4 Ways to Avoid Distractions When it Matters Most

Deadlines, by their very nature, suck.

When you have a deadline approaching, you just have to sit down and get work done whether you want to or not. You’re used to deadlines from back in your school days, and have learned by now that they’re just a part of life.

Now, you can either hate and fear them, or you can use them to your advantage to get focused. As the saying goes:

“Nothing ever gets done without a deadline”

And, by extension, no deadline was ever met by someone who was totally distracted and doing no work.

Here are four methods I combine to make sure I can stay focused when it matters most, and hit my deadlines:

  • Set a do not disturb schedule on your Mac and iPhone

  • Always have a concrete process to follow

  • Set aside time in advance for focus work on your calendar (time boxing)

  • Turn on StayFocusd to stop yourself getting off track

Let’s get into it:

Set a Do Not Disturb schedule on your iOS/OS X devices

You know how annoying it is to get interrupted while you’re working, but there are also solid studies to prove how damaging it really is:

“Research has found that [...] interruptions can take up to 238 minutes a day. Then you have to restart. That’s the loss of another 84 minutes. That leads to inefficiencies like momentum loss, do-overs because of errors. Stress and fatigue cost another 50 minutes.”

That’s hours and hours wasted because you get distracted from your regular task and go into some kind of rabbit hole. Whether it’s Slack notifications, Twitter notifications, or incoming emails, every platform that notifies you can pull you into a time-wasting black hole that will take time to get out of and steal your momentum.

Above is an image explaining how to enable a Do Not Disturb schedule on OS X. Click the top right icon in your screen to expand the notifications center. Then hit settings in the bottom right and change the schedule.

Here’s how to do it on iOS:

It’s really easy on your iPhone or iPad: just go into Settings and hit Do Not Disturb and turn on scheduled.

That’s a simple way to cut down on the number of distractions in your life. So simple that you can probably get it done in just a couple of minutes, but save hours of your life from now on.

Always have a concrete process to follow

The question of “what do I do next?” is never a productive one. It’ll often lead to you getting distracted, or spending longer than you should on a task.

So, what I suggest from my personal experience and research into the importance of process, is that you build yourself a checklist for the complex tasks you need to do regularly.

For example, whenever I publish a blog post for Process Street, I have to use a checklist to make sure I’ve done everything correctly:

  • Have I capitalized all company names?

  • Have I linked out to all products mentioned?

  • Are there any formatting issues?

Etc.

The entire process is 15 steps long and covers everything from SEO optimization to style checking. With it, we can be 100% sure we’ve not made any errors, and it also helps guide us what to do next. There’s no faulting a checklist because it’s always going to tell you what the next step is.

To set these up for yourself, you have to do a bit of monitoring. As you go through your day, think about which tasks you do that recur regularly that you should make a process for? And, if you’re part of a business hiring others to do those tasks, make sure to give them the checklist and see if they find any errors.

Set aside time in advance for focus work on your calendar

As a content marketer, writer, and editor, it can be hard to split time between typing, editing other people’s work, and working on other marketing tasks. I noticed my Trello board (where I organize my tasks) was full of cards that had gone months without being touched, and went to my CEO for advice.

What he said was remarkably simple:

He told me I just need to set aside one morning per week (10% of my total work week) to work on miscellaneous quick tasks that need processing. So now, when a task comes to my attention, I always make sure to label it if it’s a task that can be done during my weekly sprint block.

Now I find I always get these small tasks done instead of telling myself I don’t quite have the time to complete them.

The same goes for anything you’re not sure when to start. If you have three main duties at work, you could split your day into thirds with the most thought-intensive tasks in the morning. It’s easy using iCal or Google Calendar in your browser, and you can even configure it so you get a notification when you need to switch tasks.

Turn on StayFocusd to stop yourself getting off track

Here’s a more draconian way to make sure you don’t get distracted:

Install a browser extension that stops you from straying off onto Facebook when you should be on the more productive (yet less appealing) Excel.

The extension is called StayFocusd and it lets you impose a block on sites manually for a certain amount of time. When you activate it, there’s no way for you to go on your banned sites while the timer ticks down. If you have a habit of getting lost in the infinite rabbit hole of YouTube, add that to your blacklist as well as the rest of your vices.

You’ll see, you start to develop conditioning against going on time-wasting sites, and that’s a healthy habit to learn!

This is a guest post by Benjamin Brandall. 

Benjamin is the head of content marketing at Process Street, where he writes on startups, SaaS, and workflows. In his spare time, he runs Secret Cave, an obscure entertainment blog.