Eliminating Distractions and Getting Stuff Done

The iPad 3 is here! If you were lucky enough to snag one of these cool, new gadgets last week, you’re now viewing your email, news, ebooks, and videos on a high-resolution retina display. Consumption never looked so good!

But there’s one feature Tim Cook didn’t share during the keynote. Yes, that’s right. You’ve just adopted a shiny, new form of distraction. Congratulations!

Full disclosure: I own a MacBook Pro, iPad 2, and iPhone 4S. I’m among you.

Thursday’s release served as a gentle reminder that it is far too easy to connect to the outside world these days. I won’t argue against the usefulness of mobile devices, but I will share a few tips that have worked well when trying to clear my mental runways of debris.

As mentioned, it’s just too easy to access information these days. Anyone else miss the Dewey Decimal System? No? Okay, here are a few information dieting tips.

  • Schedule times for checking email. You’ve seen this one before, and that’s because it works. When you’ve designated times for checking email, it’s not as important that you know what’s in your inbox. Scheduling also lets you address more volume without the overhead of switching back-and-forth between work and email.

If you find that you truly need to communicate with someone more frequently, email probably isn’t the best medium for that communication.

  • Disable notifications and schedule a single time for social media. Unless you’re in social media marketing, you probably spend too much time using social media. Rather than giving it up completely, just set aside a time for it after work. Oh, and be sure to disable all email and mobile notifications. You don’t need to know about Sally’s friend request until later.
  • Read articles once per day. I love to read, but reading articles typically doesn’t help me with what I’m working on right now. To solve this, I schedule time after work to filter through my feeds in Google Reader and read a few that catch my attention. I also allocate more time on Sundays for reading the articles that I didn’t get to during the week. This gives me just enough time to lose interest in things that I shouldn’t have wanted to read in the first place.
  • Consume and produce on different devices. This won’t work if you only have one device, but I’ve found it to be very effective in my own workflow. When I’m using my MacBook, I’m producing. When I’m using my iPad, I’m consuming. By separating concerns for each of my devices, my mind knows what it should be doing when using each of them.

Organization and Planning

Yes, even organization can be distracting. If you embrace any of the productivity pr0n that has come out of the previous decade, you might have a tendency to spend too much time planning. Rather than feeding you a spoonful of GTD, here are a few ways I combat the desire to structure my life when I’m trying to get stuff done.

  • Have a todo list with an adequate level of specificity. If you have a line item that reads “build the iOS application”, you’re basically a pilot trying to fly from New York to Los Angeles without any directions. Break down your tasks until you’re comfortable tackling each one individually.
  • Add new items quickly and review them later. It’s inevitable that you’ll think of something else you need to do during the day, but that doesn’t mean it should distract you from what you’re doing right now. I’m in a constant tug-of-war between workflow and distracting ideas, so I built a small tool that I use with Alfred to capture those ideas for reviewing later in the day. Note: this tool will only work if you use Asana, but you can probably find or make something similar for whatever you use to manage your list.
  • Review todos nightly. Since I hopefully got something done during the day, I need to reflect it in my todo list. I’ve also got some junk that accumulated from adding new tasks with Alfred, and I need to prioritize those tasks for completion. I save this for the end of my day to make it easier to transition into tomorrow with a good idea of what needs to get done.

Mobile Devices

There should be a modern version of “Paddidle” where the objective is to yell a word each time you see someone texting and driving. The world has become obsessed with the freedom of mobility, and it’s often to the detriment of productivity. Here are a few ways to be truly free.

  • Disable notifications. If you don’t need to know it immediately, turn it off. If you’re debating whether you need to know it immediately, turn if off. If you truly think you need to know it immediately, there’s still a good chance you should turn it off.
  • Move distracting applications from the home screen. If you don’t need to know it immediately, it shouldn’t be in your face immediately.
  • Here’s a screenshot of my iPhone home screen:
  • These applications are the bare essentials for daily use of my phone. They’re the applications I almost always want to use when I’m opening my phone, and they don’t feed me unnecessary distractions. If I want to check email during a scheduled time, it’s just one swipe away. By the way, check out Sparrow for iPhone if you’re looking for an awesome iOS mail application.
  • Stow your phone when you’re working. If your job involves a lot of communication, this probably doesn’t apply to you. However, my work as a software developer rarely relies on my phone use, so I tuck my iPhone away except for select times during the day when I want to respond to text messages and phone calls.

The Trusty Desktop

Most of us still do the bulk of our work at a desktop or laptop computer, and these feature just as many distractions as any of our other devices. Here are a few things I do to ensure focus when I’m working.

  • Be selective about notifications. Note the absence of the word “disable”. There are a handful of times when you really want to be notified about an event. For instance, I always append a call to growlnotify to long-running scripts so that I can see when they complete without constantly referencing my terminal window. However, I disable notifications for email, instant messages, and anything else that doesn’t benefit my workflow.
  • Use away messages to communicate. If I’m working, I use an away message to let other parties know that I’ll respond within the next 30 minutes. This allots me enough time to complete a Pomodoro while also communicating my availability to the outside world.
  • Clear the desktop and dock. I prefer an icon-free desktop with very few icons in my dock. To be precise, Finder and Google Chrome are the only two icons in my dock, and I only keep them around so that my girlfriend isn’t totally confused when she uses my laptop. In my experience, products like Alfred, Quicksilver, and Launchy allow faster access to applications and files without having to hunt around for them on the desktop or dock.

These are just a few of the methods I use to make myself more productive each day. I hope that you’re able to apply some of them in your own pursuit of clarity and productivity. Remember: follow them incrementally and with patience. It takes time to develop new habits.

What do you do to make yourself more productive?


Originally published at ryanbright.me on March 16, 2012.