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A Short Guide

To Finding Focus
and Overcoming
Distractions
By Belle B. Cooper
Whether you work from home and have to contend with
family members, pets, and roommates encroaching on
your peace and quiet, or you fight the bustle of busy
streets to get to a noisy, crowded office everyday, chances
are you’re battling against distraction as much as
anyone.

As we become used to being surrounded by attention-


grabbing screens, billboards, and notifications, we’re
losing our ability to focus on just one thing for any length
of time.

Focus isn’t just about fighting distraction—though that’s


a big part of it—it’s also about learning to protect your
time, learning to say no, and developing an environment
conducive to doing meaningful work.
The Fight Against
Distraction
So many of us fight distraction every day, without really examining
what’s distracting us, and why.

According to Daniel Goleman, author of Focus: The Hidden Power of


Excellence, there are two kinds of distraction: sensory, and emotional.
Sensory distractions are the things happening around us: colleagues
talking, phones ringing, people moving around us, music playing.
Emotional distractions are the thoughts that make our attention drift
from what we’re doing: remembering a phone call or email you need to
return, thinking about a meeting coming up later today, worrying about
a friend who’s unwell.

Goleman says emotional, or internal, distractions are hard to ignore


because our brains won’t let us ignore something if we’ve left it half-
finished. Our brains want us to make a plan to tackle things that are
important to us, so if we leave something unfinished it keeps popping
up and distracting us.

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This is known as the Zeigarnik effect, and it makes our internal
distractions the hardest to overcome, according to Goleman:

“ It’s not the chatter of people around us that is the


most powerful distractor, but rather the chatter of
our own minds.

But perhaps overcoming distractions isn’t a sustainable approach,


anyway. According to David Rock, executive director of the
NeuroLeadership Institute and author of Your Brain at Work,
distractions are a part of life because it’s impossible to overcome them
completely:


... there’s no way not to be distracted by
distractions, it’s built into the brain in the way we
pay attention to novelty.

Our brains are brilliant at pattern-matching, and at noticing anything


that doesn’t match a pattern. We’re drawn to novelty, and this makes a
distraction in an otherwise monotonous workday very hard to ignore.

Alan Hedge, workplace design expert at Cornell University, says the


fact that we’re social creatures makes it particularly hard to ignore
distractions related to other people—which covers most of the
distractions we face in a workday.

Being social creatures, says Hedge, makes us innately curious about


other humans, which makes it near impossible to tune other people
out. We’re trying to overcome the way we’re naturally wired.

To make it worse, we find it hard to ignore anything that’s unpredictable.


You’ll know this if you’ve ever tried to sleep while there’s loud noises
outside your window at random intervals—a neighbor’s party with
occasional loud laughter or talking, for instance. Compare that to the
consistent hum of a fan, which lulls us off to sleep peacefully.

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It’s the unpredictability that makes the party noise so hard to ignore.
And this is why we find unpredictable noises in the office so distracting,
as well. For instance, overhearing just one side of a conversation (a
colleague on a phone call, for example) is especially hard to tune out,
because it’s a human distraction that’s also unpredictable.

Studies have shown hearing just one side of a conversation is more


irritating than hearing two people have a discussion nearby, because
we can’t predict the flow of the conversation when we can only hear
one participant.

If you’re in an open office with dividers such as movable cubicle


walls, you may notice this effect is even worse. Despite the temporary
nature of cubicle dividers, they give us a false sense of privacy, which
tends to lead to louder conversations than we’d otherwise have in
an entirely open space, which makes those distractions all the more
difficult to ignore.

So what about paying attention among this sea of distraction? What


does that look like? And how can we get better at it?

Studies have explored what the brain does when we’re paying attention
to something particular amidst unrelated information. One study
showed participants a very quick series of images of faces and houses.
Participants were asked to focus on either the houses or the faces, and
ignore the other type of image.

The researchers found that when seeing an image in the group they
were paying attention to, the synapses in the participant’s brain would
fire in synchronicity, something like a choir all singing in unison. But
when seeing an image the participant was trying to ignore, the brain
would fire synapses out of sync.

Researchers posit this synchronicity makes the messages being shared


by those synapses easier to “hear”, as it helps them rise above the

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out-of-sync noise of other synapses firing at the same time. So paying
attention to something makes our brain work to fire our synapses in
unison, making the signals about what we’re paying attention to easier
to pick up.

