How to rise above distractions and get things done

Distractions kill productivity, whether you work in the office or remotely. Learn to create a distraction-free environment for high-quality, high-output work.

How to rise above distractions and get things done

Your day starts with eagerness and determination. You’re going to be productive and press through three or four key items on your to-do list.

You get to the office and need to start with a fresh cup of coffee to maximize productivity. While filling your cup, you catch up with a colleague and eventually settle in at your desk a little later than expected.

Before tackling that to-do list you want to make sure you’re caught up on emails. You see an assortment of meaningless activity, but a few pressing issues you need to resolve, so it takes about thirty minutes to get on top of your inbox.

One email was a request from a client for a quick chat and they are available this morning, so you go ahead and schedule the meeting for an hour from now.

With several pings, you suddenly get pulled into a conversation in one of the many company Slack channels. It’s nothing overly urgent, but you chime in anyway with a lot of back and forth with four other colleagues. Just as you think the discussion is coming to a close, someone new joins in.

Finally, after some time, you’re on top of Slack. But you realize your client call is coming up in 15 minutes. Not enough time to start tackling that to-do list. So you prepare for the call while simultaneously checking in on social media and responding to your friend’s text message.

You take the client call. It lasts a little longer than expected, but it goes well. Once it has wrapped up you look at the time. It’s now lunch!

How familiar does that sound to you? You’ve had an extremely busy morning, but that to-do list hasn’t even been touched. What happened?

Rising above distractions

This is a familiar situation for many workers, whether they are in an office with a team or working remotely. The root cause of this problem, and overall killer of our productivity, is distractions.

Regardless of where and when you work, success in a large way depends on your ability to filter through the constant noise and maximize your productivity. You may think this is something more present in an office environment, but virtual distractions are equally challenging and ever-present today.

Your goal is to rise above distractions and actually get done each day what you plan to accomplish.

Creating the right environment for productivity

A great place to start is by focusing on what the perfect work environment is for you. You should know your own habits and preferences. You should spend some time thinking through the perfect environment for maximum productivity.

The space for maximum productivity

Are you better in a crowded room with busyness surrounding you? Do you feed off that energy? Or are you better alone where you can simply focus on what you need to do?

Everyone is different and has unique preferences for the environment they need. Part of removing distractions is knowing the best setup for your own productivity.

Finding flow

Much has been written on the topic of finding flow. When you get in this zone you can truly separate from all distractions and immerse yourself in the task at hand.

Think back to when you have found flow in the past. What was the environment? What music did you listen to?

Part of being productive is knowing when you’re at your best and optimizing your schedule around the best time and space for maximum productivity.

For example, if you know you’re at your best in the morning, then block out time in the morning to tackle your main priorities. Don’t check email right away. Shut down your team chat during that time and put your status as 'do not disturb'.

Don’t allow meetings to be scheduled during your morning block that’s reserved for maximum productivity tasks. Then, once you are finished with that block, you may have already worked through your top tasks for the day, and you can be more flexible with meetings and email.

Make time for yourself

The nine to five expectation has been around for a long time, but for the most part, has been proven to be pointless. The amount of hours you are 'working' is irrelevant, because it's the quality of the work that counts. Not the hours.

A few hours of intense focus can be worth more than ten hours of distracted, aimless work. The key is to make all your time purposeful, and taking intentional breaks of time for yourself so you can recharge and come back to your desk ready for another sprint.

Regular exercise is one example that is proven to make you a more productive worker. Research shows that exercise makes you more alert, more focused, and gives you a break from constantly staring at a screen.

On the same note, taking regular breaks is also important. Rather than looking at your day as an entire block of time, you can build in chunks for intense focus, followed by a break. This will give you a set time with an ending point where you can be at peak performance, knowing you’ll have some time to step away. A great way to do this is with a Pomodoro Timer.

Be intentional with your time

Another reason why distractions creep in is simply a lack of purpose. When you aren’t purposeful with your time, it's easy to become bored and open to distractions.

The best approach is to map out your day. Some people do this with productivity-based journals, writing out key priorities and when they’ll be accomplished. And others use accounting practice management tools with solid workflow management features.

Try to map out your day at the end of the day before. This way, you can kick start tomorrow without thinking about it.

Remember to account for those breaks and time away from your computer.

Taking on distractions

Once you’ve set yourself up for success, you can head into work every day with a plan. The only problem is, things don’t usually go as planned.

Distractions are a persistent reality for all workers, and they are loud and constant. So, how can you protect yourself against the never-ending stream of distractions?

1. Know your weaknesses

Distractions come in many shapes and sizes. In an office space, it could be a co-worker who always steps in for a quick chat. It could be social media, where you just think you’ll head over to Instagram really quickly, then get lost in a 30-minute session.

The first step in minimizing distractions is to know what your weaknesses are. Use your phone's screen time app to see a minute-by-minute breakdown of the apps you are using.

If anything stands out, you know what you need to work on.

2. Social media is stealing productivity

Of all the distractions in the workplace, the biggest problem is typically social media, with some studies estimating 28% of the workday is spent on social media.

If you find it difficult to have the self-control to avoid social media during work, there are apps to help you. Stayfocusd and Wastenotime are examples of browser plugins where you can limit the amount of time you spend on social media sites.

3. How to handle email

Email is a powerful tool for productivity, but can also dominate your time when not used properly. Here are some tips:

  • Touch it once: The second you open an email, you have a decision to make. Does this email need a reply? Can it be solved immediately? Whatever needs to happen, do your best to action it right away.

  • Be intentional: Just like everything mentioned above, email should be treated intentionally. Don’t react to every time something new lands in your inbox. Instead, dedicate specific time to email so you can properly focus on it.

Be realistic

Productivity is not always black and white. You’ll have good days and bad days. It’s not possible to eliminate all distractions and some days are completely overwhelming.

What you can do is put yourself in a position to succeed. You know what environment and situation is most likely to put you in a productive mode. At the same time, you know the distractions that can easily get you off track.

Set yourself up for success with a plan for focused time, breaks and minimizing distractions so you can be productive while maintaining your sanity. You’ll be amazed how much can be achieved in just a couple of focussed, distraction-free hours.