In my last blog post, I have emphasized that we are very vulnerable to being distracted because our minds are hard-wired to act on distractions and people take advantage of that. I have shown why I think that it is helpful to restrain modern-day distractions to regain back our time and attention, which will ultimately make us feel better. There is hope: We can reprogram our brains and install systems that help us deal with distractions. We will never become fully "indistractable", but I will try to explain the paths that I take to try and win back some of my time, attention, and health. If you have not read my last blog post, I will link it here- I truly believe it can give you some interesting insights.
Again, it is paramount to distinguish between distractions and intentionally used potentially distractive services. You can be distracted by Instagram through a notification, which makes you stop a task, scroll through the feed for hours, and get lost in the depth of the platform. But you can also actively decide to use Instagram to answer your friends, watch their stories, post a photo and then go back to your task. I do not qualify the latter as a distraction, as it can be an intentional use of the service. Here is how I try to be less distracted, and use distractive services more intentionally, from concrete tactics and examples to meta-behaviors and attitudes.
The first step towards minimizing distractions is to become aware of the things you are getting distracted by. We all have different needs, interests, and ways of doing things which is why distractions vary greatly for different people. If you have a full-time job, you might become more easily distracted by E-mail or Slack messages, whereas if you are a student, you might fall more often for Whatsapp, Instagram, or Tiktok. While tech products, services, and platforms are the most prominent sources of distractions, we are not limited to them. We can also be diverted from our tasks by other family members, outside traffic, objects in our homes, or even the delicious smell of our neighbors' prepared barbecue. What helped me to identify distractions was to develop a regular reflection on my productivity: Why did I have a much more productive day yesterday than today? Why am I not able to focus right now? And when I was catching myself getting lost in an undesirable distraction: Why am I doing this right now? How can I prevent this from occurring next time?
To not break a stretch of deep work because of all the reasons I have discussed in the last blog post, I try to schedule all distractions at distinct times throughout the day. Thereby, I can work for hours without being distracted (well, sometimes I fall victim though), increasing the depth of my focus and the efficiency with which I can get things done. For example, I schedule half an hour distraction time around 11 after finishing a deep work stretch, and again around 3 and 6 in the afternoon. The exact schedule depends on the day. Of course, sometimes I will check things in between, answer urgent messages or check stocks once in a while. But most of the time, I will stick to these schedules. In my distraction blocks, I will then check all the things I have missed in one large block.
On the quest to find a way to stick to these distraction blocks, I have tried a few techniques. I have tried to full-stack my calendar as a form of commitment (having my whole calendar full of time batches- from cooking, to project tasks to 30' distraction blocks), but that has not worked for me. While numerous people encourage this method, I felt like I spent too much time planning how I was going to work, but less time actually doing things. Today, depending on the context I am in (work tasks, environment, people I am with), I will schedule distractions differently. I either write down an approximate schedule of my daily tasks physically (on my whiteboard, sticky note, or notebook), while leaving space for distraction blocks in between, or I will just make an approximate schedule in my mind. As funny as it might sound, I recently started using my toilet breaks as distraction times, as these occur roughly in the intervals that I am willing to be using distractive services. A tip to reprogram your brain and not immediately act on distractions: Each time you have the urge to check something, write down what you want to check on a sticky note and then continue your task. Once in your distraction break, it is time to do the things from your list- although I suspect most of them will have become superfluous to check by that time.
Triggers are the visual, auditory, or olfactory stimuli that get you into distractions. They are the elements that your brain automatically responds to, and that lure you away from the tasks you want to do.
The easiest triggers to be removed are the notifications on your phone and computer. While most installed apps come with default pop-up notifications, you can change how and where they pop up and even disable them altogether. I default to turning off all notifications from the start of using a new service, and then only turn them on when I decide that they provide value to me. The only ones that pop up on my phone are messages and calls from people closest to me. Then, some apps' messages are shown on my phone's lock screen, such as e-mails and work or university-related messages. Depending on which service I am currently most focusing on, Instagram, Messenger, or Twitter messages are displayed in the notification center, which needs me a few more steps to see them (often enough for not doing it). Every other potential trigger is switched off completely. I have also unsubscribed from almost every e-mail newsletter and removed all the shortcut links from my browser start page. I do not get notified about any news; in general you can be sure that the important news will find you, and the rest is generally not that important.