While avoiding distractions isn’t easy, our brains do help us in that


regard. Firing our synapses in unison is one way, which helps us stay
focused on the task at hand while the office around us is buzzing with
distractions.

But research also shows that we might get better at handling


distractions as we face them more. In a study that had participants
read a short passage, then complete a set of test questions about
the material, researchers split the participants into three groups.
One group was left alone to complete the test, while the other groups
were told they might be interrupted at any time with an SMS including
further instructions.

Of the two groups primed to be interrupted, one group did receive


several messages while completing the test. The other group, though
primed to receive messages, never did.

The researchers found both groups primed to be interrupted


performed worse than the control group, showing just the threat of
interruptions is enough to throw off our concentration. The priming
was designed to simulate how many of us treat our inboxes while
working: we constantly flick into and out of our inboxes, checking for
mail that may never come. Knowing that there’s the possibility of a
distraction is enough to throw off our concentration and make us keep
checking to see if a distraction has arrived.

But what was really interesting about this study is that when the
researchers re-did the experiment with the same participants, they
found those who’d been interrupted in the first phase performed better
in the second phase, even if they were again primed to be interrupted.

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It seems going through the experience of trying to focus despite being
distracted is enough to help us develop strategies to focus better the
next time we’re in that situation.

So, what have we learned?

We know distractions are everywhere. In particular, the people we


work with make the workplace less conducive to focus. Because we’re
innately curious about other humans, we have a hard time blocking
other people out.

And don’t forget that internal monologue of yours—the worries about


tasks left undone or upcoming meetings are just as liable to throw off
your concentration as overhearing a phone conversation in the next
cubicle.

But we also know our brains work with us to focus when necessary.
If we consciously pay attention to something in particular, our brains
fire related synapses in unison, making them easier to pick up on, and

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drowning out the chaotic noise of synapses related to other things in
our surroundings.

And finally, perhaps the best news of all: for those of us who have to
face distraction every day and find a way to concentrate despite it, this
may be exactly how we get better at doing so. We seem to be better at
concentrating despite distractions once we’ve done it before. So every
frustrating workday full of distractions is training you to tune them out
better next time.

Speaking of frustrating distractions, there’s one kind of distraction in


particular that few of us have mastered...

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Why We’re Addicted To
Notifications
How many times have you read about people turning all the notifications
off on their phone, or tried yourself, only to find that it never seems to
stick long-term? While we try this with good intentions, most of us end
up right back on the notification train again at some point.

Why is so hard to turn off—and keep off—notifications? Why can’t we


stop picking up our phones and checking social media, even when we
know there’s nothing new to see?

And what can we do to make a toned-down approach stick?

We’re addicted to our phones


As our phones become smarter and more powerful, our dependency on
them only increases. In fact, when completing interviews for her book
The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships
in the Digital Age, author Catherine Steiner-Adair found many
people shared experiences that showed symptoms of psychological
dependency. For instance, many of the interviewees said they couldn’t
leave the house without their phones or go to the bathroom without
them, and they felt anxious when separated from their phones.

Other research has found, similarly, that we tend to feel more


uncomfortable and anxious without our phones, or when we can’t
access social media.

Just to prove how little we know about what’s good for us, research
shows that people who rely on their phones most, and feel anxious
without them, don’t actually feel better when they do have their

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phones nearby. Those who rely most on their phones and/or social
media tend to have higher levels of stress, aggression, distraction, and
depression, have lower self-esteem, and get less sleep on average.

Further research has shown that push notifications from email are a
“toxic source of stress” for many UK workers. This study also found a
strong connection between the use of push notifications and perceived
email stress, according to lead author Dr. Richard MacKinnon:

“ The people who reported it being most useful to


them also reported the highest levels of email
pressure.

Another study also explored how connecting with people online affects
our emotional state. The researchers found connecting with others via
Facebook left people feeling sad and dissatisfied, but following up with
a phone call or a face-to-face exchange left people feeling uplifted.

According to psychologist Susan Pinker, online relationships without


face-to-face contact fail to create the trust needed for authentic
personal connections.

So if email, social media, and mobile notifications are so bad for us,
why can’t we give them up?

Software is designed to make us addicted


While some might say it’s up to users to take responsibility for our
reliance on our phones, Tristan Harris, former product philosopher at
Google and co-founder of advocacy group Time Well Spent, says this
assessment isn’t fair:

“ ... but that’s not acknowledging that there’s a


thousand people on the other side of the screen
whose job is to break down whatever responsibility
I can maintain.

