Episode: How to Beat Interruptions and Distractions: A Free Audio Chapter from Free to Focus
Megan Hyatt Miller: Hi, I’m Megan Hyatt Miller, and welcome to this bonus episode of Lead to Win. We are so excited that my dad’s latest book, Free to Focus, has hit four of the major national best-seller lists. That includes jumping to number one on the Wall Street Journal best-seller list for business and number one on the Amazon.com list for personal time management. The word is spreading fast about Free to Focus, and I think it’s because this is not just a collection of tips and tricks to pack more work into a day. It’s a total productivity system to achieve more by doing less.
We’re so excited about it that we’ve decided to release another chapter from the audiobook in this bonus episode. The chapter is called “Activate,” and it’s all about beating interruptions and distractions so you can focus on what matters most. I know you’re going to enjoy it. If you want to grab the entire audiobook or buy a hard copy, just visit freetofocusbook.com. Now here’s chapter 9 from Free to Focus: “Activate.”
Michael Hyatt: Chapter 9. Activate: Beat Interruptions and Distractions. “My experience is what I agree to attend to.” William James.
Eccentric magazine publisher and inventor Hugo Gernsback was troubled. Even in 1925, there were so many workplace distractions it seemed impossible to get anything done. To solve the problem, he suggested a new device called the Isolator. Resembling a large diver’s helmet, the Isolator would block the clickety-clack of office equipment, the ringing of phones and door chimes, and the chatter of coworkers. Through two small eyeholes, a person could focus solely on the work in front of him and nothing else…at least until the oxygen tank ran out.
As forward thinking as Gernsback was, we live under a barrage of messages and inputs today that would have stunned him. We have social media, texts, app notifications, meeting requests, calls from office phones and mobile phones, and more ambient noise than we can possibly process. The trend toward open-concept offices and cubicle farms has worsened the situation for some. What we supposedly gain in collaboration and cost savings we lose in concentration. It’s making us so scatterbrained an entire industry has emerged around the practice of mindfulness…the idea that you can shut it all out and just be present. It’s harder than it sounds.
The distraction economy wants nothing more than to take our minds off what we need to do today. Why? We call it paying attention for a reason. Focus is valuable. It’s valuable to us, and it’s also valuable to others. Every ping that pulls our eyes away and every notification we take note of subtracts value from us and gives it to someone else…a coworker or an advertiser. Unfortunately, we sometimes make bad trades.
Sure, genuine emergencies pop up, but many of the disruptions we deal with are trivial and unimportant. Even disruptions we recognize as important can be reduced if we know how. When we’re focused on our most important projects and tasks, we can’t afford to allow interruptions and distractions to derail our days and prevent us from achieving our goals. In this chapter we’ll review strategies for minimizing disruptions, maximizing focus, and making sure we can finish each day feeling like we accomplished what we set out to do.
Interruptions: Breaking In
Interruptions represent an external input that breaks your concentration…a drop-in visit, a phone call, an email, or a Slack message that pulls you away from the work you’re supposed to be doing. These are more than mere annoyances. They’re cancers gnawing at meaningful work. Even if you manage to complete a task, interruptions ensure that you get to the finish line slower and that the end result falls far short of your best effort. The good news is that you have more power to resist and reduce interruptions than you might think. Two actions can create an effective virtual Isolator to help you maximize your productivity.
Limit instant communication. The speed of communication has accelerated over time. When I first started working, most written communication traveled through the US post. A letter typically took several days, maybe a week, to arrive. But then came faxes, emails, texts, and instant messaging. Whereas the phone was once the only means of instant communication, individuals and teams now communicate nonstop in real time via Slack, Microsoft Teams, and other messaging and collaboration apps.
We’ve confused speed with importance. That mistake has amplified the pace of our communication and the number of our interruptions. A quarter of respondents in one survey said they feel pressured to answer instant messages immediately after receiving them, even if they’re working on something else. This has a massive impact on personal productivity. You can’t delve into extended periods of meaningful work if you’re constantly shifting your focus when one of 17 apps or devices alerts you about an incoming message, comment, tag, or desired action.
