Improving Personal Productivity in a Modern, Short-Attention Span Age
November 10, 2009 12:04 PM   Subscribe

Why do I feel compelled to seek distractions while working, and what can I do to stop it? Time management/personal productivity filter.

Senior college student with very good grades.

Even though I like what I'm working on (most of the time), I have to stop a constant compulsion to seek distractions--fiddle with something else, check my e-mail, etc., even if I KNOW I don't need to fiddle with something, or that I have ABSOLUTELY NO MESSAGES and simply need to do the work. I've read a couple of time-management books (the "get it done" method seems to be working well), and I've done very well in college so far, but I know I'd simply have more *actual quality free time* if I buckled down and did the work rather than sought distractions all the time.

(1) Why do I want to seek these distractions?
(2) What can I do to stop it?
(3) How can I work more efficiently? And learn how to value the 40 minutes of quality free time when I'm finished with the work over the 8 crappy, low-quality, 5-minute e-mail "breaks" I might take?
(4) Also, some of my projects (papers and presentations) require work with a computer, and that makes it difficult not to check the Internet. Not looking for blocking programs so much as an internal tool. I've actually considered doing more "paper/essay" work by hand, even though that's slower, because I wonder if I get less distracted and actually get it done faster relative to the computer/Internet distracting me. Ideally, I'd be able to work like a machine on the computer, and save a lot of time without being distracted.

Know there are a ton of threads on this, and have searched through them without much help--but welcome suggestions and thread recommendations anyway.
posted by Dukat to Science & Nature (16 answers total) 39 users marked this as a favorite
You could have a TV or radio going, so that the distractions won't prevent you from working on your computer at the same time.
posted by StickyCarpet at 12:10 PM on November 10, 2009

Please note that you are posting this question to a group of people who spend time throughout their school and work days to check this website.

I have similar habits, but have found that if I don't allow myself to check my email, fiddle with something, etc., my mind will create those breaks for me and I'll find myself daydreaming or worrying about a topic not related to the project at hand. If I stick with a specific limitation (ok, I'm going to check my email, facebook, and read one story on Huffington - then back to work) I actually waste less time than if I let my mind wander according to its own devices. YMMV.
posted by lodie6 at 12:17 PM on November 10, 2009 [9 favorites]

I know this sounds trite, but I write this type of behavior off to my ADD.
posted by crickets at 12:24 PM on November 10, 2009

The only thing that works for me is to do work AWAY from the distractions.

When I need to write, I write in longhand so I'm not distracted by what's on the computer.

If I need to use a computer, I unplug the internet.

Go somewhere to study and leave your phone behind.

Get the idea?
posted by meadowlark lime at 12:26 PM on November 10, 2009

Get a second computer monitor and hook it up to your pc (you might need to get yourself a new video card if you lack an extra DVI or VGA connection). A 23" 1080p native monitor will go for about $225. What you can do then is set it up to extend your desktop across both screens. On your main screen, you can have productivity stuff (word processor etc) while you can change the other screen into a quad-split, or even an octo-split screen.

Then, you can throw on a media player; video player; RSS feed or browser; message board; facebook; calculator; Photoshop/Illustrator; your own blogging software, etc etc etc.

I find when everything is just open in front of me, without me having to check it every 5 minutes, I feel like I don't need to check and can get more work done. I especially like software that can-auto refresh every 2-5 min. There are software solutions to automatically set your second monitor to a 4-up, 6-up, or 8-up grid and you can plunk windows there that you need at the time.

It helps to have a list of TV shows that you kind of enjoy to throw on the 2nd screen. And might I recommend a grid-spot for's Live Music Recordings section? Fantastic stuff in there.

Also, find yourself an IRC chat channel (Firefox has a decent addon called ChatZilla that will allow you to connect to IRC channels in browser!). There are literally millions of IRC channels about a myriad of topics. Games, movies, magazines, guns and ammo, puppies, whatever. Idling in those can be interesting. Your school might have one. Your favorite website might have one.

