Whether or not you realized it, this article probably distracted you from something else, perhaps an email, a slide deck, or a conversation. According to author and professor Cal Newport, distractions are a bigger problem than we realize. Not only do they make us less productive, but they also make us less creative.
The good news is that there are simple ways to eliminate distractions. Successfully doing so leads to more innovative and meaningful work. Here are four methods that Newport recommends and practices.
1. Establish a sanctuary space
Numerous studies of influential thinkers like Mark Twain, JK Rowling, and Carl Jung have found that the most meaningful and valuable output is produced when people can escape noise in exchange for solitary thinking. For example, when JK Rowling was struggling to finish Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows, she isolated herself in a suite adjacent to a castle in Edinburgh. While you may not have a castle at your disposal, create or identify a solitary space that isn't your office or your home. Design it so that it only has tools that enable you to do deep work. If you can, keep it free of your phone and an internet connection.
2. Switch off your email
The problem isn't the length of our distractions, but the fact that we get distracted at all. According to one University of Washington Bothell study, when we are distracted from a cognitively challenging task, even briefly, our performance drops--and drops for a while-- when we come back to the task. This is called attention residue. This means that when you look at your Instagram or your email even for a moment, you're doing your work a larger disservice than you may think. Set specific times in your day to check email and other social media. Then, switch off notifications, move the apps off your home screen, and keep yourself honest about sticking to your schedule.
3. Plan your hours like chess pieces
According to Newport, creative work doesn't just come from being inspired. It also requires time for us to sit down and do it. Inspiration comes to us all the time, like when we're showering or walking to work. But acting on it--doing creative work--requires unstructured and undistracted time. Newport plans out his days ahead of time, carefully determining what he is going to do when. Before each day, schedule your "free time" into chunks based on what you want to accomplish during the day and how long you need to do it. Commit to these times by putting them into your calendar, then stay true to them the way you would a commitment to a colleague.
4. Tally your hours of undistracted work
Because distractions are everywhere, they are fleeting and forgettable. We may feel like we've done deep, undistracted work, when really we've checked our email five times over the last hour. To keep yourself accountable, Newport suggests a "deep work" tally. This means keeping a physical tally of your hours of undistracted work, and reviewing it at the end of the day, week, and month. The tally is a good strategy for helping us confront reality. It will clearly display how distracted or undistracted you've been, and hopefully keep you accountable and motivated to continue to eliminate distractions.
Now, before getting distracted by another tweet or email notification, choose one of Newport's methods. Even if you didn't recognize your distractions before, you will hopefully recognize how meaningful, productive, and creative your work is without them.