Episode: 3 Actions to Beat Your Biggest Distractions

Michael Hyatt: Hi, I’m Michael Hyatt.

Megan Hyatt Miller: And I’m Megan Hyatt Miller.

Michael:  And this is Lead to Win, the weekly podcast to help you win at work and succeed at life. In this episode, we’re talking about every leader’s Achilles’ heel: distractions. We’re going to help you identify your single biggest distraction and how to beat it.

Megan: This is a real problem, because so often it’s distractions that keep us from getting our most important work done.

Michael: They do. In fact, I devoted an entire chapter in my new book Free to Focus, which isn’t out yet… I was just reading through it yesterday, recording the audiobook, and I realized again how big of an issue this is for most people.

Megan: Right. So if we’re going to be able to focus on our most important work and making our greatest contribution, we have to figure out how to deal with distractions.

Michael: We do. We’re joined by Larry Wilson, one of our senior content creators, who is going to walk us through this subject. Larry, good to see you.

Larry Wilson: Hey, guys. Great to be here. I want to let the cat out of the bag right away and tell everybody what their biggest distraction is. Are you ready?

Michael: I’m ready.

Megan: I’m ready.

Larry: Your biggest distraction is you, yourself. We are our own biggest distractions most of the time. Let’s just take a reality check here. Does that fit with your experience, Megan, Michael?

Megan: Yes, it does. I have four children, as I’ve said. I’m also one of five children, five daughters, so there’s a lot of family communication that happens, which, as it turns out, does not discriminate between before and after work and during the workday. This has been particularly challenging for me with my sisters and my mom, who I love and love talking to, but what happens is that we get the family group text going, and it can take on a life of its own and absolutely take over your day if you’re trying to respond to those things in real time.

Several of my sisters are entrepreneurs and don’t have a structured, regular workday, so they have a little bit more freedom than I do to send messages during the day. What I figured out how to do… First of all, I want to prioritize those messages and respond to them, but I need to do it in a more intelligent way. I discovered that on my iPhone I could swipe left on the conversation in my list of texts, and that would essentially snooze or mute the alerts that constantly are popping up from your text messages. Not just the sounds…the actual alerts themselves.

So I’m not seeing those on my phone or my computer or my watch during the day. Then, as I have time later in the afternoon or evening, I’ll go through them all at once and respond. That has been a game changer, because what would happen is I’d be sitting in a meeting, and my watch was constantly vibrating because I was getting these text messages one after the other, and I felt badly. I wasn’t able to focus on what people were saying in the meeting. It was just terrible. So this has been a good solution.

Michael: That’s a good example, which brings us back to the question about what the biggest distraction is. That’s a question where you were allowing yourself to be distracted. I think there’s another case, though, where people… We see this with social media all the time. They try to do something difficult, they try to do some work that requires a lot of cognitive effort, and they get distracted, because it’s a whole lot easier and there’s an immediate dopamine hit when you jump over to Facebook or check social media. That’s another kind of distraction that we’re also talking about in this episode.

Megan: The bottom line is, as a leader, you have to quit distracting yourself. You’re your own worst enemy here, and that’s what we’re going to dig into now.

Larry: Okay. We have three helpful actions that will help every leader quit distracting themselves. Let’s start with the first action, which is to build a wall against interruptions. How do we do that?

Michael: It’s important to distinguish between interruptions and distractions. Here’s how I think of it. Interruptions are from the outside in. They’re external in nature. It’s somebody coming into your office to ask for help. It’s somebody giving you a call. It’s somebody sending you a text message or direct message on social media. That’s an interruption. A distraction is when I voluntarily stop what I’m doing to attend to something else that’s really not the work I ought to be doing.

When we talk about building a wall against interruptions, we’re talking about setting up a system that keeps people from breaking in on you. Let me give you an example. I have on my iPhone the “Do Not Disturb” function set so people don’t bother me during certain hours of the day. Certainly, I don’t want to be awoken in the middle of the night by some random person who’s spam-calling me. That would be an interruption to my sleep.