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Harris’s goal is to have product designers sign a kind of hippocratic
oath, swearing to design products that don’t take advantage of users.
“There is a way to design based not on addiction,” he says.

Joe Edelman, who helped Harris with the research for Time Well Spent,
compares the tech industry to Big Tobacco before the link between
cigarettes and cancer was proven: giving customers more of what they
want, even if it’s harmful.

Nir Eyal, author of Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products,


explains that software, especially social media, is designed around
an idea described by researcher B.F. Skinner in the 1950s: variable
rewards. Skinner, experimenting with mice, found that providing the
same treats every time a mouse pressed a lever was less motivating
than varying the rewards. Mice who received either a big treat, a small
treat, or no treat when pressing the lever pressed far more often than
mice receiving the same treat every time. Mice receiving variable
rewards also kept pressing the lever for much longer after the treats
stopped coming than the mice receiving consistent treats, who stopped
pressing almost immediately.

Though using this research in software design might seem sinister, Eyal
says it can be beneficial when used in the right way:


If used for good, habits can enhance people’s lives
with entertaining and even healthful routines.
If used to exploit, habits can turn into wasteful
addictions.

Eyal disagrees with Harris’s idea that software designers are


consciously building products we’ll become addicted to. There’s
nothing wrong with using this research in human behavior when
designing software, says Eyal. He says it’s simply new and unknown,
making people like Harris wary:

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Saying ‘Don’t use these techniques’ is essentially
saying ‘Don’t make your products fun to use.’
That’s silly. With every new technology, the older
generation says ‘Kids these days are using too
much of this and too much of that and it’s melting
their brains.’ And it turns out that what we’ve
always done is to adapt.

But Harris doesn’t buy it. The onus is on software designers, he says, to
avoid making us all addicted to their products:

“ Never before in history have the decisions of a


handful of designers (mostly men, white, living in
SF, aged 25-35) working at 3 companies [Google,
Facebook, and Apple] had so much impact on
how millions of people around the world spend
their attention. We should feel an enormous
responsibility to get this right.

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Making notifications and social media manageable
While Harris is making some progress in getting software designers
on board with the idea of designing products that don’t rely on user
addiction to succeed, there are plenty of products we use every day
that are already built around addictive behaviors.

Using Eyal’s “Hook Model,” products use triggers such as notifications


to encourage us to take actions—opening the app, looking at a photo,
etc. Variable rewards encourage us take action more often: opening our
inboxes, refreshing our social feeds, and so on, in the hope of a treat,
just like Skinner’s lab mice.

Eyal’s model also includes investment: a step where the user, having
already interacted with the product, is asked to invest time, money,
data, or effort to make the product more useful to them and make it
more likely they’ll come back in the future. Inviting friends to a social
network or learning to use new features of an app are examples of the
investment stage, that only increase our reliance on these products
and make us more likely to keep using them.

So until Harris can successfully get all software designers on board


with his hippocratic oath, it’s up to us to fight the addictive design of
the products we use every day.

Let’s look at three ways to do this.

■ ADJUST YOUR NOTIFICATION SETTINGS ■


Rather than completely culling all notifications—which, if you
remember the research I mentioned earlier, could make you more
anxious than having them all turned on—Davide Casali suggests only
keeping notifications turned on for the apps you really need to stay on
top of.

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Casali split his own app usage into three groups:
1. Instant: Anything he wants to know about as soon as it happens
2. Relevant: Anything he wants to know about when he’s open to new
updates, but not immediately
3. Kill: Anything he really doesn’t need to know about

For the first group, Casali left notifications on as usual. For the
“Relevant” group, he turned off all notification and alert options except
for app icon badges. This made it obvious which apps had new updates
when Casali took the time to check their icons, but didn’t interrupt his
day with updates whenever they were available.

For the final group, Casali turned off all notification and alert options
completely.

Fine-tuning your notifications in this way may be a better compromise


than turning them off completely, because being completely cut-off
tends to make us anxious. Try putting just one or two apps or services
into the “Kill” and “Relevant” sections, and adding more over time as
you become more comfortable with getting fewer notifications.

■ CHECK YOUR EMAIL LESS OFTEN ■


A study of 124 workers tested the difference between allowing workers
to have email notifications turned on and check their email anytime,
and having workers turn off notifications and check their email just
three times each day.

