Freelance Switch has a nice article called 10 Ways to Eliminate Distractions. Below is their list of 10 items along with my commentary. See the original post for their detailed discussion about each item.
- Turn of email notifications — This goes along with the idea that humans can’t really multi-task so you are better off only focusing on one thing at a time. I understand that in Switzerland some companies have policies only allowing employees to check their emails once each day to help minimize the interruptions from email. Your job may require to to check it more often, but each incoming email shouldn’t jar you away from your current task. Remember, email is there to work for you not the other way around.
- Turn off Internet — We talked about this in an article about whether the internet is a friend of foe of productivity. In Focus for Results we discussed a method for making internet usage highly focused by keeping a list of the things you need to lookup and batching your internet time together. If you aren’t careful how and when you use the internet, the distractions can far out-weigh the benefits.
- Utilities — The article includes some suggestions for tools that will help limit your browsing of non-productive sites. As a consultant I’ve implemented web filtering solutions for companies to help filter out inappropriate content to reduce wasted time and potential legal issues. Personally I’d like to see a Firefox plugin that puts a timer in each tab showing how long you’ve had that page active. It wouldn’t prevent you from doing anything, but it would help you see where your time was actually going. Even better would be something that gives you a daily report showing how much time you spent on various categories of websites.
- Headphones — I know a lot of people like to listen to music while they work. This doesn’t work very well for me. Whenever I try to listen to music I find that it is distracting. It comes down to the multi-tasking. When music is playing I often find myself concentrating on ignoring it instead of it being soothing or helpful. Mozart piano sonatas are generally an exception to this–I can listen to them while working on most things. I probably fall into a different category than most people on this because I got my first two college degrees in music composition, so I may be a little more distracted than the average person. Just make sure that music is actually helping you and isn’t a subconscious distraction. I would like to try wearing noise canceling headphones without any music just as a way to stay focused. I tried a very cheap pair once and they didn’t work very well.
- Do Not Disturb Sign — Some type of signal telling the rest of your team when you are “interruptable” and when you are not can go a long ways to helping you stay focused. Keep in mind that when you get interrupted, you not only have to deal with the interruption but also the time it takes to get back to what you are doing. So if it takes 12 minutes to get back up to speed a 30 second interruption actually costs you 12.5 minutes in time. We talked about this in Nine Ways to Destroy Productivity. I once had an employee who kept being interrupted. He found a little light that said “BUSY” and put it on top of his cubicle. The light had a switch that ran down to his desk where he could easily turn it on when he needed to focus. Other companies have used colored hats. When you are wearing the red hat, that means people should leave you alone. Even just sitting down and having a discussion about how to handle interruptions with your team can be very beneficial.
- Clear Workspace Clutter — This is something most people overlook. Just like you wouldn’t want to try to sit and work next to a running jackhammer, don’t try to force yourself to work with a lot of visual “noise”. My current desk setup is less than idea for this because I have a clear desk top so I can see everything under my desk. Not only do I have to keep the top of my desk free from distractions, but I can’t just throw them under my desk on the floor. If you want some tips for keeping your desk neat and organized, check 12 Tips for an Organized Desk and A Desk for Your Desk.
- Clear Computer Clutter — I tend to be bad about this. My desktop is a work surface where I toss files, hack up text and images, create a bunch of folders for sorting things, etc. It only takes a few days for my clean desktop to be covered with 100 icons. As long as I only keep the desktop for a scratch pad things work fine because I can just delete everything at the end of the day. The problem comes when I don’t move important files off the desktop and then I have to check through each one before purging the contents. One trick is to put everything on your desktop in a folder labeled with the date. If you haven’t needed anything out of it at the end of a month, you can probably delete it safely. This isn’t an ideal solution, but it is a quick and dirty method for cleaning your desktop in a hurry.
- Handle Interruptions — The article gives a few good tips on how to handle interruptions. Here is a quick tip for dealing with people who want to come in a gossip: When the gossiper comes in to share the latest scoop, take out a pen and paper getting ready to take notes and ask “what’s on your mind”? They will probably be much more careful, if they think you are going to write down what they say!
- Use Minimal Programs — The most powerful tool isn’t always the most efficient. Using a program that gives you minimal features can help you stay focused on the task at hand and less on extraneous details. The Paradox of Powerful Tools talks about this issue and gives an example from a company that was switching to PCs from their old mainframe system. There are also some word processors designed to run in full screen, blocking out everything else without any fancy tool bars or formating features. The idea is to let you focus on writing without any distractions.
- Distraction Time — Giving yourself some time for dealing with distractions is vital. Just make sure you are dealing with them on your time table and on purpose. The productivity expense of a distraction when you are in the middle of intensely focused work is much greater than when you set aside some time for dealing with them intentionally.
For the Freelance Switch commentary on each of these items, see the original article.
7. Clear Computer Clutter : The best trick I have found for this is to turn off Desktop Icons (in Win XP right-click on the desktop, choose “Arrange Icons By” and uncheck “Show Desktop Icons”. The perfectly clear desktop gives me the same feeling as my empty Inbox.
Mark Whiting says
Hey nice post.
I just wanted to add that in regards to your third point, utilities, there is a Firefox extension called pageaddict that performs tasks similar to those you describe. It can be used to monitor time spent on different sites and you can group the sites to get a more relevant report on your internet activity. Their website is pageaddict.com
One of the best ways for me to eliminate distractions is to distract me from getting distracted by placing utility bills where I can see them easily. Get me typing my blog posts really fast in no time. :-D
Mark Shead says
@Mark – Thanks for pointing this out. I’m installing it right now.
As I am increasingly working from home, distractions are becoming more influential to my workflow. One of the things I am trying to do is to do one task at a time and mentally block out anything else. If for example I want to check my RSS feeds I will motivate myself to finish my current task first and then check all my feeds in one go so I don’t keep dipping into them throughout the day.