I also don’t want to be bothered before 9:00 in the morning. So unless you’re on my favorites list, which will break through the Do Not Disturb, you’re going to go immediately to voicemail. Those people who are trying to call me at 7:00 when I’m trying to exercise or trying to have a quiet time, or whatever, are not going to get through. This is a sense in which I think we can use technology to fight technology.

Thankfully, Apple has built into their ecosystem a Do Not Disturb function. It’s also on your desktop computer. If you look in the upper right-hand corner of your Mac computers, there’s that hamburger symbol. If you hold down the Option key and click on that, it’ll put your whole computer on Do Not Disturb mode so you’re not interrupted in the midst of trying to get important work done.

Megan: The other thing you can do here… This is so simple. You got on to me one time about this because I hadn’t done it. Turn off your notifications to everything.

Michael: Hello!

Megan: Some of us don’t even know you can do this, and I would be one of those people a few years ago. In truth, a lot of the app makers are kind of sneaky about how they automate these things. You have to go in manually and change it, but if you go into your iPhone settings and go to your notifications, you can turn them all off. There may be a couple you want to leave on, but this is going to free up your mind, guys.

Michael: I think the best way to do it is to go in and turn them all off, default to all off, and then add back the ones you absolutely think you have to have. That’s where I would start. I want to give a hack, too, on text messages, because there’s nothing more intrusive than a text message. When you get a text message, don’t you feel like…? You were talking about your sisters or your mom. You feel the immediate need to respond.

Megan: It’s terrible, too, because if you don’t respond after you’ve read it, then there’s no way to remind yourself to go back and read it, because there’s no “Mark all as read,” or something like that. It’s not going to alert you again, so then you’re afraid you’re… At least I get this way. I feel like I’m going to forget to respond if I don’t do it right now.

Michael: Do you know what you just reminded me of?

Megan: What?

Michael: I got a text message from a friend of mine back in early January that that exact same thing happened.

Megan: It happens to me all the time.

Michael: I just realized I never responded to that. Can we just stop so I can go do that? Somebody make a note. Okay. One of the ways to get around this is I actually use two different phone numbers. Now, it’s not because I have a second cell phone. That would be expensive, and it’s actually not necessary. Here’s what I did. This happened actually a couple of years ago, maybe three years ago.

First of all, I got so tired of even my close friends and business associates who were texting me and interrupting my day, and it got really frustrating. I wanted to not just turn my text messages off, because I wanted to be able to get important text messages or urgent text messages from family. So what I did was I changed my cell phone number, which, by the way, at least with AT&T, took me about 60 seconds. I went into my dashboard. I could change the number. They ask you if you’re doubly sure you want to do this, and Bam! Suddenly my old text number is rendered obsolete and I have a new cell phone number.

Then I went in and got a Google Voice number. It’s free. This is so cool. So from that point forward, everyone, with the exception of my family (and not even all my family, but don’t tell them that)… All of my immediate family has my real cell phone number. The executive team has my real cell phone number. Everyone else, including the clerk at Nordstrom when she asks or the clerk at Walgreens when they want to be able to text you a notification or whoever… Even my friends and business associates outside of the list I gave get the Google number. Now here’s a cool thing about that: when a text message comes to Google, I have it set up so Google sends me that text via email.

Megan: That’s so awesome.

Michael: So then I process it at the two times when I’m processing my email in the day: in my workday startup ritual and my workday shutdown ritual. I’m not being constantly pinged by these messages that are hitting my “cell phone number,” but it’s my Google Voice number. Here’s even the better thing: I can reply to those emails when I’m processing email, and it goes back out as a text message.

Megan: So cool.

Michael: It’s so cool. I have a record of the text messages. It’s in email, just like email. I can respond via email, and I keep it from being what’s called synchronous communication. All of a sudden, now it’s asynchronous, which means somebody communicates when it’s convenient for them, but I don’t have to reply until it’s convenient for me. So that’s how I’ve built a wall against interruptions.

