Work With Distractions, Not Against Them
The harder you try to focus, the more you’ll struggle
You can ignore your phone for an afternoon. Not your kid. Creative work never obeys a schedule. And yet, neither does your family. Or your job. Or anything, really. They compete with each other all day long.
So how do you get things done when solitude isn’t an option?
The usual advice on productivity treats distraction like something evil. Something you can simply remove from your life— like uninstalling an app. A lot of us don’t have that luxury.
So we have to come up with better strategies.
It’s not about working against distraction, but with it. You can develop a system that takes interruptions into account. One that allows you to work around them. Even throw a saddle on their back.
Distractions Are Inevitable
Even short interruptions can put your mind way out of the zone. You can minimize most of them — but not every last one.
Diaper changes. Meals. Baths. Groceries. Robo-calls. And now your spouse wants you to watch this funny video. You tell him not now. Turn back to your screen. Only to find you’ve completely forgotten what you were doing.
You spend eight minutes retracing your steps. Finally get back to that brilliant thought. Exactly then, your baby starts crying.
You Might Not Realize You’re Working All the Time
Boundaries help, but only so much. These kinds of distractions will happen again and again. Especially if you work from home.
Sealing yourself off from humanity for three hours won’t guarantee you accomplish anything meaningful. You should try. But work tends to spill out of our tidy little boxes.
Some of us need to leave ourselves open to the possibility of work all the time, even if we’re not on the clock. You never know when your vision will suddenly gel with all your ideas and words.
This doesn’t make you a workaholic. Just intuitive.
The most productive people never stop working. They just stop trying to force certain kinds of conscious work. They don’t define work as just time spent at their keyboard or on a Skype call.
They define work as going out in the world. Living in it. Getting dirty. Forging mental connections. Sculpting and honing ideas in their mind. Letting it wander and graze as it sees fit.
That’s why it’s a good idea to carry around a little notebook, or at least keep an app on your phone to record your ideas.
Learn to Save Your Place
So it’s your turn to rescue the baby. And you were just tap-tap-tapping away at the keyboard. Poor you. Life sucks.
Before you get up, stop and take stock of your progress. Mark the work you just finished and what comes next.
Whatever’s going on in your head, write that down. Develop a little shorthand for yourself, so you can convey potent ideas to yourself with just a couple of words or sentence fragments.
Don’t just huff and rush off. Nothing short of blood and broken bones calls for your immediate attention. Taking 20 to 30 seconds to pause and record can help you recover from distractions faster when you return. You’ll be able to maintain something of a momentum.
Make Distractions Work for You
Interruptions aren’t always bad things. We just think they are.
Self-imposed distractions can do damage. When we distract ourselves, we’re usually diving into our phones to avoid deep thought.
Spontaneous distractions do something else. They usually pull us out of our heads and break our routines.
Those can boost your creativity, if you respond right.
Imagine this scenario:
You’re finally making progress. Reaching a flow state. Or maybe you just got stuck on something. You’re going in circles looking for a breakthrough. Then, daycare calls. Your kid’s running a fever. Great, you get to drop everything…again.
Before you leave, ask yourself a key question you need to answer. Visualize the knot you’re trying to untangle.
Doing that helps to stabilize your thinking. You’re not abandoning your work so much as handing it off to other parts of your brain. Parts better equipped to tackle a creative block.
Your unconscious mind can do some heavy lifting. It can make leaps without logic.
Redefine How You Work
Stop assuming you have to sit at your desk to get things done. Hand things off to your unconscious.
Learn how much you can get done in 40 minute sprint sessions, switching between conscious and unconscious thought. Maybe you won’t finish a whole report or draft of something. But you can sketch an outline. You can write a section. You can crunch some data. Make a pie chart.
Mmmm, pie. Hang on…
Anyway, it beats waiting all day until your kid’s finally asleep, then trying to start a big project. Or trying to wake up before they do.
You don’t need a quiet retreat in the woods. Sometimes you can work in trickles — a few clicks at a time. Maybe it’s not the ideal. You might have your preferred mode. But true productivity means developing multiple work styles.
You have to be flexible. Some days you might run across five heavenly, uninterrupted hours. But if that’s the only way you can get stuff done, it’s more of a liability than a strength.
Hang On to Your Quiet Time
Call it your home base. Nobody could last long with interruptions going 24/7. We’d go crazy.
That said, you can’t sit around pining for long stretches of peace and quiet that might never come.
You can maximize your quiet time by taking advantage of little moments throughout the day. After your kid goes to sleep, that’s when you can finally wrap up the one thing you’ve been chipping away at all day.
Take a few moments and think about the next big to-do on the horizon. Then get some sleep. Or have some bourbon. You’ve earned it.