and then set up conditions that stipulate how I’ll react when those triggers occur. If my distractions tend to come in the form of needing food or drink, I make an agreement that IF I feel thirsty or hungry, THEN I will take a sip from the glass of water at my workstation (that I’d put there previously, knowing that this is a likely trigger) and continue on my task until the end of my work-segment. IF I get an email notification, THEN I will ignore it until my break. IF I remember something unrelated that I need to do, THEN I will jot it down and continue working. When these scenarios are already thought out and scripted, no thinking is required, only following the protocol.
Occasionally, something comes up that is obviously urgent, important, and takes precedence over my task. Other times it’s difficult to tell whether or not this distraction is procrastination (making me worse off) or delay (not making me worse off). In those decision moments, I ask myself whether I’m doing the alternative activity in order to avoid working on my task. I have to be honest with myself here. Is it truly urgent or just further avoidance?
There are times, however, when I’m working on something creative, but having trouble moving forward. In those moments, I step away from my desk to sweep the floor, do some squats or water the plants. This change of position and scene clears my head. Often, shortly, I reach the needed clarity and return to my work refocused.