Larry: I feel like we need to take a break in the podcast so we can go into a little counseling session, because, as some of you know, I am kind of a people pleaser, and this is really hard for me to not be available when people want to get ahold of me. You helped me a little bit with the asynchronous communication idea, but how do you get over this idea that I just need to be responsive and that being responsive means being always on call?

Megan: Well, I think you have to redefine what responsive means. There is sort of what is a default expectation of immediate responsiveness, and there’s then what people need to get their needs met. In most cases, unless it’s an emergency, if you respond to a friend saying, “Hey, can we have coffee?” or one of my sisters had something happen in their day that they wanted to let me know about, the truth is those are not truly urgent. Just because they show up as a text message doesn’t render them urgent. So that’s important to note. Certainly, if it’s an emergency, you want to handle that immediately, but otherwise, we just have to redefine what really is urgent and what’s the cost of thinking everything is urgent.

Michael: Also, we train people by how we respond. If you respond to people immediately, that creates an expectation that you’re always going to respond immediately. I was just having this discussion with Sarah, who’s my audio producer for the book yesterday, as I was reading through my new book Free to Focus for the audiobook. She was saying she really struggles with this, because her clients want an immediate response. She said, “I just don’t feel like I can say no.”

I said, “Well, what if you sat down and had an adult conversation and said to them from the beginning, ‘Look. One of the best ways I can serve you is to do the deep, creative work that requires extended periods of time without interruption, so there are going to be times when you’re not able to get me immediately, but I typically respond within 24 hours.’” Now we’re resetting this expectation. “I typically respond within 24 hours or same day if I can.”

In other words, you have to set this based on your industry and dependent upon the kind of service you want to offer to your clients, but set the expectation so they have that as a reference point, because if you don’t have that conversation, then their expectation is going to be at their expectation. How you train people is very important, by being clear on the front end how you intend to respond.

Larry: That helps me with the electronic part of it, and that’s easy enough to control. What about drop-in visitors, especially in an office setting? That can be a real problem.

Michael: Yeah, it can, especially if you’re in a cubicle and don’t have a door you can shut. Then you have to use some more overt signs. One of the universal signs of “I don’t want to be disturbed” is to have headphones on, but you could also put a “Do not disturb” sign on your desk or you could have a conversation with your department or with your team and decide in advance, “Look. There are going to be times when I need to be able to do work, and if I have my headphones on or if the ‘Do not disturb’ sign is on the door, that doesn’t mean I’m being rude. It doesn’t mean we’re trying not to be helpful, but that’s so I can do this deep work that’s actually going to move the needle forward on our business.” Agree on the rules of engagement with the team you’re working with.

I found, also, in a situation like that… I used to have a boss who would constantly interrupt me just as I was getting a head of steam and doing some important creative work. So before I would go into one of those sessions, I would proactively contact him and say, “Hey, I’m about to shut my door and do some really important work, and I just wondered if there’s anything you need before I do that.” That headed it off at the pass. It also let him know I was about to go into some deep work, and if he had the compulsion later on to interrupt me, he knew he already had his chance, so he was more inclined to leave me alone. That worked great.

Megan: The other thing to think about is where you’re doing the kind of work you’re doing. For example, our office space is kind of set up like a coworking space. It’s mostly open plan with a bunch of meeting rooms.

Michael: No private offices.

Megan: No private offices at all. No cubicles either. It feels kind of like a hotel lobby, for the most part. Very often, I’ll sit out in the middle of that workspace and do my workday startup routine or I’m answering emails and Slack messages and things like that, and during that time I don’t really mind if I get interrupted. It’s not a big deal.

Michael: You’re making yourself available.

Megan: I’m making myself available. I want to connect with my team. But if I have to do deep work…I’m going to be working on some kind of project or other task that involves a lot of focus…I’m not going to sit out there. I’m either going to work from home or we have a designated space that’s called our create space that’s sort of like a library that’s intended to not have talking happening in that space.

