Disabling Our Distractions

What do you do when you just can’t seem to get yourself to focus on the task at hand? To shut off Twitter, stop checking email, quit doing chores that seem suddenly irresistible, and just accomplish the thing?

When I asked my fellow editors how they stay focused, they reported that they use rewards, time-management apps, and background sound. Rewards for putting in an uninterrupted block of time might be chocolate, time for playing Skyrim, a walk with the dog, or—of course—a fresh cup of coffee or tea.

Editor Robin Marwick motivates with an app called Forest, which grows virtual and actual trees for you—provided you don’t touch your phone. But when she gets really spacey, she says, she resorts to a simple and surprisingly effective visual: a white board with post-its reminding her what she’s doing now and what she’s doing next. Other apps that editors like are Timesheet (for tracking hours) and Self Control (an actual app for blocking your own access to distracting sites).

Sound vs. Sound

To tune out aural distractions, suggested apps and websites include:

Baby Ben Alarm Clock

Since I prefer mechanical devices to electronics, my own technique is to wind up my vintage Baby Ben alarm clock. The ticking is enough to snap my attention away from electronic distractions (“That ticking! Oh, right, must focus on work”), but for some reason, the sound doesn’t interfere with my writing. Like Robin’s white board, it’s mysteriously effective.

Working with music playing is a matter of personal preference. Those who find it helps them focus suggest Pandora stations or customized Spotify playlists, baroque music, classical guitar, classical Indian ragas, or even classic rock, provided it’s playing in another room. Editor Beth Bedore turns to her trusty clock radio to manage time. “I use the sleep button and tune it to a classical music station or CBC. It’s an hour at a time of background noise. When the radio goes silent, it’s time to stand up, refresh coffee or water, check messages, and then get back to work.” Like Beth, other colleagues in home offices use music as a time-management tool by working for the length of one album or listening to the duration of one song while taking a break.

Break Time

Breaks are really important, it turns out, and research on work/break ratios points to 52 minutes of work with 17 minutes of break as being most effective. A similar approach is the Pomodoro Technique, with 25-minute work blocks, 5-minute breaks, and then a longer break after 4 blocks.

You can use breaks to train your brain to focus for those optimal lengths of time. One approach proposes giving yourself a minute or two on a timer to check your mail or notifications. Then, reset your timer for 15 minutes—notifications turned off—to work without checking in. Once you get used to 15 minutes, you can gradually extend that no-distraction period up to 30 minutes. (Read more about retraining your concentration.)

Of all the guidance I found, I was most intrigued by the suggestion that what you wear to do your work, even in your home office, affects your focus and productivity. I’m investigating that now and looking forward to polling my home-office colleagues about whether they dress for success.


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