And podcasts are ok too, but they take a lot of work to set up and I find I fiddle with trying to find "good ones" and that wastes too much time...

There are online comic aggregators, if you're into that sort of thing. I can't vouch for the "live update" ability, though.

The NFL website has almost-live game updates during gamedays for all playing teams. They actually have a slick flash interface that updates stats, drive status, score, and current play action. It is pretty sweet to have 8 of those going on Sundays while you grind away at some project on screen 1.

And if I really, honestly can't get work done (it happens sometimes) I take a walk or grab a beer at the local pub on cheap night and come back in an hour.
posted by Khazk at 12:36 PM on November 10, 2009

This adresses mainly part (1) of your question:
I've found that, when doing creative academic work (i.e. paper- or thesis-writing, preparing a talk or even thinking through a complex abstract problem), there's no way around "non-efficient" bumbling about. You can try leech block, "The Now Habit", writing without internet access - but your mind will still seek distractions, because it needs them to be creative, and to work on a high level of abstraction. So, as long as you get everyting done and have, as you say, "very good grades", just cut yourself some slack - this is not the kind of work that can be done by "just buckling down".
posted by The Toad at 1:05 PM on November 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

Have you heard of the Pomodoro Technique? Go directly to the cheat sheet. I've been using it for the last couple of weeks and it's great!
posted by handabear at 1:20 PM on November 10, 2009 [5 favorites]

We're only 4 weeks into the new semester, so no idea how effective this is in the long term, but so far leaving my laptop at the dorm, doing my homework with paper and a pen and using the annoying lab computers for the rest is doing wonders for my ability to concentrate and do my homework.

Also, avoid crowded tables at the library - more than three school mates at the same table is unproductive! Too many jokes, too little work, and three is pushing it.

Make sure you like what you do.

But leaving my laptop at the dorm is the most effective tactic so far.
posted by ye#ara at 1:24 PM on November 10, 2009

I suggest you try blocking out the outside world with ear defenders or white noise through headphones (music doesn't work as well for me, YMMV). This gives me a deeper level of concentration that is less prone to being interrupted by thoughts that are unrelated to the task.

Another thing that can help is getting rid of the clutter from your screen. You have a few options for that; you can use the full-screen mode of your application (if it has one), use a bare-bones full screen text editor like WriteRoom (Mac) or Dark Room (Windows), or you can use software that obscures parts of the screen you don't want to see, like my own program Clutter Cloak which can hide toolbars and menus from any application, leaving just a single content pane visible. If you're working on a task that requires a lot of switching between applications, none of these will help you much, but for those times when you really do just need to hammer out some text or read through something on screen they can make a big difference.
posted by tomcooke at 1:44 PM on November 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

Seconding Pomodoro. I have had a large bucket of tasks to perform in a job where I am happy and content (as happy and content as one can be working for someone else) and the whole 'where do i start' thing just drove me batty. Using Pomodoro has really helped keep me focused when I have monkey mind. Having the mandated breaks and something to

When I work at my real job (writing), I work somewhere that has no internet and I don't turn on wifi on my laptop. Even if you just sit at a different desk in your house, the change of scene really, really helps.

I keep a running list of things I need to look up and mark TK in the manuscript so I can find it later. If it's so bloody essential I can't continue without that information (which has happened exactly once), I pick up the phone and call someone to look it up for me.

I also use an eggtimer application to help get started if it's really bad or writers block is just fierce - "hey, just sit and write for 10 minutes" will turn into 40 before I know it. It's a modified version of pomodoro (which wouldn't work in a creative atmosphere IMO).

Most of all don't beat yourself up about it, that's also a form of distraction.
posted by micawber at 3:07 PM on November 10, 2009

BTW, you can get WriteRoom for free right now with MacHeist's Nano Bundle for the next two days.
posted by ursus_comiter at 3:13 PM on November 10, 2009

I created a separate user on my laptop. No extras on that profile and only work-related websites are enabled. At least I have to log out and back in as myself to waste time.
posted by variella at 5:11 PM on November 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

Stop adding new distractions - close social networking accounts, don't open new ones, remove the email notification icon from your toolbar, ditch your RSS reader. Walk away from it all for awhile and you'll find that you don't miss it that much. Use the library computers that don't have all your bookmarks and personalized settings, and obviously keep you from surfing NSFW stuff (theoretically). Don't bring headphones so you can't watch YouTube at the library.