Five years after the iPhone’s release, Apple bragged that its servers had delivered over seven trillion push notifications. In the years since, the number has only risen. And it’s not just your phone. Your computer, tablet, and smartwatch, each with its own ecosystem of apps and widgets and programs, add to the pings and dings and intrusive visuals. Every one of these notifications is designed to capitalize on your attention, which means you can’t.
A study by Hewlett-Packard and the University of London found when we divert our attention to incoming calls and messages it dings our IQ by 10 percent. That’s twice the effect of smoking marijuana. While it won’t permanently impair your cognitive functioning, “it will make you stupid temporarily,” say neuropsychologist Friederike Fabritius and leadership expert Hans Hagemann.
The only answer is to opt for delayed communication whenever possible. Unless you work in a customer service position where you have to be always on, you should engage email or Slack no more than two or three times a day unless you’re using those services to actively work on high-leverage projects like your Daily Big 3. I advise using your Ideal Week, along with your workday startup and shutdown rituals, to dedicate time for delayed communication.
Turning off your notifications is a critical part of limiting instant communication. I find it’s best to start by turning off all notifications on my desktop, phone, and any other device, and then asking, “Are there any apps from which I absolutely must receive notifications?” Once you’ve determined which precious few apps you’ll allow to notify you, you’ll want to pick the least obtrusive, jarring alert style possible. For me, that means no message previews, pings, dings, or lock screen notifications.
An often overlooked trick to limit notifications is to make maximal use of your iPhone’s “Do Not Disturb” feature. I also recommend eliminating most text messages and phone calls you receive, especially if you get several dozen or more a day. One trick is to change your cell number. It’s less of a hassle than it might sound, and it’ll be worth it to reduce your interruptions.
Along with your new cell number, get a Google Voice number. Only give your new cell number to your immediate family, close work associates, and perhaps a close friend or two. The Google number goes to everyone else: acquaintances, most folks at work, stores, online services…everyone. Next, download the Google Voice app for your mobile devices. Set it up so that Google forwards text messages and voicemails to your email inbox.
You can then process them as you would an email when you’re already cordoned off to a few time blocks each day. You can even reply to a text message email, and it will text the other person. Set up an automated message in your email program if you want to tell people you only check your text messages a couple times a day. When your email replies with this automated message, they will get a text response.
Now the only real-time text messages you get will be from family or those who are in your inner circle. By limiting your instant communication, you’ll experience less stress, more focus, and deep work that will move the needle on your most important tasks and projects. You can take it even further with one additional action.
Proactively set and enforce boundaries. By opting for delayed communication, you’re limiting others’ access to you. The trick is to proactively set their expectations by letting them know. Inform the relevant people you’re going offline for a period to focus. Don’t wait for them to come find you. Tell them in advance. You can email or Slack those who need to know. Post a status update in the appropriate channels. Set an autoresponder for your email.
Oliver Burkeman says an email inbox is like having a to-do list everyone in the world can populate. Regain and retain control of it by reprogramming your autoresponder to inform others when you’re offline and when they can expect to hear back. You could even hang a “Do not disturb” sign on your office door. Proactively communicating about your availability puts you in charge.
Publishing office hours is one way to accomplish this. An open-door policy sounds nice, but you’ll never get any meaningful work done if you can’t limit incoming access. Setting and announcing office hours keeps you available to your team, but it allows you to plan for those interruptions while ensuring dedicated blocks of time to get your work done.
What about a boss who expects you to be always on? Your job is to sell your boss on why you need time for deep, focused work. Explain what’s in it for them. The more they can see the upside, the greater leeway you’ll have to set your own boundaries. Here’s a warning: people will not respect your boundaries if you don’t. When someone sneaks past your perimeter defense, be firm and hold the line. If it’s a valid request, defer it to a better time. Remember, your time is fixed, so guard it like the precious resource it is.