So often, we put ourselves in a situation… Like, you go to work at a Starbucks where you know you’re going to see 10 people you know, because you live in a small town and have a lot of familiar faces. That’s not going to be helpful for your productivity. So, being thoughtful about where you do what you do and what kind of work you’re doing at that time is really helpful.

Larry: We’re talking about how to deal with your biggest distraction, which is often yourself, and the first action is to build a wall against interruptions. That’s something only you can do. The second action is to put a leash on distractions. Let’s talk about that.

Michael: This is another place where we can use technology to fight technology. There’s a lot of technology that’s available today that’s designed to keep you from getting distracted. To give you an example, one of my favorite tools is a tool called Freedom. You can find it at (We don’t have an affiliate relationship with them. We probably should, but we don’t.) Basically, what it does is it turns off parts of the Internet when you don’t need them.

As a writer, as a speaker, I need access to research, so I can’t just turn off the Internet. That would be easy. I’d just turn off my wireless or whatever. What this does is this allows me to be selective about what parts of the Internet I turn off. Like, I don’t need Facebook, I don’t need Twitter, I usually don’t need YouTube when I’m doing research, so I can turn off those sites selectively so I can’t get to them. Freedom locks me out of those websites.

It can also lock me out of specific apps. If there’s an app I might go to… It’s a lot easier, for example, to check email or check Slack than it is to actually do creative work and keep writing, so I can lock those applications up so I can’t get to those either way, and it syncs across all of my devices, so I can’t cheat the system. (Don’t ask me how I know this.)

I can’t cheat the system by trying to go to my cell phone or my iPad and getting a quick hit. I have to stay focused, because they’re all in sync. I’m locked out for the length of the session, which I predetermine how long it’s going to be. For example, I might say, for the next 50 minutes I have to get this important blog post written, or something else, so I’m going to lock myself up, and I can’t get to these other things, so I have to stay engaged and not be distracted.

Megan: Another thing I’ve found helpful is to choose the right music. There’s a site you and I both love that’s called focus@will. Our good friend Stu McLaren introduced us to this years ago, actually, and it is one of the things I consistently avail myself of when I need to do focused work like this. It’s basically scientifically engineered music (and you can choose different genres, all instrumental of some form or another) that really cues your brain to focus. I’m not quite sure how it works, but it’s very, very effective. You can choose different tempos for the intensity of the kind of work you’re doing. I really enjoy that and find it very helpful.

Larry: Michael, you mentioned that checking social media is easier than doing your real work. I’ve heard you talk about the concept of downhill work. What do you mean by that, and is this social media jumping or task jumping part of that?

Michael: Yes. I can’t remember where I got this concept, but the difference is between uphill work and downhill work. In other words, there’s some work that requires no effort. It’s easy, and oftentimes there’s a dopamine hit, some biochemistry that’s involved, where you get a little biochemical reward for doing it. That would include things like checking social media or checking email again or checking text messages or checking a news site or checking Facebook, reading articles, things that are easy to do.

They’re downhill work, but they’re just distractions. They’re not your real work. They don’t move the needle forward on your goals or even your projects. They’re just kind of sideways energy. They’re busywork. Uphill work is the stuff that really requires your full concentration, and usually for longer than a minute or two. This is stuff where if you’re going to get a real cognitive breakthrough or creative breakthrough, you have to stay focused on the problem you’re trying to solve and the thing you’re trying to create for extended periods of time.

You may have some of the relevant stats, Larry, but the problem with these distractions is the average person is interrupted every couple of minutes or they’re distracted every couple of minutes, so they don’t really have this uphill time or this time to fully focus on their work, and it’s the kind of work we all desperately need if we’re going to really do what we’re required to do to move our business forward, to move our lives forward.

Larry: One of my favorite ways to distract myself is by tidying up my office. When I have some real uphill work to do, nothing goes downhill faster than putting away the paper clips. So when I have a neat work space, you know I’m really avoiding work. But clutter is also part of the problem, isn’t it?