While checking less often was tough on workers, keeping their email
use restricted reduced stress:

“ Most participants in our study found it quite


difficult to check their email only a few times a
day. This is what makes our obvious-in-hindsight
findings so striking: People find it difficult to resist
the temptation of checking email, and yet resisting
this temptation reduces their stress.

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So while it might be difficult to adjust to, try turning off email
notifications and setting just a few specific times aside for checking
your inbox. Put your entire inbox on pause, if you need to. You might
find you feel better overall, even if the immediate change is tough.

■ MAKE REWARDS LESS VARIABLE ■


Since our addiction to our phones and social media tends to be a
result of the variable nature of the rewards we get, making those
rewards more predictable can help us cut down on our obsessive
behaviors.

For any service that offers a daily digest of updates rather than
immediate notifications, try turning that on. You’ll get a predictable
daily roundup of everything that’s new, so you’ll stay in the loop
without checking several times a day for a new reward.

For instance, Google Groups offer various email notification options


to choose from, depending on how quickly you want to be updated
about new posts. You can choose to receive an email about every new
post, a digest after every 25 new posts, or just a single daily digest of
new activity.

For services that don’t offer this feature built-in, you can use Zapier’s
Digest feature to create your own. For any of Zapier’s 750+ connected
apps, you can use Digest to create a daily roundup of updates you care
about. You can even decide where to have your digest sent, so if email
isn’t your thing you could use a Slack channel instead, for instance.

If you’re struggling with notification overload or addiction to your


phone, rest assured you’re not alone. Not only is this a common
problem, but it’s a tough one to solve because many product designers
want to keep us in this state.

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Being aware of the behavioral research used by product designers can
help us understand why we’re so addicted to notifications and checking
for updates online, but we need to take further steps to overcome
those behaviors.

The more we can reduce the variability of rewards offered to us


by social media and mobile apps, the easier it will be to reduce
our reliance on technology and focus more of our time on doing
meaningful work.

And for those of us who spend many hours every day with technology,
it’s especially important to find ways to balance our need for
technology without letting it take over our lives.

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How To Clear Your
Digital Clutter And Get
More Done
I spend most of my day on a computer. When I’m not working I spend
my spare time programming or blogging. When I take a break I spend it
looking at my phone.

One of the problems with all this time spent looking at screens is the
amount of digital clutter these habits have created in my life.

I don’t just mean files cluttering up my desktop or a Facebook account


full of friends I barely know. I mean the intangible clutter: the accounts
I have on every social network; the abandoned to-do lists left behind in
every to-do app I’ve ever tried; the people I’m always comparing myself
to or trying to beat.

Spending so much time online every day leads to a cluttered life. One
where you don’t stop and think before grabbing your phone during any
moment of downtime. One where you start feeling obliged to post on
social networks twice a day because your followers expect you to and
you forgot to ask yourself if it even matters what people expect.

It’s so easy for these habits to creep up on us that we never get a


chance to ask ourselves if this is how we want to spend our time.
Before we notice anything changing it just feels normal to fill up our
time—our lives—with screens.

But once we realize how cluttered our lives have become with screens,
social media, and expectations, we can look for ways to simplify that mess.

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Transition to digital minimalism
Professor and author Cal Newport is well-known for his ideas about
productivity—in particular, finding the time and space to do real,
important work. So when Newport suggested quitting social media,
people took notice.

We’ve all heard of social media sabbaticals, where someone quits


social media for a short period of time, but Newport also has a
suggestion for a more lasting approach than the yo-yo of quitting and
rejoining social media over and over: digital minimalism.

Digital minimalism, says Newport, is focused on the idea of removing


digital clutter and spending our time only on what adds value to our lives.

Digital minimalism, he says, “is a philosophy that helps you question


what digital communication tools (and behaviors surrounding these
tools) add the most value to your life.”

Newport’s philosophy is based around the idea that we can improve


our lives by “intentionally and aggressively clearing away low-value
digital noise, and optimizing [our] use of the tools that really matter.”

Of course, to adopt a philosophy that requires us to prune our use of


(and reliance on) digital tools, we’ll inevitably have to face FOMO—fear
of missing out. Newport says one of the key beliefs underlying his
digital minimalism philosophy is that missing out is not bad. We have
to come to terms with the idea that we will miss out on some things,
and that’s okay. FOMO is only holding us back by giving us an excuse to
stay chained to the digital clutter we’ve accumulated.