Distractions: Busting Out
While an interruption is an external force demanding our attention, a distraction is anything internal that disables or destroys concentration. We’re usually our own worst enemies, distracting ourselves from work that needs to be done. When we get bored or when the work we’re doing is especially tough, we escape to emails, texts, phone calls, web surfing, checking the news, or scrolling through social media. But every time we bounce off task, we train our brains to become even more distracted and shorten our own attention spans, making it harder to cultivate a life of focus.
Beyond the short oxygen supply, this is why Gernsback’s Isolator would never work in real life. As he admitted, “You are your own disturber practically 50 percent of the time.” I bet it’s more than that. We can blame all the noise and stimuli out there or we can take the necessary responsibility to change our behaviors.
Breaking Focus. This is the core problem with multitasking. It’s not only ineffective; it’s an invitation to distraction. One study cited by journalist John Naish found that students were 40 percent slower solving complicated problems when they tried jumping between tasks. Of course, multitasking doesn’t feel slow. It actually feels fast, like we’re flying. That’s part of why we keep doing it, but the feeling of speed is deceptive. Naish cites research that shows multitaskers indeed work faster, but they also produce less.
According to NYU professor Clay Shirky, multitasking “provides emotional gratification” because it “moves the pleasure of procrastination inside the period of work.” We feel like we’re getting things done when we’re really dragging them out. If we’re drafting an email but then pause to check Twitter, then pull up a newsfeed, then go refill our coffee, and then return to our desk to finish, we’ve interrupted the thinking necessary to finish the email. It will take us longer to reenter the headspace required to complete the original task.
This holds true even when doing similar things but only partially or in a fragmented way. Answering incoming messages while drafting an outgoing message will also lengthen the necessary time. According to a survey by Salary.com, seven in ten respondents admit to wasting time at work every day, and most use the web. The biggest draw was social media, Facebook leading the pack, but people also reported online shopping and browsing travel, sports, and entertainment sites.
How often do we catch ourselves mindlessly surfing from one page to another or thumbing the infinite scroll on our phones with no clear objective in mind? I’ve heard people say that social media provides breaks in the day, the way people used to walk or go outdoors for a smoke. That’s part of what’s happening, but the accessibility of social media means people aren’t usually working for a long period and then taking a break. They’re breaking their concentration multiple times in what Cal Newport calls “quick checks” during the working period. Instead of taking a break, they’re breaking their focus.
Doing Downhill Work. A lot of this has to do with low frustration tolerance. In their book The Distracted Mind, professors Adam Gazzaley and Larry Rosen say humans are inherently attention-seeking. When we get bored, anxious, or uncomfortable, it’s easy to change the channel instantly to find something more interesting. Gazzaley and Rosen cite a study of Stanford students whose computers were set to take screenshots of their activity throughout the day.
The students rarely stayed on one screen for long. In fact, their attention lasted for about a minute on average, but half of the switches happened only after 19 seconds. What’s even more interesting, though, is what was happening in their brains during the switches. Sensors attached to the test subjects picked up elevated levels of arousal several seconds before the student switched to something else, especially when the student switched from a difficult task, like writing and research, to something more entertaining, like social media or YouTube.
Professionals are guilty of this too. When we get stumped on something tough, it’s tempting to give our brains a rest by switching to something more enjoyable. Think of an incline. It’s easier to go downhill than up. Some tasks are uphill tasks (say, financial analysis or writing) and others downhill (say, checking email or Slack). The uphill tasks are usually the ones that drive results and create value in our organizations, but the downhill tasks demand less energy.
That’s one of the reasons people do so much fake work. It’s easier. There’s almost a gravitational pull to it, but there’s a huge productivity cost for getting distracted by downhill tasks when we need to focus on going uphill. If you’re working on a challenging task and jump off to check email or Slack, it takes extra time and energy to get back on the original task.
