Fighting Distraction: A Freelancer’s Toolkit for Focused Work

By Michael Tunney January 16th, 2015

Looking up from my laptop, there are plenty of ways to procrastinate. I could go outside for a walk. I could check my phone for texts or emails. I could get food or another cup of coffee. I could check Reddit, Twitter, and Facebook. It’s a battle freelancers fight every day.

Without laser-like focus, it’s easier than ever to succumb to “Resistance and drift from our work. Today, workers are interrupted about every 10 minutes by instant messages, tweets, and Facebook messages. Once distracted, it can take workers up to 23 minutes to get back to the task at hand. And that’s before factoring conference calls or meetings into the equation.

Even more, all these distractions can have a detrimental effect on our mental health. Constantly checking for likes, favorites, and retweets can actually cause anxiety. Studies by Harvard researchers have also shown that when we are distracted from what we are doing, whether it’s work, sex, or reading, we are less happy.

The reason why we aren’t getting better at staying focused is twofold. One, we are bombarded by distractions more than ever, and two, we still believe we can simply use our willpower to push through. The fact is our willpower is limited and should be reserved for important decisions throughout the day. Remaining focused is a matter of changing your working environment, not just trying harder. And freelancers are more than capable of doing both.

Get Into The Flow

Changing our environment is how we stay focused on what Cal Newport calls deep work. Newport, author of So Good They Can’t Ignore You, defines shallow work as things that anyone can do, like checking email, sitting in on conference calls, and posting status updates on social media. Alternatively, deep work includes the kind of tasks that provides value to others and improves your skills, like writing code or drafting a blog post.

The costs of getting distracted and failing to do deep work have recently been found to be more costly than we thought. In a study by Michigan State psychologists, participants made mistakes twice as often during tasks when they experienced distractions of just three seconds, like a phone ringing. We don’t even have to pick up the phone or check our email to disrupt our current state of mind. That’s why it’s essential to be vigilant about cutting out distractions.

Our biggest opportunity for getting distraction-free work done is the simplest—waking up early. As Shane Parrish of Farnam Street said, “Not only do we think better in the wee hours of the morning, but because everyone else is still sleeping, we’re able to focus on what we want to do rather than what we have to do.”

Dan Ariely, the author of Predictably Irrational, echoed this idea in a recent Reddit AMA: “If we could salvage those precious [first two] hours [of the day], most of us would be much more successful in accomplishing what we truly want…Generally people are most productive in the morning. The two hours after becoming fully awake are likely to be the best.”

Those early silent hours provide the best opportunity to enter what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls “flow.” In a TED talk from 2004 that has been viewed more than 2.5 million times, Csikszentmihalyi spoke about a number of factors that help us get into the flow state. They include having clear goals, getting immediate feedback on what we’re doing, and working on tasks that have a progressive difficulty. The flow state is when we are most fulfilled, a heightened condition of awareness in which we lose our self-consciousness.

Make Your Environment Work For You

The best way to get into the flow state is by making your environment work for you, not the other way around. Get on the offensive to eliminate distractions from your laptop, phone, and office space.

To start, remove Facebook from your phone. I stole this tip from Ryan Holiday, author of The Obstacle Is the Way, and one of the most productive people I know. Also, limit your memberships. Why are you actually using some of these social sites? Only use the ones that can provide some sort of value. For me, that’s Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook. No Instagram, Pinterest, or Vine—although that may not be the case for, say, a freelance illustrator. Lastly, put your phone on vibrate and turn off notifications when you’re ready to work. Trust me, you’ll check your phone a lot less.

If you work from home, remove any distractions from your office. No TV, of course, and if possible, make sure your desk is not adjacent to the kitchen. Pick a room in your house where you can zone out and focus, like a spare bedroom or basement. Try to get as much direct sunlight as possible. And buy some plants, as many studies have shown they can reduce stress and prevent fatigue.

Don’t beat yourself up when you get distracted—it’s inevitable. However, spend the time creating an environment where you’re more likely to succeed, and you’ll begin to realize how silly it is to be constantly checking your email, messaging apps, and social media feeds. By insulating yourself from distractions, you can use your limited energy and willpower on your most important responsibilities.

Block Yourself Off From Distractions

The faster you admit you can’t fight through distractions, the better off you’ll be. The best way to stop yourself from getting side-tracked on your computer is to block your ability to get distracted in the first place. Here are digital tools you can use to stay on task and get into the flow.

I started using RescueTime after Tim Ferriss, the author of The 4-Hour Workweekrecommended it. Use RescueTime to quickly diagnose how you are wasting time online and activate their focus tool to block distracting sites and email for fixed periods of time. You can also see what times you are most productive and set productivity goals to optimize your work day.

Likewise, you can buy Anti-Social to block out your most distracting sites for a specific amount of time or use the StayFocusd Chrome extension to allow yourself to use distracting sites under certain limits. There’s also Leechblock for Firefox users.

For those looking for extreme measures, there are web blockers that cut off access to the Internet, forcing you to concentrate on offline applications. The same folks who created Anti-Social also created Freedom, which blocks the Internet for up to eight hours, only allowing you back online while its running if you reboot your computer.

Another way to stay productive is to complete brief bursts of work using the Pomodoro Technique. A “Pomodoro” is a 25-minute block of time when you only focus on executing one task, followed by a five-minute break. After completing four Pomodori, you can take a longer break—15 minutes or more. For iPhone users, the Pomodoro Timer is the best app on the market, letting you customize your tasks and track how many you complete each day. If you’d prefer to stay on your laptop, you can also download the Focus Booster app.

Finally, the act of writing begs for distraction. It isn’t easy to stay in your chair and fight through urges to check email when writer’s block inevitably creeps in. This article from Lifehacker has the best writing apps for beating distraction, from free options like the bare-bones FocusWriter and the theme-based OmmWriter, to paid apps like WriteRoom.

My favorite is Draft, by Nate Kotney, the CEO of Highrise. Draft has the best features of any writing software, like Hemingway mode, which only lets you continue writing at the end of what you’ve already written, no deleting.

The most important thing is to figure out what makes you most effective by experimenting. Be careful not to use too many tools, which can become its own distraction. Use one or two that work for you, set them, and get to work.

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