Minimize distractions

Developed by former US president Dwight Eisenhower, the matrix is a simple four-quadrant box that helps you separate ‘urgent’ tasks from ‘important’ ones. In basic terms, urgent tasks are things you feel like you need to react to right away, like emails, phone calls, texts, or news. While important tasks are ones that contribute to your long-term mission, values, and goals.

The Chatter of our own Minds

1. Put yourself in distraction-free mode.

Begin building habits that help you eliminate distractions and stay focused. Start by creating an environment in which you’re less tempted to get preoccupied with something other than what you’re working on. This isn’t always easy to do. For one, many of us rely on a computer to do our work, but we also find our biggest distractions enabled by the use of a computer on the internet. If you constantly find yourself wandering over to video or shopping websites, try using a website blocker app.

Work to create habits that signal to yourself and those around you that you’re in distraction-free mode. Close the door to your office. Put on noise-canceling headphones. Turn off your phone or put it on silent and move it away from you (so you can’t easily pick it up). If you work in an open office, you may find it helpful to move to a quieter location. Studies have found that distractions happen 64 percent more often in an open office, and we’re interrupted by others more often in that environment as well.

What causes distraction?

Our work environment has a profound impact on our ability to focus and fight distraction. Where you work is the “invisible hand” that guides you through the workday. Unfortunately, many of us get into a rut when it comes to our work environment. We go to the same place, sit at the same desk, and get annoyed by the same things.

Remove the clutter from your workspace

While it’s a fun quip at the neat freaks among us, modern science has proven this statement wrong. According to neuroscientists at Princeton, physical clutter in your work environment competes for your attention and results in decreased performance and increased stress.

  1. Give yourself clear limitations. We have a tendency to fill up the space we give something. So whether it’s Twitter followers, open browser tabs, or unfinished tasks, setting limitations for yourself is a good way to start clearing up your work clutter.
  2. Conduct a monthly review of your workspace. Take time to clean, sort, and discard both your physical and digital clutter. If you want to take this a step further, spend the last few minutes of your day cleaning out and dealing with your browser windows, desktop and downloads folder.
  3. Replace your clutter with personal items. As Alan Henry writes in The New York Times, personal effects like a photo or sweater you can wear if it gets too cold “will make your desk—flexible seating or not—feel like a place you can settle in and get work done.” If you’re working from home, this means curating the things in your home office (or workspace) to keep you motivated, yet focused on the work at hand.

Design your immediate environment for “laziness”

The Lazy Brain

Our brains are lazy. They want to conserve as much energy as possible and have a tendency to opt for the easiest option available. The easier it is for you to access distractions (like social media, your phone, or TV) the harder those things will be to block out. It’s why you find yourself flipping through Twitter when faced with a hard task.

If you’re at home, think about how you can create different “zones” for different work. Maybe you have a desk for when you need to focus on in-depth tasks and a space in the living room when you’re doing shallow work and want to be around family.

Choose the right music (or none at all) for the right task

One of the worst distractions in any work environment is noise. According to recent studies, most people say the most distracting aspect of their work environment is unwanted noise along with a lack of sound privacy (not being able to control what you hear or who hears what you’re saying).

Unless you have a dedicated home office (and have great neighbors), you’re most likely to deal with distracting noises during the day. And while silence has been shown to be the best option for keeping you focused, listening to music can also help block distractions.

Optimize your workplace for light, nature, and air

Studies show that natural light, fresh air, and natural elements like plants or even a view of nature reduce mental fatigue and make it easier to focus for longer. At home try to situate your work environment by a window where you can get light and fresh air. At a minimum, pick up a plant or two to add to your desk.

Step 2: Optimize your tools and tech to be distraction-free

Even just casually glancing at your inbox can send you spiraling down a path of distraction instead of maintaining our focus. In fact, UC Irvine’s Gloria Mark found that most workers only spend 3 minutes on a task before switching to something else and just 2 minutes on a digital tool.

Do a notification audit on your apps and tools

In fact, one study found that in most offices, workers spend 80% of their time on collaborative activities like emails, calls, chats, and meetings. Notifications constantly pull you away from what you want to focus on. They’re the worst kind of “productive distraction” you can get as you feel like you’re doing the right thing, even though you’re distracted from the bigger picture.

Instead of giving your apps and tools total control over your time, go through and audit each one to see how important they truly are. When it comes to your phone, designer and writer Erin Casali suggests breaking each one down into three groups:

You can also do a notification audit on your other workplace tools. This could mean muting certain channels in your chat app. Setting app notifications to come as a daily digest rather than all at once. Or turning off desktop notifications on your inbox so it doesn’t constantly pull at your attention.

