How to Wrangle in Your Distracted Mind to Get More Done

Before we can beat distraction, we need to find its source. Sure, tech and coworkers can hijack our flow, but the real culprit? Our own brain … By making time for traction, hacking external triggers, noting internal ones, and using pacts, we can stop distractions at the source.

If you’re “always on” (responding to every ping, ding, email, and notification), it may feel like you’re killing it. But, according to behavioral therapist Nir Eyal, you’re actually doing yourself and your team a disservice.

Say what?

These distractions (yes, distractions) are robbing you of uninterrupted time for problem-solving, creative thinking, and actual work.

But regaining and maintaining focus isn’t just a matter of managing your use of technology (though that’s certainly important). Eyal recommends a more in-depth, four-part process:

1. Reclaim your calendar by planning out what you’ll do, when you’ll do it, and how long it will take you. Need focused time for a big project? Book it on your calendar, and let your team know.

2. Control external triggers by responding to (and labeling) emails by urgency, using “Do Not Disturb” messages, reworking app notifications, and making time for in-person communication.

A common refrain is that it’s hard to find time to do thoughtful work in the midst of the constant pings of email and Slack notifications. So take control of when and how those pings can reach you.

3. Note and fix internal triggers (e.g. boredom, fear, uncertainty) that lead you to distractions. Unpack those emotions and deal with them rather than ignore them. (They’re not going away no matter how many times you check Instagram.)

The body gets us to act by making us feel these uncomfortable sensations that we seek to escape. It’s called homeostasis. If you feel cold, you put on a jacket. If you feel warm, you take it off. All human behavior — distraction included — starts from an internal trigger.

4. Make “pacts” with yourself and your coworkers. Promise you’ll stick to a task for a specified amount of time. If you need extra accountability, tell a colleague what you’re working on and ask them to follow up with you.

Becoming indistractible (to use Eyal’s term) is no easy feat, so be kind to yourself when you inevitably veer off course. But don’t give up.

If you’ve simply accepted that you can only do real thought work at night — that the workday is for meetings and emails — stop. You’re doing a disservice to yourself, your work, and everyone else in your life. When we do that, we’re essentially stealing that time from people who are important to us.

What tools do you use to make time for traction? How do you manage your internal triggers?

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Comments

  1. Kathleen Young Rybarczyk
     

    I keep a “5 minute doodle pad” on my desk to fight boredom, have a sweater on a hook in my cubicle, have health snacks in my drawer, and schedule blocks in my calendar for big projects. If an emergency comes up, I handle it and jump back in to whatever I was doing.

  2. Maria S
     

    What are effective ways of dealing with internal triggers?

    1. Carla H.
       

      Maria, I’ve found that a combination of mindfulness (i.e. internally noticing and acknowledging when you’re trying to “escape” a problem, without judging yourself) and breaking down a problem into smaller steps helps me a lot.
      There’s lots of good examples on https://www.mindful.org/.
      Cheers!

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