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9 Helpful Rules to Keep Distractions Away and Increase Productivity

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How to reach Mark Zuckerberg’s focus abilities.

In 2016, Mark Zuckerberg declined Yahoo’s offer to buy Facebook for $1 billion. On the meeting board, he wrote something we should all take as an example.

I am here to build something for the long term. Anything else is a distraction.

And he did it.

From 2006, Facebook’s value grew from around $1 million to $2.8 billion because Zuckerberg did not get distracted by its competitors, notifications on his smartphone, Youtube videos, or Netflix. Not only because smartphones were less influential than nowadays, Youtube was full of cat videos, and massive streaming platforms did not even exist, but because he knew how to keep distractions away when he needed to be productive.

The Shrink of the Attention Span

In the era of social media, gigabit networks, and food deliveries, distractions have come to a peak. Our minds have received daily doses of instant gratification through notifications, e-mails, and RSS feeds, and this exploitation has opened our minds to constant interruption.

Nobody trained us for that, and this is not a teenager’s problem anymore. Over time, adults are becoming more addicted to their phones, and therefore so distracted they cannot educate their children anymore on the correct usage of their smartphones.

But this constant feeding of information made our attention span shrink incredibly in the last 20 years. In fact, in a famous study, Microsoft discovered the average attention span of people decreased from 12s in 2000 to 8s in 2015. Ironically, this was compared to a goldfish’s attention span, supposed to be 9s, but that part is only a myth.

So if you want to free yourself from this distractive world, giving up your smartphone is not enough anymore — you need to improve your focus abilities. Therefore, here are 9 helpful rules to keep distractions away and increase productivity.

1 — Keep the focus on your goals.

The first of the 9 helpful rules to keep distractions away is to train your focus abilities. A simple technique involves writing your goals on a piece of paper and keeping it always in front of you when trying to focus.

Having a clear idea of the day’s schedule already removes part of the danger of getting distracted. You already know what to do next without having to decide it on the spot, so you limit the exposure time to distractions of your brain.

However, to deal with external interruptions, you need a strong focus technique. One that helped me over the years is deep work. I discovered it from the homonymous book by Carl Newport a couple of years ago, and it never turned me down.

2 — Simplify tasks in your mind.

When it comes to task management, a good rule to avoid distraction is to simplify tasks as much as possible.

When an activity is complex, your brain will resist the idea of starting it and privilege other more comfortable tasks. But if you split complicated activities into stacked tasks, the problem disappears.

Following this rule, you will not get distracted by the complexity of the task anymore. Also, by stacking tasks, you acquire a clear view of their order, limiting the possibility of interruptions at the minimum.

Graphic comparing unstacked and stacked tasks for the 9  Helpful Rules to Keep Distractions Away and Increase Productivity
Unstacked VS Stacked Tasks — Graphic by the Author

3 — Close any task as soon as possible.

Often, when I approach the end of a task, I get distracted more easily.

For example, if I know there are only a few lines to write before finishing an article, I take some time to relax. But this type of behavior is catastrophic.

In our life, every activity has a starting cost: the time our brain needs to focus on a task without getting distracted. So if you take a break in the middle of an activity or at the end of it, you need to pay double the starting cost, which means exposing yourself to double the distractions.

For this reason, once you approach the end of any chore, you should finish it as soon as possible, without any break.

Usually, I use a simple rule to understand if I can take a break or not. If I completed more than 75% of the activities, I have to finish. If I did not, I underestimated the task duration so I can take a break.

4 — Don’t start with what you don’t know.

One of the strongest allies of distraction is doubt. A big reason why people get distracted is that they start working on things they do not know how to finish.

If you start a task full of doubts, motivation drops instantly, frustration skyrockets, and distractions attack you from everywhere.

This does not mean you should not start with the most complex task. On the contrary, I recommend it. But make sure to be already prepared for an activity when you start it. Do not throw yourself into the unknown. Research first, spot the micro-skills you have already and start with those to build momentum.

5 — Use momentum as your strongest ally.

When it comes to avoiding distraction, everything stabilizes once you find momentum. Sometimes, even if I have to eat or do other things, I delay them because of this ability.

But momentum only shows up when you are deeply involved in your task and do not feel any friction, doubt, or external need. So you know what to do, how to do it, and you start to feel the gratification of success already.

Once you find momentum, never trade it for anything else in the world. Most of all, do not convince yourself this powerful push will keep going after a break.

6 — Use a minimalist environment for productivity.

Productivity is the opposite of distraction. So by setting up the environment to boost the first, you avoid the second.

One good way of limiting distraction starts with simplifying your environment at the bare productivity minimum. On my desk, for example, I only have a laptop and some white paper. Those two items allow me to work without getting interrupted.

Remove the smartphone from your desk and possibly from the room. Turn off notifications on any device, and set correct parameters of light, temperature, and sound.

Remain minimal in everything when it comes to avoiding distractions, including your tasks. So pick two or three activities per working session, and finish them before thinking about the upcoming ones.

Graphic showing the differences between limited and multiple tasks at a time, for 9  Helpful Rules to Keep Distractions Away and Increase Productivity
Limited VS Multiple Tasks — Graphic by the Author

7 — Create a routine to enter the distraction-free world.

Routines can help avoid any kind of interruption since they minimize the brain’s influence over your choices and skip distraction possibilities. So, instead of forcing yourself not to think about distractions, leave the automatisms of your body to deal with them.

For example, my routine to enter a distraction-free mindset involves:

  • shutting down the smartphone and leaving it in another room
  • sitting in front of the big window in my office
  • thinking about the task I need to complete and how I plan to do it
  • setting a Pomodoro session

This simple routine helps me to write for more than two hours without getting distracted even once.

8 — Monitor your distractions shamelessly.

One of the 9 helpful rules to keep distractions away is to understand what distracts you in the first place. For this reason, an easy but powerful technique consists of keeping a blank page in front of you and writing down any distraction as soon as it happens.

However, every time you add something to the list, do not give it too much attention. Leave it there and turn to your work. Then, when you finish, check your distractions list, and analyze it.

Spot if any actions trigger a distraction constantly and try to avoid them. Before the next work session, read the list and try to adopt a mindful approach. Notice if the same distractions occur again, and try to control them.

With little training, you will get rid of most of the interruptions in a few days.

The Last Rule

I would love to be productive every hour of the day, but our brains cannot work constantly. Without distractions, we would have never survived in this world. Distractions allowed us to spot predators, defend ourselves, and evolve.

So the last of the 9 helpful rules to keep distractions away and increase productivity is the following:

Set a time frame to allow distractions.

We are not robots. We have a mind, many thoughts, many problems, and preoccupations, so we deserve some instant gratification from time to time. But if you do not want distractions to come and go at their will, you can schedule moments of exposure in which every interruption is welcome.

Allow your mind to satisfy the human need for curiosity before it bites you while you are working. If you do not train your body for scheduled free time in advance, it will get distracted whenever possible.


Article first published on Curious, a Medium publication.

Cover photo by ROMAN ODINTSOV from Pexels.

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