Learn to love Do-Not-Disturb mode

While a notification audit will help you reduce the overall distractions coming at you, there are times where you need extra help. Pretty much every device you have contains some sort of do-not-disturb mode—a global setting where no new notifications, alerts, messages, etc… will come through.

“Sure, the downside is I don’t answer texts and emails immediately, but the upside is I don’t answer texts and emails immediately… I haven’t technically missed anything. The notifications are all there on my screen waiting for me if I really feel the need to know what’s going on, but that decision now happens on my terms.”

Push as much of your work as possible to your laptop

Your phone is a massive source of distraction during the workday. And while changing notification settings and using DND mode can help minimize its impact, it’s also worth it to think of your overall relationship with your phone at work.

In many cases, you use your phone for both work and your personal life. This means every ping and notification could be a meaningless status update. Or it could be a sick child, family emergency, or a surprise visit from a friend.

Not only will this lower your likelihood of checking your phone throughout the day, but computers and laptops are our go-to tools for doing meaningful work. This means you’re more likely to scrutinize your time spent on it in a way you wouldn’t with your phone.

Use distraction-free tools (and settings)

While you can try to reduce the distractions your apps and tools send you, another option is to simply use less-distracting apps. Most modern workplace tools have settings, features, or alternatives that are designed to help you focus.

For example, instead of using a full word processor, try a simple markdown editor like iA Writer or Focused. Instead of a complicated note-taking tool like Evernote, use something more pared down like Simplenote. Or instead of a complicated project management tool like Asana or Jira, use a more user-friendly option like Planio.

The tools you use are just like your work environment. They can either distract or help you focus. The right tool gives you what you need when you need it, instead of inundating you with options, menus, and distractions.

Best focus app for scheduled system-wide blocking

Cold Turkey Blocker is, in a word, customizable. Install this site-blocking app, and you can create lists of websites and desktop apps to block, then set a schedule for blocking. You could, for example, block social media and video sites during every work day. You could also block work apps, like Slack, when the work day ends. It’s all up to you. Or, if you prefer, you can turn blocking on and off manually. There’s even a mode called Frozen Turkey, which prevents you from accessing your computer entirely: turn it on, and you’ll see a blank screen until your scheduled outage is over.

Because this is a system-wide tool and not just a browser extension, you can’t work around it by changing browsers. But it goes further than that—there are all kinds of settings that thwart future versions of yourself from working around your current intentions.

You can block the Time & Language settings, stopping you from working around a scheduled block by changing your computer’s time. You can stop yourself from accessing the Chromium Task Manager, which you could, in theory, use to disable the blocking extension. You can even make it impossible to uninstall Cold Turkey Blocker until your scheduled blocking is complete. I could go on, but the basic point is that you can stop yourself from working around your block. Try this out if you’re the self-sabotaging sort.

Best free browser-based website blocker

LeechBlock NG (the NG stands for "next generation") works on most major browsers, is free, and gives you a bunch of options for blocking distractions. You can make lists of sites to block, then restrict them in all kinds of ways.

You can schedule times for apps to be blocked outright, which is very straightforward. Alternatively, you can limit your time on distracting apps by setting up rules. For example: you could give yourself 20 minutes of YouTube time every day, or four minutes of Twitter every hour. You can get even more specific, if you want, combining time limits with a schedule—think five minutes of Instagram every hour between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. Or, if you don’t want to mess with schedules, you can trigger a one-off "lockdown" schedule.

It’s a lot of power, particularly for a free tool, and you can even lock down the settings during block sessions if you want. The only downside: this is a browser extension, not an app, so you can work around it by switching browsers. If you can avoid that temptation, though, LeechBlock should work nicely.

Minimize distractions

Because this is a system-wide tool and not just a browser extension, you can’t work around it by changing browsers. But it goes further than that—there are all kinds of settings that thwart future versions of yourself from working around your current intentions.

stay-focused-avoid-distractions hero

15 Tips on How To Eliminate Distractions At Work

Whether you’re working in an office, from your home or in a supermarket, it’s easy to get distracted at some point during the day. Keeping yourself focused while working can be challenging, but it is something you can accomplish by forming habits that eliminate distractions. Getting rid of distractions in the workplace promotes better overall productivity for yourself and other employees and allows you to get your work done more efficiently. In this article, we discuss why it’s important to eliminate distractions while working and 15 ways to eliminate distractions in the workplace.

It is important to eliminate distractions while working because when you’re focused on your daily tasks, you have the opportunity to be more productive and, in turn, have more time to do what you enjoy outside of work. Browsing the web, checking email notifications and texting friends are just a few examples of distractions people can encounter in the workplace. If you can learn to eliminate distractions while working, you can complete your tasks with more attention and in less time.