So if we admit we can’t keep up with everything anyway and let go of


our FOMO, what’s next? How do we actually clear out the digital clutter
that’s built up in our lives?

Newport suggests two alternatives for making the transition to digital

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minimalism. The first is a subtractive approach. This involves removing
each digital tool, service, or associated behavior that you find doesn’t
add value to your life. One by one, survey each element of digital
clutter you’ve accumulated and ask yourself if it deserves to stay. If not,
remove it.

The other approach is an additive method. It involves removing


everything initially, and adding back only those tools, services or
behaviors that do serve your values.

With either of these approaches, you could use RescueTime to show


you which distracting tools and services take up most of your time.
If you use the subtractive approach, your RescueTime data could
also show you how much more productive you are when you cut out
everything you can do without, and how that changes as you start
adding things back into your life.

Either way, the most important thing, says Newport, is to make sure
you’re choosing the best tool or service in each case, not just whatever
will do the job.

Choose the best tool for the job


Many of us fall prey to the easy option of finding value in every digital
tool we use. It’s not hard to make an argument for spending time on
Facebook or having a Twitter account. You could even argue the merits

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of Snapchat—no one would begrudge you having fun with friends.

But Newport points out that we rarely take the time to find the best
way to get the value we’re looking for. Instead, we try a new tool, find
some value in it, and decide that’s a good reason to keep giving it our
attention.

Newport suggests another way of approaching the digital clutter in


our lives. Whether you use his subtractive or additive method from
the previous section, he recommends starting by thinking about your
values. What is it that’s important to you? What do you want to achieve
from how you spend your time?

When you know what your values are, Newport says, you can focus on
finding the best tools to help you live out those values.

For example, if you previously found scrolling through Twitter useful


because it helped you stay on top of news, and one of your values is to
be informed about local events, you could then evaluate whether Twitter
is the best tool for staying updated on what’s happening in your local
area. You might find that a local newspaper or the RSS feed of a local
news website is a better tool to help you live out this particular value.

Protect your time


One of the inevitable effects of digital clutter is that it makes us busy.
Filling our time with email, social networks, and mindless scrolling
through other people’s updates leaves us with little time to get real
work done. Our lives are taken over by busywork.

As writer and entrepreneur Scott H. Young points out, this is a problem


because we associate being busy with being productive, but they’re
not the same. When we spend all our time on busywork, therefore, we
entertain the idea that we’re being productive while all along we’re
neglecting our most important work.

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Although it can be difficult to escape from the cycle of busyness, doing
so opens up time for hard, important work.

Young suggests cutting back on your commitments to leave more room


for big projects. Newport similarly advocates doing fewer things better,
rather than spreading yourself too thin.

But Young also suggests being disconnected or hard to reach on


purpose. The more available and responsive you are, the more easily
other people can clutter up your life and eat up your time with their
own priorities.

It might sound extreme, but not having an account on every social


network, not leaving your status as “available” in chat programs during
work hours, or even not sharing your email address could open up
huge chunks of uninterrupted time for real work. By making it harder
for other people to contact you, you’ll ensure only very important
messages will reach you, and you’ll protect your time from busywork
and time-consuming requests.

Of course, the problem then becomes what to use as an excuse when


you want to avoid the hard work anyway...

It’s never easy to go against the grain, but in doing what seems
normal we’re doing ourselves a disservice. Our “normal” has become a
harmful habit of accepting all new, available technology into our lives,
regardless of how much value it really brings us.

Taking the time to re-evaluate the tools we use and how we spend our
time can be an eye-opening experience. And if we regularly evaluate
our choices and protect our time and attention, we may just be able to
avoid falling into that trap again.

But then, one of the tools we use is more of a problem than others: the
ubiquitous phone that most of us carry on us 24/7. This amazing piece
of technology has the power to steal our attention perhaps more than
any other tool around us. So how can we take control of how we use
our phones, rather than letting them control us?

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How To Stop Checking
Your Phone So Often
It’s a modern-day problem, but many of us can’t leave the room—let
alone the house—without our phones in our pockets. We even have
new gadgets to wear on our wrists to help us keep our phones in our
pockets more—but without missing out on anything.

Having a computer in your pocket is amazing. There’s no denying that


we’re incredibly lucky to be able to afford these powerful machines
and to take advantage of how quickly technology is advancing.

But I’m sure I’m not the only one who wants to spend a little less time
with my phone and a little more time with people, nature, food, and
anything else not involving screens.