"You don't need to follow the daily news. True breaking news will find you, and the rest isn't urgent or just doesn't matter." -Jake Knapp & John Zeratsky (Make Time)
These days, it is especially hard to disconnect from the news, but doing so will feel great; I guarantee you. I have also moved the most distracting applications on my phone to the very last screen, keep my computer desktop clean and constantly reorganize the apps I can see in my computer's dock menu. In general, I also have a "Do not disturb" function set at the times I would be most vulnerable to be distracted, such as after I wake up and just before I go to sleep. During these times, except for a few, notifications will be blocked completely, and I will only receive them at a later point. On IOS, you can easily schedule such things in the settings, and I believe there are similar apps for Android. Little additional tip: Use the app Forest, which encourages you to stay focused and plants real trees as a reward. While I have covered the distractions that concern most of us, more individual distractions need personalized solutions. For example, I can be distracted by outside noises in which cases, I will put my noise-canceling handphones on (no music, just the noise-canceling) to remove the trigger. If I am distracted by Netflix, I can easily cancel the subscription. When there is no trigger anymore, you need to decide much more proactively what you want to do.
Increasing friction is a tactic for changing any unwanted behavior. By increasing friction, you make it harder for yourself to act on things your brain thinks you need to do. Friction is increased with more investment into a behavior. This investment can take many different forms, including time, energy, money, or data. When you need more time or energy to act, or when it costs you money or data, you are less likely to do it.
Often, removing triggers goes hand in hand with increased friction. Instead of finding the Youtube link in the next tab that opens on my browser, I need to search for it whenever I want to see a video. Instead of clicking on one pop-up notification to access Instagram, I now need to unlock my phone and swipe across multiple screens to find the application. But increasing friction goes further than just removing triggers. Instead of picking up my phone in non-distraction times, I can decide to donate 5€ each time I fail to comply. Instead of using the phone on my desk, I can put it in the bathroom each time I want to do focused work. A popular way of not using your phone in the morning is to leave it in another room for the night. This slight increase of energy investment to stand up, get the phone and go back into bed is often enough to realize that this is probably not how you want to spend your next 30 minutes. Another method that some people use is to log out of the services after each usage. This way, it will take even more time to reach the endless stream of information on Facebook called News Feed. Increasing your time investment towards distractive services is the easiest method. I once created two different profiles on my computer, one for work and one for distraction-related tasks. In the work profile, I had only applications that were related to work, and everything else was blocked completely (you can block applications, documents, and websites in settings on macOS). My laptop was a complete distraction-free zone, and I had to log out and log back in (usually making me too nervous because of the significant amount of time it took) to use distractive services. However, I quickly abandoned this method since too many things blend into both work and leisure. If I need to work on a new design, I don't want to restart the computer just to watch a Youtube tutorial. Depending on your context, it might however work for you. Increasing friction is a powerful way to counteract distractions, and they can come in various forms; use what works most effectively for you.
I love structure. The structure in my environment translates into a structured mind, and I believe there is also some scientific literature on this topic. I can better concentrate in environments that are clean and structured, where everything has its defined place. While this is not reducing distractions, it sets me in a mindset for being less vulnerable to falling to distractions. But there are also more concrete ways in which the design of my environment influences distractions. Since I work on my desk 99% of the time (at least in the current situation), this is the place I want to keep rid of distractions as much as possible. The only things I keep on my desk are my laptop, monitor, desk lamp, some pencils, my water bottle, and a few sticky notes. Since last year, I have a designated place for my phone to put during work. It has been principal to physically create this place and not to rely on self-discipline only. When seeing it visually, I am reminded much more often and sticking to it more frequently. Although today, I often forget to put my phone at this exact place, it has helped me to keep my phone away from the desk 95% of the time. A large trigger for most people (or at least a large number of Americans, as I have shown in the last blog) is the TV. Research has shown that simply changing its position to somewhere less prominent decreases your TV consumption. Since moving to the Netherlands, I do not own a TV at all. You can design your environment to help you do more of what you really want to do: Keep your books in an obtrusive place, and you will read more. Hang your workout clothes outside your wardrobe, and you will exercise more. Put your distractive devices in your wardrobe instead, and you will become less distracted. You have the power to design your environment- and it impacts a vast majority of your daily behaviors. You can also change your living space to work on other, less trivial distractions. As I mentioned in the first paragraph, you might also get distracted by external factors such as light, sound, or smell. Close your window if you get distracted by outside noises or smells or change the position of your desk if outdoor movement disturbs you. Of all external stimuli, movement and noise are the main distracting features. Design your environment so that unwanted triggers are eliminated, better ones are established and distractions are avoided.
