11 Productivity-Killing Distractions to Deal With Today

What’s the most important thing you have to do today? Finish that big presentation for the suits upstairs? Build a highly detailed diorama of Hitler’s humiliating defeat at Stalingrad? Maybe you need to write an article about overcoming distractions. Who knows, it could happen to anyone. 

Whatever your top priority is today, you will 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 that can build you up, move you forward, and change your life – tends to be the most challenging 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.

Therefore, overcoming distractions is simply the practice of preparing for each of the excuses your brain will 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 critical work that matters most.

Busywork slides by, disguised as productivity, hoping that we won’t spot it for 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 essential, 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 working, write them down for later (see #4 for more on this).

2. Negative Thinking

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

Difficult work usually involves some struggle. Yet the 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. For example, what would happen if you spent all your time punching and kicking yourself? 

For one thing, you’d be pretty out of breath from laying down all that whup-ass. But I 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 drives 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 lousy place where you don’t need to be
  • Don’t forget to build yourself up with positive thoughts, too! Remind yourself that you are fantastic, you’re doing a good job, and your work is moving you forward.

3. Notifications

I mean, you had to know this one was coming. A million bleeps, bloops, buzzes, and ba-dings tug at us every day, each offering some 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 it’s a force to be reckoned with once it’s moving. 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. Frequent stopping breaks your momentum and crushes your progress overall. 

Likewise, checking on notifications stops that train.

Don’t worry. You don’t have to throw your devices into the river and move to a cabin in the woods. Instead, if you want distraction-free progress on crucial work, give yourself a break from the notifications now and then. 

Create intentional windows of your day where you silence things 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

  • Use “do not disturb” and similar features for short, focus-intensive periods – virtually every phone and operating system has one now.
  • Better yet, put your phone away entirely!
  • Close all tabs/windows and applications that aren’t essential to your work.
  • 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 them when we’re not looking for them, like some 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 a giant 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 phenomenon is just that pesky brain-wants-to-do-something-else bias.

Don’t let every new idea sweep you away from crucial work commitments. If it 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 need to do this right now? In most cases, the answer is ‘nah.’
  • Try writing it down and setting it aside. Doing 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 dealing with distractions means deciding what is appropriate to take on right now.

Remember that distractions are 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. 

For example, if your grandmother is currently on fire, you should help her out. But if your coworker is standing in your doorway again, asking you to help them out at the cost of your work, today might be the day for you to focus on yourself. 

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 frequently threatens to divide your attention. It can be the idle din of your workspace, 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.

Start. Stop. Start. Stop. No flow and no momentum.

Pay attention to what sorts of noise surround you and which ones impact you most. Anything that frequently catches your attention during working sessions is a risk. So see what you can do to reduce the noise and insulate yourself 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 options, too.
  • 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 exciting windows. You could also try moving your body or workstation to avoid facing a busy area.

7. Over-preparing

Preparation is essential, 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 will 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.

When you’re intimidated by the work you need to do, over-preparing is an enticing road for two reasons. First, it moves you ever-closer to the comforting but unreachable feeling of being “perfectly ready.” Second, 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 bit of 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 integral 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 by now, you’re likely noticing the theme: there’s a time and a place for everything.

Choosing 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 more respect, not less, for people who set clear boundaries for themselves. By eliminating distractions and demonstrating that you respect yourself and value your time, you set the tone for how others should treat you.

What to do about it

  • Set expectations. 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 first line of quality assurance. But don’t allow perfectionism to become an alternative to finishing.

One of the keys to highly focused work is identifying which tasks are getting you closer to done and which tasks are holding you back.

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

There’s a point where a job is complete and a point where that job is perfect, and only one of those two points exists. So 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 with clear, measurable criteria for how a finished product looks. When you have a product that looks like that, you have finished.
  • Timebox your perfecting: give yourself a fixed period – 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 perfect for doing this right now, then I might as well not do it.

Success does not come from an absence of setbacks, challenges, and misfortune. Instead, it comes from persevering through all of these and adapting.

If a particular 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 to 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 slowing you down and the things you can still get done.
  • Modularize your work. Break down the problems. Just because you can’t make 10 ABCs right now doesn’t mean you can’t make ten 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

There’s nothing wrong with a bit of leisure time. You should still have fun. It’s perfectly healthy to take meaningful chunks of your day for fun, relaxation, and restful breaks.

Rest is great, but be intentional about it

Taking a break from your work can be a massive boost to productivity. But if you do it without a conscious intention to refresh and recharge, 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” leftover 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 for which you’ve already given yourself permission.
  • Be flexible! If you 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.
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Hey, I’m Sam. I created Smarter and Harder to explore big ideas, both old and new, about building a better life. My mission is to evolve the conversation about personal growth and have fun doing it.

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