Jumping off the hard task is easy. Jumping off the easy task is hard. It demands even more energy than simply sticking with the uphill task. That’s in the short run. The long-run productivity costs are even higher. When we bail on uphill tasks too soon, it creates a pattern in which it gets harder and harder to stick with the difficult tasks before bailing. Switching from uphill tasks to downhill tasks or, worse, non-tasks like Facebook triggers a dopamine hit in our brains. This registers as a pleasurable reward for our behavior.
We get a rush of relief when we allow ourselves to switch off from a difficult task onto something easier. This makes it harder to return to work, which makes it even easier to bail next time. This insidious cycle, which is the same driver for any addictive behavior, incrementally shrinks our attention span. It’s like self-induced attention deficit disorder. In fact, ADD specialist Edward Hallowell calls this learned habit attention deficit trait and says it’s everywhere, especially at work.
Focus Tactics. If we want to get free to focus, we don’t need Gernsback’s Isolator. Instead, we need tactics to help us regain, retain, and ultimately retrain our focus. You’re already getting enough sleep (see chapter 3) and disengaging from instant communication. Both of those help. Here are some additional suggestions.
Use technology to manage technology. If you Google “focus applications,” you’ll see a new wave of software apps designed to minimize distractions online. I’m currently using one called Freedom, which is cross-platform and highly customizable. It allows you to customize what apps and websites you can access during dedicated periods of deep work.
For example, because I do so much online research, I can’t work well without the Internet. However, I can use Freedom to temporarily block Facebook, Twitter, news sites, and other noisy apps I don’t need at the moment. It’s a great tool, and there are several others like it. After using it for a while, you’ll be surprised how much it curtails your compulsive habits on your phone and computer.
Listen to the right music. Listening to music might seem counterproductive when you’re trying to focus, especially if you’re exerting mental energy to screen out annoying jingles or expending effort to process lyrics when your brain is busy on more important matters, but there are some helpful ways to use it to your advantage.
Background music that’s familiar, repetitive, relatively simple, and not too loud can aid focus, and there’s good evidence that upbeat classical music can help with creative work. Some even recommend video game soundtracks, but there’s no perfect or ideal style. It mostly comes down to individual preference. Music you like increases focus, says neuroscientist Dean Burnett, while music you don’t impedes it. For me, that’s baroque music, such as Bach, Handel, or Telemann, and movie soundtracks.
Music is also useful for masking workplace noise, but you need to ensure it doesn’t become its own distraction. I listen to music whenever I want to get out of the world and into my work. Focus@Will is an online service like Pandora but one that streams music selected specifically to lengthen your attention span and improve your concentration. Focus@Will also lets you set up time-bound work sessions.
Take charge of your environment. Make your workspace work for you. If you find your environment distracting, consider changing the scenery. Variety can reenergize us and facilitate deep work. This is easy if you work remotely, but even office workers can have more flexibility here than they might realize.
I worked with an editor who would relocate from his office whenever he had marathon editing sessions…a table on the patio outdoors, an empty conference room, or a corner in the cafeteria during a lull in the lunchtime traffic. He couldn’t stand coffee shops but knocked out one book after another in a nearby cigar shop. The trick is to find an environment that works for you.
In his book Willpower Doesn’t Work, Benjamin Hardy mentions one entrepreneur who never works in the same place two days in a row. Instead, he has several different workspaces and rotates through them to fit the needs of his ideal week. Vacating isn’t the only way to make your workspace work for you. Another is to optimize your current workspace for focus. For instance, eliminate items that can easily distract you and make an effort to beautify your space.
When we designed the Michael Hyatt & Company workspace, we included a quiet room where people can go for deep work, but we also ensured the entire office was aesthetically pleasing. No one is required to work in the office, but the entire local team spends time there every week because it’s an optimal environment for productivity.
Declutter your workspace. Studies show that disorder does have benefits, especially for creative work, but it’s terrible for focused execution. According to writer Erin Doland, researchers at the Princeton Neuroscience Institute found when your environment is cluttered that chaos restricts your ability to focus. The clutter also limits your brain’s ability to process information. Clutter makes you distracted and unable to process information as well as you do in an uncluttered, organized, and serene environment.
