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My Strategies for Boosting Productivity in the Age of Distractions
Like many of us, I grapple with constant distractions that seek to steal my attention. It's a common struggle, and I've tried numerous strategies to stay focused and productive in a world filled with smartphones, the internet, and Candy Crush. I used to beat myself up over days of lost productivity, but I try to have a much healthier relationship with my productivity and my goals now. One way I learned this was by realizing that people have spent a lot of money and time to make devices, websites, and interfaces that psychological grip us. This is because we now live in an attention economy, a coined termed in 1971 by psychologist and economist Herbert A. Simon. In his influential paper he says...
In an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it
-Herbert A. Simon
What he is saying is that there are a lot of things vying for our attention. Unfortunately this means there's no silver bullet to eliminate distractions effortlessly. Everything I’ve learned still requires work. But I have some ideas and techniques that have helped me, and maybe they will be helpful for you as well.
Most electronics these days have batteries. Unless you put them in power saving mode they will operate with consistent performance until they are dead. It took me a long time to realize that the human body does not work this way. Our energy ebbs and flows through out the day, and not just in the morning when we are groggy and just waking up. For me I tend to go through cycles that look like this. An hour after I wake up from 7 to 11:30am I am at my peak. I have the most energy, and the least amount of distractions. After this, I have a dip between 11:30 and 12:30pm when I normally have lunch, and this is when I will supplement with some caffeine if I need it. From there my energy goes back up from 12:30 to 4pm. Finally I usually get my last burst of energy between 8-9:30pm. Because I keep a consistent sleep schedule regardless of the day of the week, these peaks are remarkably consistent. This allows me schedule around my energy levels.
The peaks are not all the same though. It starts out at 100% and then gradually goes down, up and down. If I had to estimate it would like something like this… 100%, 50%, 90%, 80%. Because of this I try to schedule my most difficult tasks, whether work or personal, earlier in the day before the dip, or in the early afternoon after it. This gives me the advantage of having the highest energy when I need to be the most productive.
I used to have the luxury of being able to go long stretches of time without touching my phone. Now that I have more responsibilities, and everything I access uses 2FA, I need to keep it within arms reach. Still I have a few ways to combat the temptation of looking at my phone all the time. I keep a Gooseneck phone holder on my desk which keeps it out of my pockets. This means that when I get up to go to the bathroom, answer the door, or get a drink, my phone stays behind. This also means when I get bored I don’t reflexively reach for my pocket where it normally would be. When I worked in an office I would keep the phone in a drawer next to me instead. I also don’t check my phone for every notifications. For the people that I am an emergency contact for, or who are important to me, I’ve set up distinct text tones. I will always look at their notifications when I hear them. Everyone else can wait.
On my IPhone I’ve set up a focus that is active during work hours. This allows me to have certain non work related apps hidden from the home page while it is active. This also allows me to squelch notifications from apps that I don’t need to be monitoring while I’m at work. The last thing I do is block sites I’ll be tempted to go to, by listing them as “adult websites” so that they are restricted. By increasing the friction to access them, I find I’m usually too lazy to go through the effort of actually turning the feature off.
For my desktop computer I employ a similar strategy. I use the Momentum extension for Firefox to block the new tab page, because it recommends frequently accessed sites (which are usually the ones I want to avoid) in convenient shortcuts. So that I don’t still try to type them into my browser I block them with the block site extension. Just like immutability by default is helpful to prevent programs that overly rely on mutation, I take the blocked by default approach for websites. I don’t try to set up times where they are blocked or unblocked. I just keep them blocked at all times. Anytime that I want to engage with any of those sites I have to pause my blocking, and I limit myself to between 5 and 15 minutes at a time. For specific sites like Twitter I also aggressively mute certain keywords and people, so that I don’t get sucked down a doom scrolling rabbit whole of things that make me unhappy.
Since I also use YouTube for educational videos I don’t block it by default, but it is a major time sink. I can easily spend four or more hours a day watching YouTube videos if I don’t stop myself. To avoid this I have the block site extension set to redirect youtube.com/ to https://www.youtube.com/feed/subscriptions. This allows me to avoid the dreaded recommendation page that has lead me down many a long YouTube rabbit hole.
Supposedly 500 hours of YouTube videos are uploaded every minute on the Platform. That equates to a near infinite amount of content the engine can recommend you. The benefit of redirecting to the subscription feeds is that I can actually see the videos of people I’m subscribed to. It also means I can “finish” watching YouTube by watching the handful of videos the channels I like post every day. Since this page also includes a search bar I can still look up tutorials. It’s the best of both worlds.
As a side note, it isn’t available on Firefox but another extension I have used in the past is Stayfocusd. It allows you to set aside a certain amount of time per day for websites in your block list. If you set if for 15 minutes, then after 15 minutes of browsing it will block you from accessing those sites. That way you can still browse them in the morning or through out the day, but it keeps you from infinitely scrolling when you know there is a time limit. You can override the blocking, but you can make it so that to override it requires typing an extremely long multi sentence password that would be annoying to do multiple times through out the day
Lastly one of the best ways I’ve found to stop being distracted is to set some goals for the day. As Zig Ziglar once said
How can you hit a target that you can’t even see?
If you don’t know what you are trying to accomplish for the day, then endlessly scrolling isn’t technically wasting your time. In the morning, I like to write out all the things I want to get done. I then periodically check this list through out the day to see how well I’m doing. This allows me to jump from task to task without allowing boredom and distraction set in as I think of what to do next.
But even with all of these tricks there is one final thing that has helped. Many people find themselves thinking “I reduced my distractions and now have two more hours in the day, I can be productive for 2 more hours”. Besides the fact that those two hours are usually not an unbroken chain of free time, that still ignores the fact that you are human. Expecting to be able to be productive with 100% of the additional time you gain is a fool’s endeavor, because you aren’t a machine and that isn’t very fun. While these techniques can cut down on the time you spend mindlessly scrolling you still need some rewards. Whether it’s reading fiction, watching documentaries, listening to an audiobook, drawing, painting miniatures or something else, you need to fill at least some of that time with something that is meaningful but fun. Ideally it’s something that you won’t regret doing. Whether it’s 25%, 50% or sometime in between is for you to decide. By doing this, you give your brain time to recharge for when you need it to get work done.
Finally in the words of The Great Ron Swanson.
One of the biggest distractions I have is worrying about work when I’m trying to have fun, or trying to have fun instead of work. This means that things I need to do take longer than they should, and that the feelings of guilt of not working spoil my relaxation time. While half assing something might be easier than just sitting down and focusing, if it causes me more stress or work down the line, I’m doing nothing but hurting myself in the long run. Because of this I try to be present in whatever I’m doing, whether it’s work or play, and I try not to let the two mix. This lets me to focus on the task at hand, so I can complete or enjoy it too its fullest.
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