When was the last time you got sucked into a YouTube rabbit hole? You know what I mean -- you take just a minute to act on a video forwarded to you, only to surface from the auto-play sequence that just consumed an hour (or more) of your day.

If you have had that experience -- which I have -- then you understand how difficult it is to stay on task and be productive these days with a seemingly nonstop flurry of distractions literally at our fingertips.

As pervasive as smart phones may be, they are still in their infancy, and we still know little about the effects it has on our productivity. These devices were, after all, a means to help us improve productivity by allowing us to do more, faster. Perhaps it has, but as any YouTube rabbit hole experience will tell you, it is difficult to believe that the negative effects are not just as significant.

Moreover, a study conducted by the University of California, Irvine, found that these distractions have a serious cost. According to one of the study's authors in an interview with FastCompany:

"It takes an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds to get back to the task" after a disruption.

Admittedly, not all distractions are bad, but the study found that even when it did not affect productivity, it had a different cost, specifically that after "only 20 minutes of interrupted performance people reported significantly higher stress, frustration, workload, effort, and pressure."

So, how can we reduce the distractions and increase our productivity in the new year? Here are three simple things you can try.

Turn Off Notifications

The first thing you can do is turn off the notifications lighting up your phone or those incessant, red badges on your apps. An article published by Harvard laid out the connection between dopamine -- a chemical produced by the brain that causes us to take action after seeing a reward -- and the notifications on our phones. Notifications are literally addicting.

You can also use your phone's "Do Not Disturb" feature, which can easily be activated when you want to focus and deactivated when you are done with a task. Both Android and iOS devices have options to set up contacts as "favorites" so that messages from important people can get through.

Block Time

Another way to focus on a task is to actually schedule actions into your day by blocking out time in your calendar. The important thing to remember is that this time should be unavailable to others, not just free time that can be redirected at the whim of a meeting request.

If you do not use a electronic calendar, consider using a timer physical timer that allows you to go off after 30 minutes of focused work. Do not, however, use the timer on your phone -- that defeats the purpose. Instead, considering investing in a simple, old-school timer that will sit on your desk and keep you away from your phone.

Track Your Habits

Productivity comes down to good habits. Just as we formed a habit of acting on every phone notification, we need to form habits that help us avoid them altogether. Science varies on how many times it takes to convert a task to a habit -- 7, 21, even 66 times. Regardless, you cannot know if you are making progress if you are not tracking it.

One app I am trying, HabitBull, gamifies the process to help you stick to them. I realize, of course, the irony in suggesting an app that, if used properly, leverages dopamine through gamification and requires notifications as habit reminders, but I am hoping this is the once exception that works out.

What do you think? What other ways are you focusing during the new year? Please share your thoughts with on Twitter.

Published on: Dec 29, 2018
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