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Locations That Prevent Distractions

Strategies and goals


This series of articles on distraction is adapted from my eBook on Writing Motivation. In the first article in the series, I talked about the high cost of distractions and mentioned four things we can do to minimize them. This article follows up by discussing the first of those four, choosing your location. 

Location, location, location
To the extent that you have some control over the times and places when you are focusing on a goal you’re trying to achieve (like getting your finances in order, learning a language, or writing a book), good choices of working environment will help you work better and with fewer interruptions.

We don’t always consider the power a location can have to minimize distractions, but once we do, the kinds of locations are fairly self-evident: favor locations where there will be few distractions, and try to avoid places where you might run into friends or be expected to respond to people or events. The most accessible and convenient locations–your home or usual workplace–are often the most vulnerable to distractions because people will expect to find you there. But places where you’re less likely to be distracted, like a friend’s spare room or the library (when those kinds of places are options in the first place), often involve extra time and effort to reach, and therefore may discourage work on your goal or cut into your productive time.

While there’s no way around being bound to a location for some efforts, like decluttering, avoid being completely dependent on one location if possible: the more times and places you can use to work toward your goal, the more progress you’re likely to make.

To the extent that you have a choice, try to prefer working on your goal at times when you’ll have minimal distractions, as long as those times don’t offer other problems—for instance, late at night can be a peaceful and productive time to work, but not if you’re always exhausted by then, or if it will have a serious effect on you getting enough sleep, or if  your work would wake somebody up.

Sometimes it’s possible to get more uninterrupted time to work on your goal by shifting around more interruptible activities, like housecleaning. 

Mental work environment
Your mental work environment is also a key factor. You can prepare your brain by committing to the project you’re about to work on and setting a minimum amount of time to focus on it. Avoid shifting around among different kinds of tasks within one work session when possible–for instance, working a little on your business plan, then answering some correspondence, then coming back to the business plan–since when you make these shifts you’re effectively interrupting yourself.

In the next article in this series, we’ll dig into the other three strategies for minimizing distractions: managing responsibilities, making rules, and erecting barriers.

Photo by girolame

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The High Cost of Distractions

Strategies and goals

Bee fairy causes mental blue screen of death

This post and the follow-up I’ll be posting next week are based on the “Handling Distractions” chapter from my new eBook, The Writing Engine: A Practical Guide to Writing Motivation. Have I mentioned it’s free to download and share?

The true cost of distraction
Distractions are pernicious for even more reasons than might be immediately obvious. They

  • offer unwanted invitations to stop doing whatever we’re doing,
  • require two mental “reboots,” one to address the distraction and another to return to work,
  • interfere with focus and immersion–distractions lower the number of pieces of information and connections we can keep in mind at once and force us to retrace our steps,
  • cut into time set aside for work toward a goal,
  • make otherwise productive activities more frustrating and less pleasurable,
  • encourage errors,
  • help discourage us from doing constructive things in the first place (due to feeling like we won’t be able to work uninterruptedly), and 
  • interfere with “flow” states, in which we’re engrossed in what we’re doing, highly productive, and enjoying ourselves.

If you have trouble screening out distractions, there are several useful techniques you can employ–but it may also help to know that focusing despite distractions, like virtually any other skill, is one that improves with practice. My experience certainly bears that out. It used to be that I couldn’t write or focus on work when there was any kind of noise around me, but there came a time when my home office had to share space with the playroom. Pushing through sometimes difficult writing sessions with kids playing in the background, I eventually became much more resistant to distraction, and a couple of years after that process began, I found myself cheerfully writing a book in the middle of a social gathering, and even contributing a little to the conversation from time to time. I  I didn’t do anything special to gain this skill except to keep trying to write even when distractions made it hard.

