How to avoid distractions and achieve deep work

If you read this, you know it is key to avoid distractions to be productive and produce quality outputs. I do not want to dig deep into why it is important to know, how to avoid distractions. In the end it is these main reasons:

  • Deep work: It takes time to get into the state of mind and level of concentration needed to produce original content and new ideas. Interruptions and distractions pull you out of your flow.
  • Set-up-costs: Every time you start anew on a task you have some initial set up to do. You need to open the right programs and files. You set up the right tools (hardware and software). You have to check what you did already and rearrange your thoughts around it.
  • Mental distraction: Every diversion from your focus catches some part of your mental power. It takes time to refocus on what you were doing before because your thoughts keep lingering on the topic of the interruption. This effect is stronger if the distraction is also stirring you up emotionally.

That said, let’s focus on the how. There are two most important sources of distractions:

  • notifications and messages
  • the physical environment and people around you.

If you tackle those, you will already be much better off.

How to avoid distractions and being a slave of your devices.

Turn notifications off – The No. 1 source of distractions.

Notifications from apps, e-mail and messaging services are the number one source of distraction. Turning them off is the simplest and most effective way to reduce distractions. Messages are coming in so frequently that it is literally impossible for most people to concentrate on their work over a longer period. If you have not done so yet do it now. Still reading? I really mean it: Now! Turn them off.

I recommend switching off everything: Mail, WhatsApp, Instagram, Facebook, Slack, Teams, News, Trello, Messengers, Feedly, Reddit. Whatever you use: Do not push messages and notifications to your phone or your desktop in real time.

When you got rid of everything, you can re-introduce those push notifications that really benfit you.. You can assign VIP status to your partner, your kids or your boss or your personal assistant. You can agree with your team on a special emergency channel to get in touch with you right away when needed. It can also be reasonable to have calendar notifications on. This way, you do not miss important appointments while “in the flow”. But use this with care.

Today, you can also set up notifications very deliberately. The build-in possibilities of smartphones give you more control than in the past. A do-not-disturb-mode is standard today. Use it widely. Besides, you can use dedicated notification managers. So, you can set up certain times when notifications come through and others not. There are many options. Find the right level for yourself. But do not get pushed around by push notifications. Avoid distractions from messages if you doo deep work.

Mute your phone (and other devices)

Muting your phone is closely related to turning of notifications. My phone is always on mute for two reasons: First, I do not want to be distracted when I need to concentrate. Second, I do not want to disturb others with my ringing phone. Setting your phone to mute is also a courtesy to your fellows. If less notifications are perceivable, people have to worry less how to avoid distractions.

Ringing and pinging devices catch our attention. No matter if they are ours or not. In the end, these sounds were designed for this purpose. If everybody would turn these things off, we would already live in a much less distracted environment. Luckily, in my impression more and more people are already following this advice.

Put your phone in another room

If you have some minor phone addiction issues and tend to fear missing out on news, put your phone in another room. Muting and turning it around is not enough in this case. We would not suggest an alcoholic to have a bottle of vodka on the table but turn it around so he can not read the label. If you have some issues. Admit them and remove the temptation.

Read your messages on your own schedule

As soon as you have turned off notifications, the question is: when to read new messages? Do it on your own schedule and do it completely. My experience and what many experts suggest at most three to four times a day. More is not needed unless you work in an emergency response center or something similar.

It can be difficult to get to your own schedule. Other people have demands on you. Today, many people work in a culture that expects immediate response to all messages. If your team works this way, I propose two things.

First, talk to your teammates about the scientific facts. Explaint, that you could get much more done when working in a more concentrated way. Agree on less hectic expectations and on an emergency channel for the rare cases where immediate action is really needed.

Second, get to your own schedule step by step. Move from instant replies to checking your inbox every fifteen minutes. Then move on to every half hour, every hour and finally three to four times a day.

Our app 43 me supports this by allowing you to set up global reminders for a time of your choice. These remind you to check your whole list instead of pushing you every due date of every task individually.

How to avoid distractions by designing your physical environment

Distractions from physical environment and the people around you are the second major source of distractions. How to avoid this type of distractions? To adress them, you need to design your physical environment. Regardless whether you work from home, have an individual office or have a desk in a co-working space. You have several options to design your environment to support your focus.

Have a physical space for deep work

Some parts of your work probably require a certain level of deeper thinking and analysis. Having a dedicated physical space for this type of concentrated deep work can help a lot. Being in your thinking spaces primes your brain to focus. In addition, you can design this space to avoid the possibility to be distracted. Being able to close the door, having no phone, maybe not even internet access all keep distractions away.

Use noise cancelling headphones

If you have no possibility for a dedicated deep workspace, you need to design your environment in a different way. One possibility are noise cancelling headphones which can block disturbing noises very effectively. Do not play your favorite music from the heavy rotation. Singing voices always drag some part of your attention, at least subconsciously. Instead, listen to calm and relaxing instrumental music. There is music specifically designed to increase focus and this works quite well. If you stream a playlist, please do invest into a premium service to avoid distraction from advertisment.

Use a do not disturb sign

It is important to signal to your co-workers or your family members when you must not be disturbed and when it is ok to drop in with some questions. A classic do-not-disturb-sign can work wonders. However, some people perceive this as impolite. That is why I would strongly recommend talking with the relevant people about the issue. Decide to together, how to implement it. People in open-plan offices can signal each other their availability with figurines or small flags.

Define visiting hours

Defining visiting hours goes even beyond signaling, not to be disturbed. It can be very effective but is also somewhat bureaucratic and inflexible. Even though I never found the need to be that strict, it is a possibility to consider.

Co-work in batches

An interesting approach to achieve concentration and focus is co-working in batches. Emanuel from Flowrakis proposes an approach inspired by the pomodoro technique. Everybody works quietly and concentrated on his or her task for exactly 50 minutes. Afterwards there is a break of 10 minutes to talk and socialize. This is repeated three to four times. This structure strikes a good balance between concentration and relaxation. The structured streaks are also great to battle inclinations to procrastinate. They also offer a co-working clock, you can use for free.

What next?

If you want to get more done, cut distractions. Start with turning off notifications on your phone and all inboxes. Then move on to optimize your environment. Discuss with your peers how to achieve a more focus-oriented culture.