Keep your phone out of reach


If your phone is always nearby, it’s easy to pick it up more often than
you’d like to. Making it harder to give in to that temptation will help
you break the habit of picking up your phone anytime you can.

Adam Alter, professor of marketing at NYU and author of Irresistible: The


Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked, says
to think about designing your environment to help you avoid your phone:


So if there’s something that you keep doing
obsessively, make sure that it’s not in your
environment and you’re less likely to do it. That’s
a much more effective way of preventing yourself
from using it than say keeping it nearby but trying
to just suppress the desire to use it.

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Turn off notifications
We covered this approach in the last chapter, so I won’t go into detail
again here, but turning off your notifications is a classic way to ease
your reliance on that little box in your pocket that’s always vying for
your attention.

Alter says turning off notifications is a way to take back control:

“ Turn off the “ding” sound when you get a text


message so that instead of your phone saying,
“Hey, check me now,” you decide when it’s time to
check. You’re removing the control from the phone
and you’re bringing it back to yourself. You can
also take the apps that are most addictive for you,
and bury them in a folder on the fourth page.

Replace your phone with something else


It sounds easy to keep your phone further away so it’s hard to get to,
but in practice that’s quite difficult. The trick, according to Alter, is to
replace your phone with something else:

What you want to do is you want to find a behavior that is a stand-in


for the behavior that you don’t want to be doing. You replace the bad
thing that you shouldn’t be doing with something good that you should
be doing.

So you start leaving your phone in your home office or in your entrance
hall. When you’re in bed or chilling on the couch, what do you do? Here
are some ideas to get you thinking:

• Leave a book on your bedside table


• Leave another book or a stack of magazines next to your couch
• Keep a bag of knitting or crochet, a coloring book, or a sketchbook
and pencil next to the couch
• Leave a deck of cards or a puzzle toy on the table by your couch

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• Get out that musical instrument you keep meaning to play and
store it next to your couch
• Keep a journal and pen by your bed
• Keep a set of small weights by the couch
• Keep a yo-yo or a set of juggling balls by the couch and learn a few
party tricks
• Put reading apps on the main screen of your phone or tablet and
move all other apps into hard-to-reach places
• Keep a letter-writing pad and a pen by your bed and catch up on
some old-fashioned correspondence

Being glued to our phones is a modern-day problem that many of us


struggle with. And the more powerful our phones become, the more we
struggle.

But there’s another part of daily life that can be overwhelming and
difficult to manage: your calendar.

Using your calendar to protect your time and work on what’s


meaningful to you seems a rare privilege. These days, it’s more likely
your calendar is used by others to fill up your time with their needs.
But it doesn’t have to be that way.

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How To Protect Your
Time And Organize
Your Calendar
Being productive, working on the right things, and not letting busywork
take over your day often comes down to how you schedule your work.
As productivity expert Cal Newport says, scheduling your week in
advance “allows you to spread out, batch, and prioritize work in a
manner that significantly increases what you accomplish and goes a
long way toward eliminating work pile-ups and late nights.”

Try out these tips for improving the way you schedule your work to
make sure you’re spending your time on what’s most important.

Categorize events
Even if you have a separate calendar for work events, you might have
various types of events on that one calendar. Etsy engineering director
Lara Hogan suggests creating separate event categories and using a
color code to distinguish them on your calendar.

For instance, you might have:

• one-on-one meetings with your team


• meetings with your manager
• team meetings
• office hours
• client meetings

By color-coding your events, you can easily glance at your calendar and

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get an idea of what’s coming up for the rest of the day or week.

Here’s what your calendar might look like with this color-coding system
in place:

Gym Gym

Travel Travel
Travel
Meeting with coworker
Training
Lunch with friend
Meeting with coworker
Lunch Company meeting
Lunch

Client meeting Team meeting


Meeting with boss

Client meeting

Travel Travel
Travel

Movie Dinner party Dinner party

Hogan also suggests grouping events from the same category whenever
possible. If you have a full day of one-on-one meetings, for instance,
you can stay in the same mindset all day. But a jumbled schedule
with one-on-ones, office hours, and client meetings will require more
context switching throughout the day.

Make a boilerplate daily schedule


SuperBooked CEO Dan Mall suggests starting with a full schedule,
rather than an empty one waiting to be filled up with events. Mall says
he picked up this idea from designer Jessica Hische:

“ I love the idea that she starts every week with a full
calendar, as opposed to an empty calendar that
needs filling. I’ve always defaulted to the idea that
my main work would fit in the empty slots, after
everything else has been scheduled.

