After years of success in Silicon Valley, I suddenly became something of a wreck. I was procrastinating on projects big and small. My focus was floundering. So was my creativity. So my productivity was slowing to a halt.
I realized that I had a problem. I’d become addicted to distraction. I was constantly multi-tasking, jumping between different tasks, and responding to every notification like Pavlov’s dog. I would also mindlessly scroll through feeds and reach for my phone even without any reason.
It’s an issue millions of people are facing. In a Udemy survey, nearly two-thirds of workers said they spend about an hour each workday looking at their phones. Among Millennial and Gen Z people surveyed, 74% describe themselves as distracted at work.
To overcome this problem, I experimented with different hacks. I found one that has helped me boost my productivity dramatically.
Work in sprints
It’s impossible to go from being easily distracted to suddenly having complete concentration all day long. You can’t fix this problem cold turkey. Instead, it’s best to take incremental steps that feel relatively painless. (I think of this as attention hacking.)
The key is to start off by setting aside blocks of time in which you refuse to give into the temptation to pursue any distraction. Think of it as working in sprints, rather than going for an entire marathon.
Harvard Business School recommends “two or three uninterrupted 90-minute work cycles each day.” But for me, and quite possibly for you, that’s too much at the beginning. When I first tried a distraction-free time block, I only made it three minutes before reaching for my phone. There wasn’t even a notification; I was just acting on pure muscle memory.
Research shows that in some situations, certain music can help you concentrate, and therefore increase your productivity. I tried playing music while I work, and had fantastic results.
The continuous auditory input tells my brain that I’m in the middle of a sprint, and that anything else can wait. I’ve found that it brings my sprints up to 22 minutes -- my sweet spot.
Clear away visual distractions
To give yourself the maximum chance of success during these blocks of time, get rid of every potential distraction. Don’t just count on yourself to ignore them. Prevent them from happening to whatever extent you can.
Turn off all notifications on your devices. Put your phone on “do not disturb” or airplane mode. Clean up your desktop. Close any unnecessary windows, browser tabs, and apps. Pause your email. You may even want to remove objects from your line of sight.
Take a different kind of break
Another key element to making this work is putting your breaks between sprints to good use. Make them feel good and personally rewarding by using them to do things you wouldn’t normally do.
For example, stand up, close your eyes, and stretch. Bend over and try to touch your toes and hold the position for 20 seconds. (Who cares if your coworkers give you funny looks?) Go for a quick walk. Do some pushups. Convey a compliment to someone who deserves it. Call someone special and tell them you love them. Recall a joyful event and smile.
That way, when you start your next work sprint, you’ll feel invigorated, energized -- and ready to give it your all.
Don’t give up
This may sound easy. It isn’t.
We’ve become conditioned to giving in to distractions. And procrastination is very tempting. It’s a subconscious attempt to avoid unpleasant emotions stirred up by the task we’re meant to be doing.
So when you have trouble with this, which you just might, don’t give up. Keep going. Celebrate little victories along the way -- like when you make it to 11 minutes instead of 10. And it might even take weeks to make your work sprints that long.
With commitment to increasing your productivity, you’ll get there, just like I did.
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