Work/Life Balance

How Keeping A “Distraction Journal” Completely Revitalized My Workflow & Productivity

By | Wednesday, November 13, 2019

I tend to get distracted easily — like, very easily. My coworker and I even have a term for it: “squirrelling,” after the character Dug from the movie Up. Every time I get a new email, assigned a new task, or receive a social media notification, I tend to drop what I’m doing and jump onto the next thing — chasing that new squirrel. While this tendency has given me a reputation for being very responsive to emails, it also left me feeling disorganized and overwhelmed.

I’m the type of person to close off my computer at the end of the day, only to realize that I had a half-written email that I never sent. I tend to get a bit of everything done, but I struggle to ever fully complete tasks well. I’ve tried a lot of different ways to focus my energy, but it’s proven very difficult because of the mass amount of distractions available. This situation only worsened last fall when I went back to school part time. It was one thing to be distracted at work (because at least I was being distracted by other types of work), but anytime I sat down to write my essays, it would take an eternity (which is time I don’t have anymore, thanks to “real” adulthood).

After 4 years of writing essays during my undergraduate degree, the one thing I have learned is to break up a big task, like writing an essay, into mini-accomplishable tasks and create a writing schedule (instead of leaving it last minute till the night before it’s due). However, I still struggle to keep myself on schedule to complete the mini-tasks of writing an essay like compiling the research, creating the outline, adding in the citations, etc. I could get organized by breaking it into those smaller tasks, but I still struggled to be productive. I would constantly feel the urge to get a snack, go to the bathroom, check my blog, check social media. If there was a distraction available, I would find it. And while I tried to restrain myself and focus on writing my damn essay, I just couldn’t bring myself to sit down and write. 

Then, while listening to The Perfectionism Project podcast, I was introduced to a new productivity technique called a “distraction journal.” The concept is super simple. My distraction journal is essentially a table where I keep a running tally on my urges to check my phone. I make a list with columns, and at the top of each column, I write down all the reasons that I could possibly be distracted. For me, it’s social media, emails/texts, personal finance/blogging updates, and fidgeting. This is how the distraction journal system works: 

After I create this table, I close out of all my tabs, put my phone in a drawer, and get to work. Every time I feel the urge to reach for my phone to check my texts, instead of opening the drawer, I mark a tally under the “emails/texts” columns. And, whenever I think of something I need to do, like send an email or order a present, I write it down as a task below my table instead of actually starting the task. This way, I ensure I don’t forget about the reminders popping up in my head, but I also prevent myself from diving headfirst into a totally different task than what I was already focusing on. 

I do this for about an hour, and then I allow myself a 5-minute break. This system has done wonders for my productivity. Not only has it removed my distractions, it has also really forced me to evaluate why I get distracted so easily and push through my procrastination tendencies. After about 10 months of using this system, this is what I’ve learned:

1. I usually reach for my phone out of habit.

One of the biggest revelations I made while keeping this journal is that I usually reach for my phone out of habit. When I try to tally the reason why I’m reaching for my phone, most of the time, it goes under “fidgeting,” because I can’t come up with a solid answer. I usually just check my phone because I’m used to the feeling, like a reflex. I’ve also realized that the distractions I blame for my unproductivity aren’t coming to me — I’m actively seeking them out. Of course, writing an essay is not as much fun as scrolling through memes, but that’s not Instagram’s fault. 

When I was in undergrad, I used to delete the social media apps that were distracting me, but I always found a new distraction. Sure, I could deactivate my Facebook, but that never stopped me from googling updates on the latest celebrity gossip. Keeping this journal has taught me that I need to work on controlling my urge to check social media, not on deleting/deactivating the social media apps themselves. Deep down, I will always be searching for a reason not to write my essay, and keeping this journal has taught me to confront my phone-checking habit and ask, “Why am I doing this?”

2. Nothing world-shattering happens when I’m writing my essay.

As someone who grew up with technology, I’m pretty used to getting news and announcements instantaneously. And because it’s not enough to receive a notification while I’m in an app, there’s also all of the notifications that light up my phone. However, through this journaling exercise, I’ve learned something very important about my phone notifications: nothing life-changing happens when I’m writing my essay. So when I put my phone in the drawer, it’s also on silent so I’m not tempted by the light-up notifications or the sound.

Throughout the years, I’ve lied to myself by thinking, Oh, I have to keep my phone on in case of an emergency or in case something big happens. But it’s always been just an excuse. First of all, I don’t have kids or pets or anything, so there are very few emergencies in my life. And second, there is a way around this idea of always having your phone on for “emergency” purposes. On the iPhone, there’s a feature called “Emergency Bypass.” You can select this feature under ringtones for a specific person, and it will ring even when your phone is on silent. I use this feature occasionally, but I’ve learned that everything else on social media will still be there after I’m done with my work. 

