Many jobs in the contemporary workplace actually require that you're online all the time, constantly connected to your coworkers — and to a mind-boggling ocean of distractions. Here's how to stay focused.
Picture by Asher Sarlin
Set Regular Times To Get Off The PC
When you do all of your work online — especially if you work from home — it's tempting to sit in front of the PC whether you're working or playing, and the lines quickly start to blur between work and goofing off. The worst result of this blurring: You'll find yourself spending more time in front of your computer every day, but you'll get a lot less done. That's no good. Photo by ihtatho
Set up regular breaks and stick to them. The first step to countering this problem is to make sure that you setup regular breaks to actually walk away from your computer to do something else. It doesn't matter what else you are doing, just as long as you step away from your normal working spot. The same rule holds true for anybody in any working situation, of course — taking regular breaks is always important. Whatever your most common online distraction, consider batching those distractions to your break time so you can take care of them during your breaks.
Draw a line between where you work and where you play. As much as you possibly can, you should also make a point of doing your computer work in a different location than you spend your computer goofing off — for instance, if you normally sit in the living room while browsing, make sure you sit at a desk when doing your work, or maybe even in a different chair. Just try to keep the two worlds separate — and make sure to get off the PC once in a while. (This applies more to people working from home, but even if your work bleeds over into your home from time to time, keep that work in a separate area from your play.)
Deal With Constant IM Notifications And Other Distractions
An unnecessary instant message is an instant productivity drain. You finally manage to get into the groove and start getting something done when out of the blue one of your IM buddies wants to talk about pottery. Your zone is shattered, you've lost your train of thought, and it'll take you that much longer to get back into the flow again.
If you need to be online to talk to coworkers, make a point of setting your status appropriately, and telling your friends and family that when you are marked as busy to not bother you. This can sometimes help, but you might also consider going another step: create separate buddy lists for work and only sign into that one during the day.
For all your constant non-IM distractions — the email notifications, the push notifications on your iPhone or buzzing notifications on your Android — consider flipping the kill switch on those notifications as often as possible unless you truly need them.
Do Your Research Online, Then Get Offline To Work
When you're doing work that requires doing research online, it's far too easy to get lost in the labyrinths of Wikipedia or other reference sites while you are supposed to be working. From a distraction perspective, you'll be much better off if you bookmark or save all your research so you can read it offline, using something like Evernote, Instapaper or Read It Later, and then unplug from the net to do the actual writing.
If your willpower is low, you can use something like Freedom, a free application that temporarily disconnect you from the internet for a specific period of time and requires a reboot to bypass that block early. If that sounds like overkill, you can always practice a little self-discipline and unplug on your own.
Alternatively, if you are an iPad owner, you might find it to be a great distraction free editing environment using a solution like Simplenote or Evernote — our editor does all his long-form writing in plain text with a little help from Simplenote, and this writer does the same thing, but with Evernote.
Create Separate Browser Profiles For Work
Having quick access to Facebook, Twitter and all your favourite time-wasters is an undeniable good time, but it's also like taunting yourself with ice cream while on a diet — you will be far more likely to waste time online when you've got easy access to all the fun.
Our solution is to create separate profiles for work and personal browsing, and only use one or the other during the day. You can easily create multiple Firefox profiles and use separate shortcuts to launch each one. You can either install the handy ProfileSwitcher Firefox extension for easy management or use the -profilemanager command-line switch to create the new profile, and then create a new Firefox shortcut to launch the profile like this (read our full guide for more details):
firefox.exe –P profilename
If you're a Google Chrome user, you can also create multiple profiles using a custom shortcut trick, or you can use ChromeDeck to make the process simpler. Once you've got your separate profiles created for work and home, make sure that your work profile is setup with only the things that keep you productive.
A Little Help To Stop Time-Wasting Browsing
If you really want to prevent yourself from wasting time online, you can use a browser extension like Leech Block for Firefox, or StayFocusd and Chrome Nanny for Google Chrome, to prevent you from accessing certain sites during certain times of the day.
You can setup the extensions to completely block certain time-wasting sites for particular times of the day, or you can set them to only allow you to access those sites for a certain number of minutes — which can be a very useful tool for sites that you might otherwise lose track of time while browsing.
If you can't or don't want to install an extension, website x.minutes.at lets you set hard limits for browsing a specific website, counts down your time remaining in your browser tab and alerts you when your time is up. (It's still up to you to quit browsing.)
Monitor What You're Doing
If policing yourself only means your brain finds new ways to goof off, consider tracking your time with a tool like RescueTime. RescueTime tracks every window you've got open on your screen and tells you exactly what you have been spending your time on. You'll then get reports broken down into categories that lay out what you've been spending your time doing, including what sites you've been browsing the most. You may be surprised at just how much time you've been looking at cute kittens on the internet.
Keep A Daily Log To Track Accomplishments
Tracking your time using an automated software will only show broad patterns in what you are doing, but doesn't really help you know whether you've been productive or not. This is where a daily log comes in, which you can use to track your actual accomplishments instead of just what you have open on your screen.
You can keep a daily log any way you prefer, even using notepad, but the general idea is that you write down all of the things that you actually accomplish each day. The goal of the daily log is to help keep you on track and actually getting things done rather than embroiled in busy work that doesn't result in anything. You won't want to see a log that has nothing in it, and seeing that you haven't accomplished anything can be a powerful incentive to get to work.
What about you? What's your biggest online distraction, and how do you avoid it and get work done? Share your advice with your fellow readers in the comments.