As Mall says, writing down this way of thinking about your work

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schedule makes it obvious how silly it is. Though most of us do
approach our calendars this way: we start with a blank slate, and make
our most important work fit in around any appointments and events
that pop up throughout the workweek.

Mall’s solution is to create a boilerplate Example of Boilerplate


daily schedule and update it with extra Daily Schedule
details for each day. This way, you start
7:00-8:00
with a calendar full of important work, Gym

and extra events have to fit in around


8:00-9:00
your work. Here’s what Mall’s schedule Check email/socials

template looks like. 9:00-10:30


Meeting Slot

At the end of each workday, Mall spends 10:30-12:00


Meeting Slot
half an hour updating the template
with specifics for the next day’s work. 12:00-1:00
Lunch
Any template calendar slot is replaced
with something more specific. So “daily 1:00-4:00
work” slots, for instance, get renamed to Daily Work

specific tasks or projects to be worked on


4:00-6:00
during those times. Dinner with kids

Since Mall has two possible slots for calls


each day, he can confidently schedule calls knowing they won’t affect
his work, and turn down call requests that don’t fit those times. And
any unscheduled call slots are simply switched to daily work slots
instead.

This approach means Mall always has an hour of meaningful work


scheduled first thing in the morning, as well as scheduled periods of
focus time for daily work. Mall also makes sure to schedule periods for
checking email, Slack, and social media, and keeps those apps closed
at other times so he can focus more on his work.

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Let others do the work
Although using a calendar to schedule your work can help make sure
everything important gets done, it can also create even more overhead
as you end up with longer email chains to create and reschedule
meetings throughout the workweek.

To avoid this, Hogan suggests blocking out periods of time on your


calendar when you’re available to meet with others, and letting them
book those times. You can use an app like Calendly for this, setting
time blocks when you’re available and simply sharing a link to your
calendar where others can book appointments. Or if you use Google
Calendar with your colleagues, you can use the built-in appointment
slots feature to let others book appointments on your calendar.

Hogan also suggests making events editable by attendees wherever


possible, and adding a note when scheduling an event to let attendees
know they’re free to make changes, as your schedule will update
automatically. This way, you save the back-and-forth of email chains
figuring out when everyone’s available and if it’s okay to move an
event, and you leave the hassle of rescheduling to those who need to
move the event in the first place.

Fix your Mondays


We can’t talk about schedules and calendars without talking about
Mondays. They may just be the most tricky days to plan for.

Freelance designer Jessica Hische suggests avoiding setting deadlines


for Mondays:

“ If there is a deadline on Monday, and you are


prone to procrastinating/procrastiworking like me,
you are most definitely working on the weekend.

Instead of setting deadlines for Mondays, Hische sets aside Mondays

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for doing admin work and keeping her business running. This way, she’s
confident that she’ll get her admin work done every week, and she can
ignore those tasks on other days when she’s doing more focused client
work:


If I give myself one day to do the bulk of my
emailing/interview answering/file organizing/
scheduling etc, I feel WAY less guilty about ignoring
all of that stuff for large periods of time during the
rest of the work week.

Hogan agrees that Mondays should be treated carefully. She points


out that recurring meetings that fall on Mondays tend to create a
rescheduling nightmare anytime a long weekend pops up. If you have
recurring team meetings or events, Hogan suggests scheduling them
for other weekdays and keeping Mondays for one-off events only.

Using your calendar to protect your time can help you prioritize work
that’s meaningful to you. But having an environment that’s conducive
to doing that meaningful work is just as important.

Too many of us settle for the environment we’re in by default. But


thinking through your needs, and what kind of environment suits
the kind of work you’re doing, can save you time and help you avoid
distraction when it’s time to focus.

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How To Improve Your
Work Environment
From the lighting in your office to the style of desk you work at, your
environment can help or hinder your productivity. Let’s take a look
at some ways you can adjust your workspace to suit your needs and
improve your efficiency at work.

Add natural light


Studies have found a strong link between the amount of natural
daylight employees are exposed to throughout the day and the quality
of their sleep. Lack of natural light in the office can increase sleep
disturbances, reduce sleep quality and duration, and even affect our
overall quality of life.