If you work in a junky office, it’s time to clean it up. I don’t care how busy you are. This is a task you should definitely categorize as both urgent and important. Your clutter is getting in your way whether you realize it or not. I recommend making an appointment with yourself on your calendar to organize your office. If this is far outside your Desire Zone, then maybe you can delegate it to someone else, preferably someone who is really good at organization. This is time and, if necessary, money well spent.
Clutter here also refers to your digital workspace. If your computer files are all over the place and there’s no rhyme or reason to your folder structure, schedule some time to organize that as well. If you’re going to live much of your life on the computer, it should at least be as uncluttered as your office.
Increase your frustration tolerance. If you opt for downhill work too soon and too often, you can improve your focus by improving your frustration tolerance. The longer you can sit with the challenge of important uphill tasks and the difficult emotions that often come with them, the more effective you’ll be and the more likely you’ll be to finish your projects and achieve your goals.
The first step is to notice when the impulse to bail comes. If you notice it, you can choose to ignore it, and the more you choose to stick with the uphill task, the stronger your frustration tolerance will become. You’re training yourself for focus. But how do you notice? Few things work as well as cultivating mindfulness. The more we are aware of our thinking and emotions, the more likely we are to notice when we’re anxious, stressed, or otherwise prone to distraction.
According to Fabritius and Hagemann, mindfulness training has been found to strengthen the brain’s ability to pay attention by increasing your capacity to ignore both internal and external distractions and to focus instead on what’s happening in the moment. I find journaling also helps, because it allows me to reflect and analyze what worked or didn’t in my performance. No Isolator needed.
Taking charge of your day may not only be challenging; it can be terrifying. If all you’ve ever known is jumping from one fire to another all day, the idea of cutting yourself off from interruptions may leave you to wonder, “Who will put out all those fires if I don’t?” I’ve learned over the years that high-achievers become the go-to problem solvers for everyone around them. And as we all know, fixing someone else’s problem practically guarantees they’ll bring you more problems in the future.
If you want to become free to focus, you can’t spend your whole day working on someone else’s priorities. That’s never going to drive the results you want for yourself. Nor can you let the ease of downhill tasks pull you away from the high-leverage work essential for reaching your goals.
While we’re on that point, take a minute and look at your quarterly goals, your Weekly Big 3, and your Daily Big 3. What are those worth to you? What would accomplishing them make possible in your life and business? Gernsback’s Isolator might be a clever invention, but you don’t need one. Now that you’re empowered to beat interruptions and distractions, nothing can stand between you and your most important projects and goals.
A Plan to Minimize Disruptions. It’s time to use the strategies and practices in this chapter to develop your personalized action plan for minimizing disruptions in your day. Download a copy of the Focus Defense Worksheet at freetofocus.com/tools.
Your first goal is to eliminate interruptions. Start by creating an activation trigger. Remember, this is just a simple reminder of your intention, a prompt to help you implement positive action. In this case, it can be something like hanging a “do not disturb” sign on your door. Next, list the obstacles you think could get in the way. Then predetermine your response, your anticipation tactic. Repeat this same process for distractions. When you’re done, you’ll have a clear, actionable strategy for banishing the time bandits once and for all.
Megan: Wow. That is such helpful material, and I can’t tell you what a difference it has made in my own productivity and margin. It has really transformed the way I work. Before we sign off for today, let me give you two parting thoughts.
First, put this learning to work right away. Choose at least one of these tactics to implement right now. I suggest limiting communication by turning off your notifications and closing unnecessary apps. That’s so easy to do, and it makes an instant impact. Second, if you haven’t done it already, pick up a copy of the book at freetofocusbook.com. I really believe it will transform the way you work and make you more productive than ever before.
Thanks for joining us today on Lead to Win. We’ll be right back here next week with another great episode. Until then, lead to win.