Flow is a state "in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter. The experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it." Activities become so enjoyable that you feel intrinsically motivated to do them and make you lose a feeling for time and space. These are activities in which you become so deeply immersed that distractions are barely going to reach you. Surely some of you know the feeling that I am talking about but do not know how these experiences happen. Although it is difficult to design them (it is barely possible), there are a few scientifically proven conditions that compose these flow activities. By adjusting your tasks to the following criteria, you will increase your focus and become less vulnerable to distractions.
Flow occurs in what Csikszentmihalyi calls the "flow channel": when an activity is claiming the right level of skill and challenge. In other words, the task must be right at the edge of our abilities; we must sense that our skills are adequate to cope with the challenges at hand. Another characteristic is that a flow activity has a clear goal that seems to be reachable within a perceivable amount of time. Each step in this activity is a clear progression towards this goal, and you get constant feedback about that progression. A flow activity often goes hand in hand with clear rules and systems set in place. There need to be boundaries that make you feel as if there was no way you could lose control over the situation. You do not experience flow in an activity that might get you fired from a job or that you think might result in a serious injury. When all of these things come together, you might experience flow, where self-consciousness disappears and the sense of time becomes distorted.
While all of this certainly sounds very abstract and complicated to integrate into your activities, it can be summarized in one simple tip: make your activities as enjoyable as possible, whatever that looks like for you. The characteristics of flow can provide a framework to make that happen, but in the end, it all comes down to joy. If you enjoy working in the park, go do so. If you enjoy going on a bicycle ride with friends, what are you waiting for? By making activities more enjoyable, flow is experienced more frequently, and distractions are bypassed.
As I mentioned in some of the last sections, the methods I use change over time and depend on the context I am in. Whether I am staying in Delft or Luxembourg, with or without my girlfriend, whether I have university classes or not, whether projects include other people or not, whether days are sunny or rainy: everything in my context affects the usefulness of my methods. Over the years, I have tried out many different things, and this blog post only represents a current snapshot of my path towards being more intentional with my time and other resources. I have tried deleting all distractive services, using downtimes and app time restrictions, moved around my desk, and played with the items I keep on it. I have intentionally designed my environment and developed systems for both reaching goals and staying focused. I have experimented with digital and analog tools to prevent distractions. And over time, my context has constantly changed, and my methods have changed with them. Some things have proven valuable for most contexts (such as phone notifications), but most of them change all the time. What I am trying to say is that implementing these (or other) techniques is not a one-time event, shielding you against all distractions forever. The methods should inspire you and perhaps be a starting point for developing your own. What I found crucial over the years is a constant reflection and evaluation of these methods. While experimenting with these methods, you will find out what works for you, and you will also become clearer about your goals. I have discussed this before: To spend your time more intentionally, you need to develop an awareness of what that is to you. By questioning and reflecting upon the way you behave, and the products and services that you use, you will slowly find out what "intentionally spent time" means to you.
When I slowly but successfully found my ways to be less distracted, it felt weird at first. It seemed like there was less going on in the world, like everything around me was much quieter. At first, I often checked my phone just because I thought: I must have gotten a message by now, right? However, this feeling slowly translated itself into empowerment, calmness, and tranquility. It gave me less to think about and more time to focus on essential things. I suddenly had more time at my fingertips, ready to be filled with intention.
This is what works for me, right now. The different domains to play around (developing awareness, scheduling distractions, designing my environment, turning more activities into flow, and self-experimenting) will prevail, but the techniques to get there will change. Now that I hopefully equipped you with new ideas and thoughts, it is time for you to become a little less distractible.
Jake Knapp & John Zeratsky. Make Time. 2018.
Cal Newport. Deep Work. 2016.
Nir Eyal. Indistractable. 2020.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Flow. 2002.