Other research has found increasing the amount of natural light


employees are exposed to can increase productivity, reduce
absenteeism and turnover, and decrease headaches and eyestrain—two
of the most common health-related office worker complaints.

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If you already work in an office with windows, try rearranging the
furniture so all employees can see out a window from their desks. If
that’s not possible, try spending some part of each day working near a
window, or take a walk at lunchtime to ensure you’re getting as much
natural light as possible throughout the workday.

Bring nature into the office


Various studies have proven the benefits of natural surroundings on
mood, memory, and focus. One study found simply adding plants to a
workspace improved productivity by up to 15%.

Spending time in nature has also been linked to improved mental


health, and another study showed accuracy and focus can be improved
simply by looking at photos of greenery.

You don’t need to build entire treehouses for your meeting rooms, but
adding potted plants and photos of nature to your workspace could
boost your happiness and productivity.

Switch to a standing desk—sometimes


Though we love to drag out the extreme idea that “sitting is the new
smoking,” using a standing desk for hours on end isn’t necessarily the
answer, either, as we’ve said before:

“ Our bodies are complex physical structures


capable of and designed for a dynamic range
of movement. The sedentary aspect of standing
or sitting for too long creates stresses on the
body that accumulate over time. Those physical
strains can result in fatigue, and – if not managed
properly – potential injury.

Though standing desks have been shown to improve focus and


engagement, there are also situations when standing desks make tasks

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more difficult, resulting in frustration. Some fine motor skill tasks, for
instance, can be more difficult to complete while standing.

The best solution, then, may be a combination of sitting and standing,


with plenty of breaks to move around in-between work periods.

Improve your desk ergonomics


Whether you use a standing or sitting desk, getting the ergonomics
right can improve your comfort and productivity.

For instance, keeping your screen clean and free of glare can make it

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easier to read so your eyes don’t have to work too hard. Your computer
screen should be about an arm’s length away from you when working,
and the center of your screen should be a few inches below your eye
level so you’re looking down slightly.

When you’re using a mobile device, remember your ergonomics as well.


Most of us hold our mobile devices too close, making our eyes work
harder to focus.

Every day, we face distractions. We fight to focus. We fight just to get


the time we need to do our most important work, rather than replying
to emails or shuffling papers all day long.

Everywhere you look, someone—or something—is competing for your


attention. And though most of us are loathe to part with our money
unless it’s for a very good cause, we don’t protect our time and
attention in the same way.

Don’t let others decide where and how you spend your time and
attention, or they will, and you’ll be left with only what’s left over when
everyone else has taken what they want.

Your time and attention are two of your most precious resources, and
you need to treat them that way if you want to do more meaningful
work.

There’s a lot to untangle when it comes to finding time and focus for
meaningful work, and overcoming the pull of distractions. Take it one
step at a time, and rest assured those small changes will eventually
add up to a more calm, focused workday.

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Further Reading
• Multitasking is a myth

• Tips to wrangle your inbox

• 4 tips to make you a more productive remote worker

• 3 productive ways to spend the last hour of your workday

• How many hours do we really need to work?

• Tips for writing a better to-do list

• How to do your best work (and figure out what that is)

• Meaningful work: what it is and how to achieve it

• How to find focus in the modern workplace

• 3 ways to deal with a noisy office

• The science of willpower

• News overload: why we’re facing it and how to handle it

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Checklist
To help you take action on what we’ve covered in this guide, here’s
a checklist of ways to get started on cutting down distractions and
finding focus.
• Find a new home for your phone that’s not in your hand, in your
pocket, or by your bed
• Choose a new activity or hobby to replace phone time and keep it
by your couch, bed, desk, or wherever you usually use your phone
• Replace social networks, work tools, and news sites that aren’t
adding value with better options
• Turn off as many notifications as possible
• Set up daily digests for any services you don’t need immediate
notifications from
• Plan regular periods to check email and keep your inbox closed
otherwise
• Make a boilerplate schedule for your calendar and block out regular
periods of focus time
• Set up a public calendar where others can book appointments
with you
• Move any recurring events from Mondays to other weekdays to
avoid the hassle of rescheduling during long weekends
• Improve the lighting in your workspace by moving your desk,
opening the blinds, or leaving doors open to let natural light filter
through from other rooms
• Add plants—or pictures of plants—to your office
• Schedule regular walks in nature-filled areas
• Check the height of your screen, desk, and chair
• Set a regular reminder to look up from your screen and give your
eyes a break

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Do More Work That Matters

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