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Do not disturb: how to avoid distractions while working from home

Do not disturb: how to avoid distractions while working from home

19 January 2021

Nir Eyal is the author of the 2019 book, Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life. Following the seismic shift in the way we work, he updates his advice for homeworkers

What does it mean to be ‘indistractable’?
You sit down at your desk to work on an important project, but a notification on your phone interrupts your morning. Later, as you’re about to get back to work, a colleague Zooms you for a chat. Later still, your kids come into the room just as you’re getting into the zone. Another day goes by and, once again, your most important personal and professional goals are put on hold. But what could you accomplish if you could stay focused? What if you had the power to become ‘indistractable’?

How much does technology play a part in distraction?
Not as much as you’d think. Distraction has always been a part of the human experience. We can’t go back to some mythical time before it existed.

The truth is that the real source of distraction is not the external triggers we tend to blame (“It’s Facebook! It’s my iPhone! It’s my boss!”). These are only about 10% of the reason we get distracted. The other 90% is down to internal triggers. Essentially, when we experience uncomfortable emotional states – boredom, loneliness, fatigue, uncertainty, fearfulness, anxiety – we look for some kind of relief from the discomfort by seeking out distractions.

What impact has Covid-19 had on our potential to be distracted?
If we thought the world was distracted before Covid-19, it’s only got more so! We now have more internal triggers and a more easily accessible range of distractions, from news to booze, or from food to Facebook.

Working from home doesn’t help. Most people are used to getting up in the morning, going to work, going to meetings, etc. Working from home means that a lot of that structure has disappeared, which can lead to being more easily distracted during the day.

What’s your top tip for a homeworker who wants to be indistractable?
It might sound counterintuitive but keeping a to-do list is one of the worst things you can do for your productivity. Most people write down everything they need to do – which is a good first step to get it out of your head. However, what they don’t realize is, unless you put it into your calendar and run your day from that calendar, it’s not going to get done.

Try a technique called ‘time boxing’, which ensures we actually do the things we said we were going to do. This involves scheduling your day down to the last minute – assigning every item on your to-do list to a time frame in which to complete it.

My boss is the one distracting me. What do I do?
There’s a disconnect in a lot of organizations between expectation and reality for employee productivity. For many people, our days consist of reflective and reactive work. The former requires us to concentrate, to plan, to be creative, and work without distraction. The latter is about picking up the phone, responding to emails, going to meetings, and answering questions. The problem arises when leaders demand that their employees produce work that requires them to do reflective work, while simultaneously distracting them and asking them to react to every email, every ping, every notification.

Managers and employees could try ‘schedule syncing’, whereby employees show their managers what their calendar looks like for the week ahead and how it’s filled with periods of reflective work. Not only does this give the manager transparency into how you spend your time, but it’s a chance for them to talk about priorities if there’s something else they’d rather you do.

What’s your advice for people with lots of meetings to attend?
I have a few rules for meetings. The first is that they don’t take place without an agenda, so that nobody wastes their time. The second is understanding what meetings are for – which is about gaining consensus rather than having a social hour. In every meeting, people should come having done some kind of homework – written up a proposal, developed a plan, or ready to present ideas – and use the meeting for getting sign-off.

The third is that brainstorming isn’t a group activity. Studies show that the optimum number of people for a brainstorm is one. What tends to happen in group sessions is that one person dominates. What we should be doing is individually coming up with ideas and suggestions, and then sending them to the person in charge of the project.

In your book, you talk about ‘hacking back’ (taking steps to remove unhelpful external triggers). How can homeworkers effectively ‘hack back’ while WFH?
For many homeworkers, one of the most pervasive sources of distraction is our kids. That’s why I introduced the ‘concentration crown’ to my now 12-year-old when she was about six. I found the silliest hat I could find and wore it every time I had to work undisturbed. Now, when she sees me wearing it, she knows not to bother Daddy. Essentially, I’ve interrupted the interruption.

We can also hack back our devices and how we use them.Try rearranging your home screen so you can only see the pertinent information – rather than a million apps that lead you down distraction rabbit holes.

And wear a watch so you don’t need to keep looking at your cell phone. It’s amazing how easily we can become distracted by everything else on there when all we wanted to know was the time.

Nir Eyal is the author of Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life

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