And learn how to value the 40 minutes of quality free time when I'm finished with the work over the 8 crappy, low-quality, 5-minute e-mail "breaks" I might take?

Plan something really worthwhile for the 40 minutes that will give you an incentive to use your time well. Preferably something with some kind of intrinsic end time, or you could be playing WoW all night. What is quality free time for you? What do you feel you're missing out on?

Also, forgive yourself. Procrastination often has a lot to do with feeling bad about yourself and perfectionism. So you compulsively checked your email. Acknowledge that and refocus on your work.

Ideally, I'd be able to work like a machine on the computer, and save a lot of time without being distracted.

Perfectionism. Not possible. Nobody does this. Not everyone clicks over to their email or IM, but everyone finds some type of distraction. While in school I would clean the house, do the laundry, etc before I'd sit down to write a paper. I'd look up, and oh, that picture is crooked, and aww, the cat looks cute on the sofa, and I should call my mother, and are we out of milk?
posted by desjardins at 5:40 PM on November 10, 2009

There's some work I do while the television is on. I work slowly in these cases, and not very well, but when it's mind-numbing work at least I slog through it.

If I'm under the gun, sometimes I'll go to a cafe where I don't have anything else to do but sit there and finish my work.

If I really need to focus, I'll put off everything else in my life until the piece of work is finished. This works, but I don't recommend it.

Change it up. Work at least one day a week from somewhere different.
posted by xammerboy at 11:03 PM on November 10, 2009

A second screen to place the distraction applications is a very bad idea. Watching a TV show while working is even worse.

Here's what I learnt: multitasking is bullshit. Singletasking is the way to go. You don't tie your laces while answering the phone: you'll end up not having tied your laces and coming across as very distracted to the person on the other end of the line.

How does this tie in to your story? I try having a mindset that goes like: "I'm going to do this single thing, and do it right." So you cut up the work that's in front of you and take one of the piece, do it, do it well.

I have a 50% grey desktop image, a desktop that is always clean. [On Mac] I don't have a dock full of applications I might open. Only the ones that are actually open are in the dock.

There are a million productivity blogs and books out there but this is the only one that gets it. You just have to do the work.

If you want to do some reading however, the only thing I would read up on is the concept of the "zone". Here are some articles I liked about this:

37 signals - Getting Real - Alone time
Offices and the creativity zone

Also, reward yourself (I like smoke breaks and grabbing coffee) for doing a certain amount of work.
posted by wolfr at 1:24 PM on November 11, 2009

Sometimes old-fashioned behavior modification reward systems do the trick.

If you're so inclined, try this:

Write up a system of points for yourself.

Completing x task gives you 100 points.

Completing x task without giving in to the urge to distract yourself gives you 200 points.

Checking your email costs you 25 points.

Use your points to differentiate between intentional, beneficial breaks and less useful distraction breaks:

Every 25 minutes, stand and stretch for 60 secconds. +15 points.

Finally, give yourself rewards for your points. To begin with, try to give yourself a reward or two every day - so if you're giving yourself 100 points for a completed task, and you have 5 things you need to do today, treat yourself to dinner or a nice walk or a half hour of your favorite TV show for 400 points. Or even 200 points.

The idea is to give yourself repeated rewards - reinforce the behaviors you want to build up. Rewards are more effective than punishments, but even those few 25 points you'll be dinged for checking your email can be surprisingly effective in discouraging you from doing it.

Plus, tallying up all the points will give you a pleasant little distraction, but in a direction that will help you build the habits you want. [grin]
posted by kristi at 10:15 AM on November 12, 2009

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