11 Distractions to Clear out of Your Way TODAY

What’s the most important thing you have to do today? Finish that big presentation for the suits upstairs? Build an extremely detailed diorama of Hitler’s humiliating defeat at Stalingrad? Or maybe you need to write a beautiful, sexy, sexy blog post about clearing away distractions like I do.

Whatever your #1 Most Super Important Thing to do today is, you’re going to need to pour a lot of yourself into it if you plan to do the very best possible version of it you can.

Work like that – the kind of work that can build you up, move you forward, and change your life – tends to be the hardest stuff you have on your plate. It takes focus, time, commitment, and stamina. And that can make it pretty intimidating.

Enter distractions. Mainly, distractions are loopholes. They’re less intimidating than the big thing you need to do today. Because of that, your brain will do anything to convince you to jump ship to something new instead of that big thing.

Clearing away distractions, therefore, is simply the practice of preparing for each of the excuses your brain is going to make, and having the right tools to move past those excuses.

Below are 11 of the most common ways your brain will try to say “Hey, what if we did this instead,” and what you should say back.

1. A Path of Less Resistance (Busywork)

There’s always something else that needs to get done. Answering emails, making lists, filling out paperwork – all the junk that wants to take you away from the big work that really matters.

Busywork is a slippery one. It slides by, disguised as productivity, hoping that we won’t spot it for exactly what it is: just another garden-variety distraction. 

If you know what your most important work is, do that work. Stick to it. Don’t let lesser tasks siphon your attention away. If they are important, you will get them done; that doesn’t make them urgent. Don’t put a premium on low-value work just because it looks easier to get done.

What to do about it

  • Designate time slots for different types of work; make some room in your day for the routine tasks, and reserve big chunks of your time for the core work.
  • Keep a to-do list; if you have new ideas while you’re working, write them down for later (see #4 for more on this).

2. Negative Thinking

The biggest achievements come from isolating your biggest opportunities, and pouring every ounce of yourself into them. You can’t do that when you’re working against yourself.

Difficult work usually means there will be struggle. And struggle is an opportunity for the downer in your head to take the mic and spew nonsense like: “I’ll never get it done in time,” “Everyone else is doing better than me,” “I should drop out of beauty school and go back to high school,” and so on.

Negative thinking is an investment you make against yourself.

Imagine treating yourself the same way physically, instead of mentally. If you spent all your time punching and kicking yourself, what would happen? 

For one thing, you’d be pretty out of breath from laying down all that whup-ass. But I have to imagine you’d also be at less than 100% from taking all that whup-ass.

When you fight against yourself, you lose twice.

Letting go of the negative voice and showing yourself some grace in your work opens you up to optimism, motivation, and success. Plus, clearing away distractions like this gives you more whup-ass left over to drive into your work.

What to do about it

  • Focus on this moment; worrying about the past and the future takes you away to a shitty place where you don’t need to be
  • Don’t forget to build yourself up with positive thoughts, too! Remind yourself that you are awesome, you’re doing a good job, and the work you’re doing is moving you forward.

3. Notifications

I mean, you had to know this one was coming, right? A million bleeps, bloops, buzzes and ba-dings tug at us every day, each with its own promise – an enticing DM, a new gif hitting the group chat, a horrifying new political headline, and so on. 

Workflow is like a train. It can take a little while to get into its rhythm, but once it’s really moving, it’s a force to be reckoned with. But when you bring it to a stop, even if nobody gets on or off, you still have to slow it to that stop, and then spend time getting it back up to speed again. Stopping frequently breaks your momentum each time, and crushes your progress overall. Checking on notifications stops that train.

Clearing away distractions lets your train keep cruising ahead, unimpeded.

It’s okay, you don’t have to throw all of your devices into the river and move to a cabin in the woods. If you want distraction-free progress on crucial work, just give yourself a break from your notifications. 

Create intentional windows of your day where you silence stuff out and close yourself off from non-emergency contact. Don’t worry. Your friends, memes, and discount codes from Lyft will still be there when you get back.

What to do about it

  • Make use of “do not disturb” and similar features for short, focus-intensive periods – virtually every phone, operating system, and app has one now.
  • Better yet, put your phone away entirely!
  • Close all tabs/windows and applications that aren’t essential to the work you’re doing; practice digital minimalism.

