How to battle distraction effectively

If we could have just a few hours of deep work each day that would help us to grow consistently and produce massive returns over time. This sounds doable, but there is one big thing that we all struggle with: the temptation of distraction. We need to resist it.

The basis: Focus as the new normal.

In the times of instant on and constant availability, being distracted is the normal state for a lot of us, if not for most of us. Being distracted is not a great place to do deep work. Some people recommend having breaks from distraction, like an internet sabbath. In his book “Deep Work” the author Cal Newport argues for a different solution: To make focus our default state and take breaks from focus every once in a while. It sounds similar, but the implications are vastly different.

Let’s see how Cal Newport recommends to go about implementing that. Internet activity is the most common distractor these days, so he focus on that.

Schedule distraction time

The starting point is to schedule distraction time. Write down when you will allow yourself to go online the next time. And until that time has come we should allow for absolutely no network connectivity.

We need to schedule distraction blocks in advance. Why? During our deep work times, boredom or high cognitive demands will very likely set in and then our mind will try to switch to a quick reward. In that situation it is often too late to make a decision. We need to make the decision when our mind is clear. And then when the situation comes, we need to manage our decision by not giving in to the temptation.

Cal Newport argues that it is not so relevant how long the online blocks take, or how often we take a break from focus. It is much more relevant to train our minds to keep our offline blocks intact. By actively resisting distraction we train our concentration ability.

Keep time outside of internet blocks free from online activity

We  must keep time outside internet blocks absolutely free from internet use. And to be especially cautious when we are convinced, that there is some information online, that we absolutely need to retrieve to make progress on our current task. Cal Newport gives a few suggestions on that.

So imagine that your next internet block doesn’t start for a while. You think you might end up stuck. You are tempted, to quickly give in, look up the information and then return to your offline block. However, we absolutely have to resist this temptation.

Why? The internet is very seductive. You might have experienced that you just wanted to look for a single email from your inbox, but then you find it hard not to have a quick look at the other urgent messages that have recently arrived. After a few of these exceptions, our mind begins to treat the barrier between internet and offline blocks as permeable, and this strategy becomes less and less effective. So even when stuck, we should not immediately abandon an offline block.

So what can we do instead:

  1. If possible, switch to another offline activity for the remainder of the current block or just fill this time relaxing.
  2. If this is not possible, change your schedule so that your next internet block begins sooner. But do not schedule the next internet block to occur immediately. There should be at least a 5 Minute gap between the current moment and the next time you can go online. Five minutes will not keep you stuck, but it separates the sensation of wanting to go online from the reward of actually doing so. Very important!

Continuing in free time

If you are glued to your smartphone or laptop throughout your evenings and weekends, it might be necessary for you, to continue scheduling your internet time after work. Learning to focus is a bit like rewiring our brain, and our brain does not distinguish much between work time and free time. So what we are doing in our free-time might damage our attempts during our work time.

After work you can allow time-sensitive communication in your offline-block:

  • texting with a friend where you will meet for dinner
  • looking up the location of the restaurant on your phone.

Outside of these pragmatic exceptions: When in an offline block, put your phone away, ignore texts, and refrain from internet usage.

Value boredom

Waiting and being bored is great for concentration training. So instead of switching to distraction at the slightest hint of boredom, we can give yourself plenty of opportunity to resist the temptation. If you stand in line at the store and are forced to wait, it becomes very difficult, but it is essential to endure boredom. Give your mind some rest. It might come up with an unexpected great idea.

How about you? What is your experience in battling distraction? What is one thing you could apply today to get better? Let me know in the comments below.

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