What our brains have to do to handle distractions
In his book Brain Rules: 12 Rules for Surviving and Thriving at Home, Work and School, developmental neurobiologist John Medina describes the process the brain goes through when it has to shift attention from one kind of task to another. It has to disengage from the first task, shutting down the systems it was using; assess the new task; fire up new systems for it; handle the new task; then go through the whole thing all over again when we switch back. Says Medina, “a person who is interrupted takes 50 percent longer to complete a task. Not only that, he or she makes up to 50 percent more errors.”

In other words, a two-minute interruption takes a lot more than two minutes away from whatever it interrupted. That interruption can also mean the difference between being in flow and being out of it

So, it pays to prevent distractions. There are at least four ways to do this: choosing your location, managing responsibilities, devising rules, and erecting barriers. Next week, we’ll talk about each of these strategies in more detail.

Image based on a photo by rachel_titiriga. In case you’re one of the lucky ones who might not recognize it, the blue thought bubble contains a blue screen of death.

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Some Steps for Getting into a State of Flow

States of mind


In a recent comment to my post Flow: What It Feels Like to Be Perfectly Motivated, Kaizan said, “I think the concept of flow as Csikszentmihalyi describes it is fantastic, but I didn’t really follow him as to how I was meant to apply it to my life.” It’s a good point: psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has researched and depicted flow beautifully, but actually finding flow takes some work. Here, based on what I know about flow so far and on my own flow experiences, is a starter “how to” list for getting into flow.

First, not every activity should be done in flow. Flow requires being able to concentrate on one particular task or related group of tasks for a substantial period of time without having to switch gears. This can happen alone or with other people, but if anyone or anything is going to need to pull your attention away from the task–ringing phones, kids needing help with homework, pets needing to be let out–it will tend to disrupt flow. That doesn’t mean a person can’t have a phone, kids, or pets, just that whenever there are potential distractions, getting into flow means making sure as well as you can that distractions are taken care of: the kids have someone else to go to, the dog has already been out, and there are no telephone calls you’ll need to take, for instance.

Flow also requires that you know what you’re doing. It’s a balance between control and challenge: if you’re just barely getting a grip on a new skill, you won’t have the control you need. That doesn’t mean you can’t get into a flow state when learning or practicing, but the ways I know of to do that are either 1) mastering the basics first, or 2) getting into flow about learning, not about the activity itself. For instance, if you’re just starting out with guitar, you could conceivably get into flow in terms of learning chord patterns if you have good learning skills, but you wouldn’t be able to immediately get into flow with actually playing the guitar.

Experiencing flow also means needing to carefully set clear goals that provide a challenge. Even thoroughly washing dishes before a deadline, believe it or not, works as one of these kinds of goals: washing dishes well but quickly is a challenge, and the ticking clock makes your goal clear and also provides another essential element:

Feedback. You need to be able to know how you’re doing as you proceed. This may be as simple as dishes washed, whether or not you’re playing the music as written, or seeing the wall you’re framing fit perfectly into the space allotted for it. This feedback needs to be immediate, something you’re getting in real time. Any activity that can’t provide that in-the-moment feeling of “Wow, this is going great!” probably can’t be done in flow.

That’s it. Surprisingly, the task being doesn’t have to be something you would usually consider fun. You don’t have to be a world-class expert at it, and you don’t necessarily need complete peace and quiet. Flow can be achieved filing papers, making a sales presentation, playing “Fur Elise” on the piano, sketching, vacuuming, teaching, brainstorming, organizing … or anything else that meets the following simple requirements: you are able to focus on it; you have a clear goal; it’s challenging yet within your abilities; you’ve already learned the basics; and you can see how you’re doing as you go.

So not everything can be done in flow–but then, not everything should be: sometimes being more responsive, relaxed, mindful, open, or social is called for instead. But as an element of a healthy lifestyle, flow provides an unmatched opportunity to operate at the our highest level while enjoying every minute.

In future posts, I’ll be following up with some descriptions of my own flow experiences, some information about applying flow to different kinds of activities, and possibly an interview or two about other people’s flow experiences.

Photo by Jim Natale


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