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How to Deal with Distractions and Protect Your Focus

In a world of distraction, focus is hard. But that doesn’t mean we should fight to protect our attention.

In this post, I want to share some tips for staying focused β€” and what to do when the inevitable distractions come.

In his book Hyperfocus, author Chris Bailey shares the most effective framework I’ve ever come across for dealing with distraction. It resembles one of those 2×2 productivity grids you’re probably familiar with and is incredibly simple. On the y-axis are Things you control and Things you don’t control, and on the x-axis are Things that are fun and Things that are annoying.

Let’s break this down section by section.

Annoying distractions you have no control over

You’re just sitting down at your desk for some focused work when you manager pops in and tells you that there’s a major issue with a client project and there’s an all-hands meeting in the conference room in 10 minutes.

So much for that copywriting you were going to get done this morning.

At that moment, you have a choice: roll with the punches and do your best to get back on track as soon as you can, or stew about the unfairness that your entire day can easily be derailed by a higher-up with no knowledge of your workload.

These are things you hadn’t planned on dealing with, but the moment you get distracted and your focus is broken, the damage is already done. Once you’re interrupted, it doesn’t do any good to get upset about the fact that you lost your flow. The most productive thing you can do at this point is just deal with the distraction and then get back to work.

One thing I find helpful when I know I’m being interrupted like this is to “drop a marker” or a short note about where exactly I left off. It’s just a short note about what exactly I was doing. Usually, this is in Drafts or my fancy notebook and helps me get back up to speed quickly when I get back from dealing with the interruption.

Fun distractions you have no control over

You’ve got your coffee, your headphones, and your laptop as you head to your home office to get some serious writing done. Your significant other is in the other room with your small child, and you are ready for some serious deep work time.

But right about the time you’re getting into your flow state, your 3-year-old pops in the room:

“Want to play?”

Your significant other comes in shortly after: “Sorry, I just stepped out for a minute to let the dog out.”

What do you do?

In the past, I would have been really frustrated by something like this. But when COVID hit and we had to do everything from home, I learned the best thing I could do in situations like this is just to enjoy it. I’d step away from the computer and play a quick game of ping pong or shoot some hoops on the basketball hoop outside.

And after about 10-15 minutes, I’d say “I’ve got to get back to work now,” and go refocus.

The truth is, getting frustrated about interruptions you have no control over just makes you less productive when you do try to get back to work. So why not use it as an opportunity to have a little fun?

Fun/Annoying distractions you have control over

You’re just sitting down to start your work day. You’ve got your time-blocked plan, clarity on your three most important tasks, and you’re ready to go.

But when you open up your laptop, you see a red unread badge on the email app in your dock. You think to yourself, “I’ll just check and see if there’s anything important I need to respond to quickly.” You scan the subject lines in your inbox and don’t see anything that looks urgent and important, but there are a few that look interesting. Curiosity gets the best of you, and you open one. A few seconds later, you close the message, but the app automatically opens the next message. It’s not urgent, but it’ll only take you a minute to respond to and then you won’t have to think about it anymore.

This process repeats, and an hour and a half later, you’re still cranking through email. You get a notification that you have a meeting starting soon, and you kick yourself for opening up email instead of focusing on the project that needs to get done before the end of the day.

Most of our distractions and interruptions belong to this category. It’s convenient to blame others, but the truth (more often than not) is we self-sabotage our ability to focus.

That’s actually a good thing because it means we can really move the needle when it comes to protecting our attention.

Here are some strategies you can use to prevent distractions from ever popping up in the first place:

  1. Use Do Not Disturb. DND has been around for a while, and on your Mac it’s very easy to enable. Just hold the Option key and click Notification Center in the Menu Bar to quickly turn it on.
  2. Set up Focus Modes. Focus Modes are surprisingly powerful. In addition to blocking out the noise, they can also trigger automations. Check out this article I wrote recently if you want some help getting started setting these up.
  3. Turn Off Badges. I hate the red unread badge that appears on most communication apps. While it can be helpful in certain situations, most apps default to having it for every message that comes in. If you need a quick focus boost, try turning these off and see if you really miss anything.
  4. Minimize Notifications. Like the badges, notifications tend to come for everything by default. Change this so that you only get notified of messages from VIPs (if you use Apple Mail) or specific teams (if you use Slack).

Remember, you’re never going to be able to eliminate distractions. Do the best you can with what you have, and don’t let yourself get bent out of shape if something outside your control comes up.

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