Dear Lifehacker, I need a little help focusing. I know part of it is just a lack of discipline, but I can’t help but kill time on sites like Facebook and even Lifehacker during the day when I should be working and getting things done. You guys post lots of great productivity tips, but how do I get myself focused and away from distractions enough to put them to good use? Signed, Slightly ADHD
Title photo by Mark Hunter.
Dear Slightly ADHD,
Don’t worry, some distractions can be a good thing, and they can help you stay refreshed over the course of the day, but we know how it goes — it can be difficult to get up the energy to really get to work sometimes when there are so many shiny things that just need your attention. Those cat videos aren’t going to play themselves, are they? Here are some ways you can minimise the distractions and get back on track.
Audit Your Time to See How Bad the Problem Is
If you’re not sure where your time is going, the first thing you need to do is figure out whether your distractions are harmless diversions or real time-wasters. After all, it’s possible that you’re working so hard that you’re not taking the breaks you need to recharge, and instead your attention is wandering so you can get a little relief from your work. Grab a notebook, and make a note to yourself whenever you catch your attention wandering, or after you’ve realised you’re wasting time and you know you need to get back to work. If you can jot down how long you’ve been idle, that can help as well. At the end of a few days, you’ll have a great idea of how often you’re “out to lunch”, so to speak, and whether it’s really noteworthy. Plus, the action of keeping a log of what you’re doing, even if it’s just for your own personal review, will likely keep you a little more honest while you’re working. Photo by Chad Kainz.
If you want to take it a step further, our own Whitson Gordon went to great lengths to keep track of his time with RescueTime, a great application that will keep an eye on your activities for you so you don’t have to. Just behave normally, breaks and distractions and all, and after a few days the app will show you exactly what you’ve been spending time on.
Get The Right Tools to Single-Task and Cut Off Your Distractions
Once you have an idea of how much time you spend distracted and how much time you spend working, you need to get the right tools for the job to control and manage those distractions. Remember, distractions that pull you out of the zone and keep you from focusing may not just be Facebook or your favourite blog — it could be your coworkers stopping by to chat, or the music someone a few cubes over is playing through their computer’s speakers. Whatever it is that’s keeping you off your game, get the right tools to address it:
- Distracting coworkers: Whether it’s chatty colleagues who don’t seem to have real work to do, or someone blasting their music a few cubes over, we discussed ways to deal with distracting coworkers while you’re trying to enjoy a meal, but many of the same tips apply to those who bother you when you work. Grab a good set of headphones — especially noise-cancelling ones — to send the signal that you’re not to be disturbed, to play your own music, or at the very least to block out annoying and distracting sounds from elsewhere in the office. If a coworker insists on interrupting you, stand up to give them the signal that you’re about to leave, or trap them by giving them work to do (so they won’t be so eager to just drop in again) to keep them from coming back. Alternatively, just let them know you’re busy. You’ll already be distracted, but at least the forward approach keeps it to a minimum.
- Distracting websites: There are a number of ways to go about limiting your visits to distracting websites, but we’re big fans of Leechblock for Firefox and StayFocused for Chrome. Both extensions will help you set up your most common distractions and time-wasters, and then remind you to get back to work when you try to visit them. If you’re a terminal ninja and want a more arms-deep approach, try Get Shit Done, a utility that’ll block distracting sites by modifying your computer’s hosts file.
- Distracting applications: Depending on the tools you use every day for your job, you may want to do simple things like full-screening your apps so you don’t see other windows behind the ones you’re working in, or you may want to look into tools designed to minimise distractions, like one of these distraction-free writing tools. There are plenty of other options available if you’d like one, but you don’t necessarily need to download something to get a distraction-free work environment. Often just making the app full-screen and eliminating any unnecessary menus is enough to keep your focus in the app, and away from your inbox. While you’re at it, you might want to turn off those evil notifications so they don’t pop up over your work to steal your attention.
Choose a Productivity Technique that Bolsters Your Discipline
Even with the right tools in place, it can still be difficult to stay focused — you may catch yourself trading one distraction for another. Procrastination finds a way. Worst case, you spend more time on your productivity system than you do actually being productive. You may need to tweak that system — the best tools complement your productivity method, and the best method complements the way you work. We’ve discussed some great productivity systems in the past, but whichever one you use, make sure it helps you get more done and isn’t a beast you have to wrestle with. If you are struggling with your system, it’s time to change it up and pick a method more suited to you. You only have so much willpower and discipline to go around — spend it wisely and on the things that matter. Photo by David Svennson.
At the same time, don’t forget to schedule your breaks and give yourself some time to be distracted and relaxed so you can recharge. I’ve found one of the best ways to make sure you’re productive and switched on when you need to be is when you know that a break is coming soon, or that you’ve scheduled some time to do something you like to look forward to. If you have trouble with the concept, get started by setting some natural alerts and non-intrusive distractions that will pull you out of the zone just enough that you can realise it’s time to recharge. As long as you’re the one in control of those distractions, they should come as a welcome and enjoyable diversion. When your time is up, dive back in, knowing you’ve got another break coming up soon. Use your system — and your breaks — to shore up your discipline so you’re less tempted to give in to distractions.
Are You Really Doing What You Want To Do?
Finally, if you’re really distracted and uninterested in what you do, it might be time to ask yourself whether it really is what you want to do with your time. You may not have a choice — all of us have to do work that we may not love sometimes, and even if you love your job there’s a reason it’s called “work”, but being chronically distracted may be a symptom of a larger problem. Before you haul off and quit your job or school to “find yourself” or make a serious course correction though, try the methods above to see if you can be a bit more productive doing what you do now. You may not have the luxury to just switch jobs or change classes — and even if you do, there’s no way to know you won’t run into the same problems later until you give your self discipline and personal productivity a boost first. Then, if it’s still all wrong, take another look. Photo by Simon James.
Hopefully we’ve given you some tools to help you stay focused, Slightly ADHD! With luck and a little effort, you can train yourself to more easily get into the zone, get some work done, and really relax when you do take a break and head over to Facebook (and here to Lifehacker!) when you don’t have anything else to do or want to recharge a bit. Good luck!
PS Have any other techniques for shoring up your personal discipline and getting more work done? Any tips you use to avoid distractions and the unproductive temptations? Share your productivity tips in the comments below.
Got your own question you want to put to Lifehacker? Send it using our contact tab on the right.