Megan: Yeah. I think this is an interesting one, because I sometimes find that puttering, which is sort of what I feel like you’re talking about there, is almost like a productive kind of procrastination. If you’re cleaning up, sometimes that can help you organize your thinking. Things are happening in your brain while you’re doing something with your hands. I find that organizing can help to make me more focused.

So I don’t know if I totally agree that that’s a counterproductive thing that happens, but certainly, a cluttered workspace for a lot of people, myself included, is a huge distraction. I cannot start working if there are messes or things out. That’s almost like a default part of my process now, that I’m going to straighten up. I keep things organized. That’s just how I like to work.

Larry: I know sometimes people will use a timer to keep themselves focused, to set a specific time. Do you ever do that for yourself?

Megan: Yeah, I do. I really love deadlines. That’s hugely beneficial for me as I’m trying to wrap something up. So either I’ll set a timer for something or I will kind of challenge myself. “Finish this before you go to lunch. Finish this before you have to leave to go get the kids from school.” That compressed period of time is great.

What I’m not saying (my dad does this, but I’m not very good at this) is I don’t get to eat lunch until I finish that. It’s more like I have to finish before 12:30. Or like today, we have to finish our podcast recording by 1:30 because I have other meetings right after it. That kind of pressure is great for me. You’re actually even more extreme about this. You’re masochistic a little bit.

Michael: I am, and I’m not sure it’s a good thing. Like right now, we are working through lunch to finish these last two podcast episodes.

Megan: It’s only like five minutes after 12:00, so it’s not like 2:00 or anything yet.

Michael: Yeah. But sometimes in a video shoot (I’m going to have to watch this tomorrow), if I think we can finish by 2:00, I will say to the crew, “Look. We can break if you guys want to have lunch, but I know that qualitatively I’m not going to be as good after lunch as I am right now, so if you guys can hang in here with me…get a snack if you need to…let’s keep pushing through it.” Yeah, I do. Again, I’m not sure it’s a good thing, but it does work.

Megan: The point is that using deadlines, like short-term deadlines within the context of your day, can really drive your focus.

Larry: Today we’re talking about how to beat your biggest distraction, which is often yourself. The first action is to build a wall against interruptions, which come from the outside. The second action is to put a leash on distractions, and these are the things that come from inside you, your focus breaking out. The third action is increase your frustration tolerance. How in the world do we do that?

Michael: Frustration tolerance is a concept Cal Newport talks about in his book Deep Work. It’s the ability to resist the temptation to give in to distractions. You can probably even broaden it to say to give in to interruptions. The idea is that, initially, we may bail on important work because we feel a compulsion to do it. Maybe because we’re not used to doing boring work or work that requires more mental energy, so we bail out to do the easy thing.

Frustration tolerance is when we say no to ourselves. We essentially say, “No. I know I want to go check social media right now because it’s a whole lot easier than this problem I’m trying to solve, but I’m going to stay in the saddle and keep working for another 20 minutes or another 30 minutes or I’m going to let that thing be a reward.” Just like when I go to the gym I can build up my muscles, when we increase our frustration tolerance, we increase our capacity to concentrate and focus. That’s really a superpower today, particularly in the distraction economy.

Megan: The way you do this is you practice. There’s not some magic formula for increasing your frustration tolerance. It is akin to lifting weights. You just have to do it, and then do it a little more and do it a little more until you have the confidence and trust in yourself that you can go for longer periods of time. It’s really just discipline and self-control with a fancy psychological label. That’s really what we’re talking about.

Michael: Yeah. I think a lot of people react to discipline and self-control.

Megan: Right. Frustration tolerance sounds so much better.

Michael: It sounds much more sophisticated and esoteric and something maybe I can do.

Megan: Right. Sorry, guys. It’s still discipline, still self-control at the end of the day. But seriously. The other part of developing your frustration tolerance is intentionally going back to your why, remembering why this task matters. What was your original vision for it? What was the passion behind it that’s driving it?