4. Big Ideas and Epiphanies

Human thinking is non-linear. We don’t just get ideas when we want them, and stop getting ideas when we’re not looking for them, like some kind of thought-faucet. Sometimes we get lightning-bolt ideas when we’re in the middle of something else.

When you’re heads-down on your most important work of the day, suddenly getting an idea for a more efficient way to use your blankets to make an even larger pillow fort may seem like an important issue. I won’t argue that it’s not. It may even seem like an urgent issue that you need to switch to right now. You don’t. This is just that pesky brain-wants-to-do-something-else bias.

Don’t let every new idea sweep you away from work that you’ve committed to. If it really is that important, it will still be that important in a little while. Finish this first. Then build the Omega Pillow Palace.

What to do about it

  • Ask yourself, is this urgent? Do I actually need to do this right now? In most cases, the answer is ‘nah.’
  • Write it down and set it aside. This will satisfy the urgent feeling of an exciting new idea, without letting it become a distraction right now.

5. Other People’s Problems

I’m glad that you want to help other people. This world can always stand to benefit from a little more empathy. Like many of the items on this list, this is not something I’m advising you to stop doing entirely. But clearing away distractions is a matter of deciding what is appropriate to take on right now.

Remember that distractions are, really, nothing but a collection of loopholes and alternatives we create to excuse ourselves from hard-but-important stuff. Well, it’s no different when it comes to the wants and needs of our coworkers, friends, and family members. 

It’s okay to advocate for yourself. It’s okay to have boundaries. If your grandmother is currently on fire, you really should go help her out. But if your coworker is standing in your doorway again, asking you to help them out at the cost of your own work, today might be the day for you to focus on you. 

What to do about it

  • Practice boundaries. It’s always okay to respectfully assert yourself: “I can’t focus on that right now, but I’d be happy to discuss it later”
  • Use your calendar! Helping other people is great, but zoom out to make sure there’s room for it in your schedule without pushing something else out.

6. Noise

Noise is any form of chaos in your environment that threatens to frequently divide your attention. It can be the idle din of your work space, visible movement going on around you, or clutter in your working area.

The problem with noise is that it. constantly. grabs. your. attention. breaks. your. flow. and. forces. you. to. keep. starting. and. stopping. losing. your. momentum. every. time. 

Did you find that sentence annoying? I can see why you might have. You should be just as concerned with the impact that noise has on your focus. Start. Stop. Start. Stop. All day long, with no flow and no momentum.

Pay attention to what sorts of noise surround you the most, and which ones have the strongest impact on you. Anything that frequently catches your attention during working sessions is a risk. Do what you can to reduce the noise, and to block yourself off from it.

What to do about it

  • Headphones are the bread-and-butter of tuning out audible noise, but white noise machines and closing doors/windows are also options.
  • Keep your workspace in order. It doesn’t have to sparkle, but you should have the space you need to work, and be easily able to find anything you need.
  • Curate your field of vision – close the blinds or curtains on interesting windows. You could also try moving your body or workstation to not be in or facing a busy area.

7. Over-preparing

Preparation is important, especially when the battlefield you’re heading onto is essential to your mission. It’s great to have the lay of the land, know what’s going to get in your way, and come in with a strategy. 

But don’t let researching, organizing, analyzing, or any form of preparation become an excuse that stops you from taking the critical first step.

clearing away distractions - planning

When you’re intimidated by the work you need to do, over-preparing is an enticing road to take for two reasons: it moves you ever-closer to the comforting but unreachable feeling of “perfectly ready,” and at the same time it lets you evade the task itself.

You’re never going to be 100% ready. And that’s okay. Learn to be 80% ready, and comfortably uncomfortable with the remaining 20%. 

You will learn on the way, you will adapt to new circumstances, you will grow, and you will ultimately succeed. But none of that can happen if you live your life one yard short of the starting line. Clearing away your distractions is how you get across it.

What to do about it

  • Remember that a little discomfort is a healthy thing where life’s most important work is concerned.
  • Ask yourself, do I have 80% of what I need to get started?
  • Practice going from 0 to 1.

8. Ill-timed Conversation

Small-talk with our loved ones and associates is an important part of the human process; being social is uplifting, and the casual exchange of ideas and information is arguably one of the main ways we learn.

But I’m sure by now you’re noticing the theme that there’s a time and a place for everything.

