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One of the fundamental principles of productivity is that in order to get things done, you gotta focus. And that necessary focus requires that you eliminate as many distractions as possible -- not always an easy task with the Internet, coworkers and busy phones calling to you from every direction.
Here's how to block out the Siren's call of distractions, in 10 steps.
First, let me say that there should be room in your life for distractions. Work should be fun, and without a few distractions, things can get boring. That being said, when it's time to do a task, there's no reason to do it while handling a million other things. You'll never get things done that way. When you're ready to work on a task, block out all else, and really focus on it. Do your best on that task, and get it done as quickly as possible. Then reward yourself with distractions.
That's all easier said than done, I know. So here are 10 of the best ways I've found to eliminate distractions and really focus on a task.
Note: A few times a month we revisit some of our reader’s favorite posts from throughout the history of FreelanceSwitch. This article was first published in June of 2007, yet is just as relevant and full of useful information today.
- Turn off email notifications. And IM and Twitter and phones and other ways people communicate. Instant communication is great, but when you're working on a task, they are nothing but interruptions. And constant interruptions means you'll never be able to really focus on what's before you. Batch process your emails and phone calls, set a time to be on IM or Twitter. Other than the times you set for these communication tools, stay off them. It's hard at first, but once you give it a try, you'll realize you can live without them.
- Turn off Internet. If you don't absolutely need the Internet to do the task before you, disconnect. Literally pull the plug. This may sound drastic, but really, the Internet is the biggest time-waster ever invented (which is why I love it). It will suck you in and never let you go. It's like crack, but with an educational value. Turn it off.
- Utilities. If you absolutely need to use the Internet (for "research"), you don't need to have access to every time-wasting site on the interwebs. Try a Greasemonkey Script (you'll need Firefox and the Greasemonkey extension) such as Invisibility Cloak or Kiwi Cloak to block out predetermined time-wasting sites (and yes, you know which ones they are) until a predetermined time, or use Time To Go to only allow you to surf a site for a certain amount of time. Great choices for those of us who have no self control.
- Headphones. Music is a great way to block out the cackling laughter of your co-worker in the next cubicle as she reads joke emails from her sister, or the loud bragging of your ultra-buff boss as he talks about how he bench pressed a bull this morning. Put on a pair of headphones, and crank up the Radiohead. Or, if music is a distraction in itself, just put on the headphones with no music. It will help block out the surrounding sound, while making people think you can't hear them. When cackling cubicle neighbor comes over to ask if you got her forwarded email about why men are like monkeys only uglier, pretend you can't hear her. Bob your head up and down like you've never heard Jimi jam like this before.
- DND Sign. Make a Do Not Disturb sign to put on your desk when you need to concentrate. Let co-workers know that for those times when you have the sign up, you really need to focus and can't be disturbed. Then be sure to take the sign down and be available when you're not focusing on a task. Don't be a smarty and leave it up the whole day.
- Clear workspace clutter. For me, visual clutter is distracting. I like to clear my desk completely, along with all the piles that used to surround my desk and the papers tacked to the walls around me. Now I work in a Zen space (sans the sandy Zen garden). Here's how to do it: take down everything from your walls except the photo of your kid with ice cream all over her face; put all your papers on your desk (and on the floor around you) in your inbox (if you don't have one, get one, or create an "in pile"); now process through that pile of papers: trash, delegate, file, put it on your to-do list to do later (and in an "action folder"), or do it now if it takes 2 minutes or less. Process quickly through your inbox, and your desk is clear. Do this once a day to keep the desk clear. Also throw out those funny knick knacks on your desk. They're just silly.
- Clear computer clutter. Take all the icons on your desktop and put them in a folder in My Documents (or something similar). Sort them out later. Now close all unnecessary programs. Turn off any notifications and widgets and other distractions. Only have the program open that you need for this task. Be sure to come back later and sort through the files in your "to be filed" folder.
- Handle interruptions. Even if you do all of these things, there will inevitably be interruptions from time to time. Learn how to handle them efficiently and get back to your task. If someone interrupts to make a request or give you information, quickly jot tasks and information in a notebook to be processed later. If others want to chat, stand up (to stop them from sitting down), politely tell your visitor that you are in the middle of an important task, and let them know you'll get back to them when you're done. If the interruption is unavoidable, write down where you were in your task, so you can come back to it with the least possible effort.
- Use minimal programs. I'm a fan of minimal word processors, such as DarkRoom, JDarkRoom, WriteRoom, Writer, Google Docs or Abi Word. There's something about these programs that force you to focus on your task. You can always format later. Use them in full screen mode, so everything else is blocked out. Then crank it out.
- Distraction time. Have a time for distractions. You can either schedule times for your email processing, reading your feeds, and other distractions, or set aside 10 minutes at the top of every hour, or give yourself 10 minutes after every 30 minutes of focused work.