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It’s Not You, It’s Everyone Else: How to Block Out Distractions & Live the Life You Want

This article brought to you by Skillshare.

I have a fraught relationship with the idea of productivity. As a “business woman” (said in the style of Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion), I very much want to be efficient, effective, and, well, productive. I want this not for shallow reasons, but because I love my company — which is none other than this here wonderful website! (And YouTube channel, and community.)

A little context for those of you I’ve not had the chance to meet — which is most of you — is that I joined TFD full-time a few months ago to manage some areas of our business, after working part-time with the team for almost two years. And while I would probably be described by Chelsea and Lauren as the Spreadsheet Saint (or Satan, depending on the day), I am by no means a naturally organized person (just ask my hairdresser how many times I’ve been late to appointments). So I often find myself drawn to research or advice about having better organization.

And yet, I’m often bothered by the way people talk and write about productivity or its equally dry cousin, “time management.” Most obviously, there’s the tendency to undermine any aspect of life that doesn’t yield “results” when discussing “minor” aspects of life such as rest, relationships, or spirituality. But that part I already knew I rejected. The thing I only just realized bothers me is that so often conversations about productivity frame our shortcomings as moral failures. This just leads us to feel bad about ourselves for not having more “willpower,” when the real issue is that we live in an extremely unnatural world. Every day, we’re bombarded by an onslaught of distractions, from texts to to emails to actual people. One study showed that workers tend to send or receive more than 100 emails per day, another showed we spend five hours a day on our phones. Even if many of these moments are enjoyable, over time they create the sense that our lives are owned by everyone but ourselves. The fact that our world has evolved in this way is not our faults as individuals, and not something we should feel guilty about. It’s just something we have to navigate for our own sanity’s sake.

So what I’d really like at this stage in my life is to not beat myself up about how much I failed to get done, but to reclaim my time and energy for the work that’s most important, and the non-work activities that give me the most meaning. As several of us at TFD are taking classes this month thanks to our friends at Skillshare, I decided to look for some that addressed the issue of distraction. One that I liked is Productivity Today: Managing Attention in the Digital Age. The teacher, Kevin Siskar, talks about the real-life strategies that he uses in his own life as Managing Director at the Founder Institute, where he’s helped build more than 90 new companies. He is open and humble about his own struggles to stay focused. For instance, one time all of his apps were accidentally deleted off his phone, and it turned out to to be great because he stopped losing hours of his life to useless apps. He’s clear that “attention management” is different than “time management” because while the latter could just mean making a simple schedule, the former is about making sure you can actually carry out that schedule by remaining mindful and present.

Here are some of the tips I liked most:

Enlist virtual nannies to keep you off time-wasting sites.
Okay, Siskar didn’t use the term “nannies,” but I tend to think of any disciplinary action as “self-nannying.” To be more specific, he recommends a number of apps and plugins like Onward that block you from going to certain websites during designated time frames. You can also just set your phone or laptop to Do Not Disturb to stop getting push notifications for certain periods of time. And if you’re really feeling inspired, you can use Escape 2 to track how much time you’re spending on various sites like Facebook, and set quotas for yourself. This isn’t actually a huge struggle for me personally, but my partner has been using web blockers for years and found it’s really helped him focus on research. A related tool Siskar recommends — Pocket — is more relevant for me. It’s just a simple way to save articles for later, but I can see this freeing up my time while not prohibiting me from reading interesting stuff altogether.

Create distraction-free rituals to think through important work.
There’s a frequently cited study suggesting it takes us 23 minutes to refocus every time we’re distracted, but the biggest consequence of this — the lost attention reserved for important issues — is much harder to measure. Siskar talks about a founder he knows who has a weekly tradition that allows him to think through deeper work questions uninterrupted. Every Sunday, he takes the train from one end of Manhattan to the other, then walks 124 blocks home just methodically thinking things through. Then, when he shows up to meetings on Monday, he has thorough answers for everyone. While that’s a little extreme, I like the idea of rituals that are specifically designed to free up space in our minds and not pressure us to come up with perfect solutions right away. I may try this with running outside, or going to a cafe with just a notepad, but no phone or laptop.

Use Digital To Do Lists
If, like me, you see that and think, “Isn’t a pen and paper sufficient for making a list?” you can watch the class to see how Siskar uses Todoist to not only keep track of tasks but to delegate them to others he works with, “snooze them” for later dates, and do other smart things that make me want to reconsider my Post-It strategy (and yes, I use the Romy voice to say Post-Its, too). Our team pretty religiously uses GCal to send each other reminders — a slightly idiosyncratic habit Chelsea and I picked up from our lovingly #startupbro boss from a former job (Hi Alex!) — but I’m always open to new schools of thought.

Ultimately, Siskar’s strategies are just one person’s perspective. There are many more ideas in his class, and in other classes on Skillshare, such as Productivity for Creatives: Turning Ideas Into Action, Productivity Habits That Stick: Using Time Theming, and How To Maximize Your Productivity with a Planner or Bullet Journal (I don’t get the Bullet Journal cult personally but know people are rabid about it). I know I won’t adopt all of them, but I will use a few. The best productivity tips are just those that actually work for you, and the only way to figure that out is to try a bunch.

So if you’re interested in reclaiming your time, I’d recommend checking out one of these, or browsing the hundreds of other classes on Skillshare. The first 200 TFD readers to sign-up can get their first 2 months for 99 cents (just be sure to sign up with this link). You can use it as an excuse to stay home one night a week. Just wrap yourself in a blanket, pull up a class, and enjoy the feeling of casually learning over a cup of tea. Or wine. No one’s judging.

Image via Unsplash

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