Making the choice to step away from focus-dependent work to engage in friendly conversation bears a cost to your results. Every distraction breaks your momentum. You need to clear away the distractions, keep that train on the tracks, and keep it barreling forward for the greatest outcome you can produce.

Loving other people matters. And loving yourself matters, too. You’re allowed to do that. Folks tend to have a lot more respect, not less, for people who set clear boundaries for themselves. By clearing away distractions and demonstrating that you respect yourself and value your time, you are setting the tone for how others should treat you, too.

What to do about it

  • Set expectations. Clearly, firmly, and respectfully let people know that this isn’t a good time for you to chat, but you’d love to talk with them about this later. 
  • Be careful about starting conversations, too. Remember, you can always write things down to follow up on after this work window.

9. Perfectionism

Perfectionism is a distraction that, like so many others, masquerades as a helpful instinct. You should always look over your work, self-edit, and be your own first line of quality assurance. But don’t allow perfectionism to become an alternative to finishing.

One of the keys to clearing away distractions is identifying which work is getting you closer to done, and which work is holding you back.

Perfectionism is kind of like negative self-talk (see #2 above), where you’re putting more of your energy into holding yourself back than into getting your most important thing done. And so you cost yourself double. You’re the one doing the holding back, and you’re also the one being held back. Just let go. 

There’s a point where your work is done, and a point where your work is perfect, and only one of those two points exists. Allow some time to improve the quality of your work, but give yourself guidelines to know when it’s time to put a pretty bow on the box and ship it.

What to do about it

  • Begin with the end in mind: start out with clear, measurable criteria for what a finished product looks like. When you have a product that looks like that, you have finished.
  • Timebox your perfecting: give yourself a fixed period of time – 20 minutes, 2 hours, whatever makes sense. Tweak, edit, and perfect during that window, then call it.

10. The All-or-Nothing Fallacy

When you’re talking about loopholes to get out of tricky work, this one is an absolute classic. It posits: If conditions aren’t absolutely perfect to do this right now, then I might as well not do it.

Success is not made by having no setbacks, no challenges, and no misfortune. It’s made by persevering through all of these and constantly adapting.

If a certain office you need to go into is closed early today, you can still make sure you have all of your forms ready and filled out so you can go in first thing Monday morning. When a tool you need breaks, you can still prefabricate some parts of the final product with what you have. If you only have 1 hour free right now, and the report you need to write requires 2 hours total, then write half of it for now.

You don’t need to be able to finish in order to start.

What to do about it

  • Quarantine your setbacks. Maintain a clear separation between the things you’re hindered from doing, and the things you can still get done.
  • Modularize your work. Just because you can’t make 10 ABCs right now, doesn’t mean you can’t make 10 pretty good ABs, and then attach all the Cs when the shipment gets in (from like, the alphabet warehouse, I guess?)

11. Rest, Breaks, and… Fun

That’s right. First I took your phone away, then I came for your friendly conversations, and now I’m going after fun itself. I won’t rest until there is nothing enjoyable left in your day. Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair. Are you doing it yet? Are you despairing? Clearing away distractions sucks!

Okay, aaaand dialing it back a notch. You should still have fun. You should carve out meaningful chunks of your day for rest, relaxation and taking awesome breaks.

Rest is great, but be intentional about it. 

Taking a break from your work can be a huge boost to productivity. But if it isn’t driven by a conscious intention to press pause and then come back refreshed, it can eat away at your time, focus, and results.

Everything on this list is an easier alternative to hard work, and this one is the easiest of all. That makes it the easiest to give in to. Do everything you can to stick to the path you set out for yourself. Practice clearing away your distractions. You’ll produce higher-quality work, faster, and have a lot more “you” left over for the fun that comes after!

What to do about it

  • If you think you’re going to need a break, plan one ahead of time; it’s easier to enjoy (and come back from) a break that you’ve already given yourself permission for.
  • Be flexible! If you really need a rest you didn’t plan for, take it, but put an end time on it. Don’t mindlessly drift away to gifs of otters doing funny things with their hands. If you choose to take a break, decide when you’re coming back, too.

What important thing are you working on today, and how are you clearing away distractions?

One Comment

  1. Caveman Kari said:

    Nice post! Keep up the work, Sam!

    March 4, 2020

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