You know that friend that just posted her engagement ring photo? Guess what? In an hour, she will still be engaged. And that friend who also feels the need to post the same photo from 4 different angles? Their photos are still there, too. I used to use these imaginary emergencies scenarios as an excuse to constantly check my phone, but the truth is, nothing that pressing ever happens. Just about everything in life can wait.

3. Setting breaks is healthy.

I used to lock myself up in the library for entire days to try to write an essay, and I would come out of it exhausted and unproductive. I would constantly feel the need for a snack, or if I didn’t eat, I would try to force myself to work through the hunger (which never ends well). With this distraction journal system, I track my time, distractions, and breaks. During this break, I check my phone (and guess what? nothing happens) and allow myself to go to the bathroom or grab a snack. I used to think that I could work without breaks because I was just soOoOo productive and I should be using that 5-10 minutes to work on another task. However, I’ve found that I’m more productive when I give myself a set break time instead of letting those nagging questions like “am I hungry?” and “should I go to the bathroom now or later?” bounce around in my head. Now I don’t think about them; I address those issues during my break time. 

Setting a break time also means that I allow myself a specific amount of time to check my phone. This time limit allows me to appease my phone checking habit. However, it also prevents me from going into a 30-minute self-pity spiral as I scroll through perfect photos on Instagram or from going down a rabbit hole of videos and wondering, “how the hell did I get here?” an hour later.

I currently only work in 55-minute increments because that’s as long as I can seriously focus without distractions, but I can feel myself slowly improving. Sometimes I skip scrolling through my phone on my break because I’m almost done for the night, and it really isn’t worth my energy anymore.

4. It is better to finish a few tasks well instead of a million tasks half-assed.

Keeping a distraction journal has also taught me to create realistic deadlines and complete a few tasks well, rather than to start a dozen tasks and end up with nothing completed. I used to pride myself on being the person who’s always busy. But what that has actually translated to is me completing semi-mediocre work most of the time, only to polish it off at the last minute. Whenever I used to write essays, I would lack a lot of structure. Keeping this distraction journal method gave me more accountability and forced me to assess how much work I was completing every hour, since I was taking regular breaks.

I used to be all over the place when it came to writing an essay. I would begin with the research part, then get distracted, then question myself if I had done enough research, and start researching again. Because I wasn’t tracking my time properly, I would get in this vicious cycle of not spending enough time on a task, only to do it later, and rushing to complete my essay at the last minute. I felt like I never knew where a task should start and end. Tasks that should have taken a few hours would take me an entire day.

Creating a break schedule allowed me to evaluate how much work I complete each hour in a realistic time frame because it isn’t mixed in with my Instagram-scrolling or online-shopping-for-my-sister’s-birthday-present time. I am amazed by the amount of work I can get done in 2 to 3 hours in the evening instead of 8 hours in the library. I used to wonder why it would take me a whole day to complete a task that should have taken hours. I now know that it was my constant need for distractions.


I originally started keeping a distraction journal because I needed to get my schoolwork done. However, I’ve slowly started to incorporate it into my work life. My current work environment allows me to check my phone (within reason), but again, it’s not necessarily my phone itself that’s the problem. I was still getting distracted at work with other work tasks and my constant need to chase a new squirrel. But I’ve implemented another version of this system at work. I now write down new tasks given to me instead of doing them right away (unless it’s urgent, which 99% of the time it’s not). 

Using this system at work has also allowed me to create realistic deadlines for my tasks because they are not all scrambled together. Not only does this help me from feeling overwhelmed, but I can also give someone a deadline for a task and stick to it, which makes it easier on everyone else. I’ve learned that it’s so easy to glorify “being busy,” but that doesn’t always translate to being productive. Taking a long time to complete a task doesn’t mean I’m actually doing it better; I know strive to complete things well, and hopefully reduce the number of tally marks in the “Fidgeting” column of my distraction journal. 

Lastly, I’ve stopped blaming social media for being evil and tempting. There will always be new social media apps, and it’s up to me to control my phone-checking habit and not let it distract me (although I truly don’t understand Tik Tok).

Kimberly is the writer behind MLA is a career and personal finance blog helping millennials to develop the personal growth habits to successfully make and manage their money. When she’s not writing, you can find her watching re-runs of Gilmore Girls or on Instagram @millenniallifeadmin.

Image via Unsplash

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