This comes into play for especially big projects, like writing a book or a speech or developing a new product, something that is going to take you a longer period of time that you really have to dig into, and you kind of get into that messy middle we talk about with goal setting sometimes. Remembering your why can give you the boost of energy you need to keep going when you feel frustrated and ready to quit.

Michael: This reminds me of Andy Andrews’ definition of discipline. Do you remember this? He says discipline is…Can you make yourself do something you don’t want to do for the sake of a result you really want to get? It kind of works in reverse as well. Can I keep myself from doing something I’d like to do now for the sake of staying engaged and focused and concentrated on some work that’s going to lead to a result I really want to get?

Megan: That’s good.

Larry: Not long ago, I took Facebook off my phone, and I found that for the next several days I was obsessively hitting the spot on my phone where Facebook used to be. I wasn’t even aware of how often I was distracting myself by looking at social media. A lot of people may be in that situation. They’re just swimming in this ocean of distractions and notifications and downhill work. How do you make yourself aware of what’s really happening in your workflow?

Michael: If you’re finding yourself not making progress on your most important projects… By the way, this is one of the reasons I like identifying a Daily Big 3, because that gives me focus. If I’m not able to make progress on those Daily Big 3, I have to ask myself the question why. Maybe it’s just old-fashioned procrastination, but maybe it’s because I’m allowing myself to get distracted and do fake work that really is unrelated to those three things I’ve identified that are going to move the business or my personal life forward.

So I think you have to develop the self-awareness. Again, this is where we can use technology to fight technology. Apple has added to the most recent addition of iOS something called Screen Time. You can designate how much time you want to spend on various social media sites, and it will warn you or cut you off when you’ve exceeded that. Again, use technology to fight technology.

Larry: Michael, you used a term there that I’d like you to define for us. You said fake work. That’s a little bit different from downhill work. Why don’t you remind us what it means to do fake work?

Michael: Fake work is when you look busy but you’re not actually accomplishing anything related to your goals or your important projects. Some studies I’ve seen say people spend as much as 50 percent of their day on fake work. They’re answering emails that don’t need to be answered or they’re having conversations in the hallway with people they don’t need to be having conversations with.

Some of that’s to be expected. It’s a way to relieve pressure, and it’s a way to make the workplace more social and more humane, but at some point, it does become fake work. We feel like we’re busy. We’re doing these things, we’re shuffling papers, we’re going through the motions, but are we making progress on our most important goals or an important project? That’s kind of how I measure genuine work.

Larry: Today, we’ve learned that to be more productive you have to quit distracting yourself, and you can do that by building a wall against interruptions, putting a leash on distractions, and increasing your frustration tolerance. Guys, what’s the next action you hope leaders will take with these tips we’ve given today?

Megan: The next action I would hope leaders listening would take is to identify what the biggest cause of interruptions and distractions in their day is. Where do they get stuck? Is it, like for me, with the text messages? Is it notifications popping up on your computer in the middle of every meeting you’re in? Is it your social media habit that you have as a distraction? What are those things? Then take some proactive steps to limit those things so they’re not constantly invading your productivity and your ability to focus.

Michael: My hope is that leaders would be proactive in fighting these distractions and interruptions. I really think that focus is a superpower. Focus is the thing that increasingly gives you an edge as you compete in this world in a distraction economy. While the people you’re competing with are getting distracted, getting sidetracked, doing fake work, doing downhill work, if you can learn to discipline yourself, if you can learn to avoid the distractions and the interruptions, you’re going to be able to do qualitatively better work that is going to mean something significant for your organization, for the work, for the contribution you’re trying to make in the world. So there’s something huge at stake here. This is worth getting a handle on.

Larry: Michael and Megan, as always, very practical, actionable advice. Thank you for sharing that today.

Michael: Thank you, Larry.

Megan: Thanks, Larry.

Michael: Guys, thanks for joining us for Lead to Win, and join us next time for another great episode. Until then, lead to win.