15 ways to eliminate distractions

1. Have a plan before you begin

Before you begin your work for the day, try preparing a plan of action. Write down the goals you hope to accomplish before the end of the day and check them off of the list as you go. Knowing what tasks you need to finish before you even begin can give you the opportunity to distribute a certain amount of time to each item.

2. Set time limits on your goals

After you’ve created a list of goals that you intend to complete by the end of the day, you can set aside a certain amount of time for each item on the list depending on the amount of time you think each task will take to complete. Some tasks can be finished quickly, such as responding to work-related emails, but some require a lot more of your time and effort. The amount of time you allow yourself to work on each task may directly relate to the challenge level of the task.

3. Complete the most challenging tasks early in the day

When creating your list of goals each day, consider completing the tasks that will take the most effort at beginning of your workday. Often, our minds are the freshest and most focused in the morning before we’ve spent hours working. This is a great time to complete the more challenging tasks and leaves room for you to complete the simpler ones later in the day, when it may not be as easy to focus for long periods of time.

4. Set smaller goals

Setting small goals for yourself throughout the day can help you manage tasks more effectively. Consider taking a larger goal that might take you half a day to complete and separating it into smaller objectives. Creating smaller goals and forming a step-by-step process can help you complete the larger goal. This allows you to focus for shorter periods of time than if you were attempting to accomplish the goal all at once, which gives your mind a chance to have more frequent breaks.

5. Give yourself a shorter time frame to work

Before you begin each workday, it might be beneficial to decide what time you will start work and when you plan to be done for the day. Knowing exactly when you plan on finishing your day helps you to stay focused during the hours you are working so that you can finish by the deadline you’ve set for yourself. This also helps you not to overwork, so that you still have time for things you enjoy outside of work.

6. Leave the distractions behind

Technology is a major source of distractions while people try to complete their work. Consider muting your cellphone and any incoming notifications on your smartwatch or other devices. In addition, leave any streaming video services for when you complete your work tasks or when you decide to take a break. Eliminating the technological distractions can keep you focused on your work for a longer period, potentially allowing you to complete your work early.

7. Get comfortable

Feeling comfortable while you work can make distractions less likely. Depending on where you work, the level of comfort you can achieve may be different. If you work from home, you can set the temperature to a level that makes you comfortable and wear clothes that you’ll feel relaxed in all day long. If you’re working in an office environment, you can bring in items that help you feel relaxed such as an oil diffuser or a lamp that provides good lighting.

8. Sleep

It is essential to get an adequate amount of sleep in order to operate properly during the day. Allowing yourself time to refresh at night and getting a full night of rest helps your brain to be fully functional in the morning. This is more likely to help you concentrate on your work.

9. Practice meditation

Meditation helps the mind to let go of distracting thoughts so that you can focus on one thing at a time. Try taking a small break from work and giving yourself a few minutes to focus on your breathing. In a quiet location, sit down and slowly breathe in and out while counting to a number of your choosing. While counting, try to push away any thoughts that come into your mind.

This may be challenging the first few times, but if you can let go of any incoming thoughts and focus only on counting and breathing, you may find that when you’re done, your mind feels more clear and you’re able to concentrate when you go back to work.

10. Use visual reminders

Sometimes a visual reminder is all you need to refocus your brain. This can be something as simple as putting a sticky note that tells you to "focus" somewhere in your work area. Whatever visual you choose, try to make sure it’s easily visible so you see it often as a quick reminder to stay on task while you’re working.

11. Take a break

Many people often overlook taking small, timed breaks during the workday. They can be very beneficial to the overall quality of your work output and allow you to eliminate distractions. Consider giving yourself a quick break every hour to allow your mind time to do something other than focus on work. You can go for a walk, have a snack, stretch, read a chapter in a book or listen to some music. Setting a timer can help you track your break so that when the timer goes off, you’re done with your activity and going back to work.

What is a focus app?

How we evaluate and test apps

All of our best apps roundups are written by humans who’ve spent much of their careers using, testing, and writing about software. We spend dozens of hours researching and testing apps, using each app as it’s intended to be used and evaluating it against the criteria we set for the category. We’re never paid for placement in our articles from any app or for links to any site—we value the trust readers put in us to offer authentic evaluations of the categories and apps we review. For more details on our process, read the full rundown of how we select apps to feature on the Zapier blog.

Don’t confuse website blocker apps with parental control software—that’s not what they’re for. No, these tools are for you, and they hopefully help you build better habits. We researched this category extensively and considered dozens of options, then evaluated them against our criteria. We think that the best distraction blocking apps should do the following:

Best focus app for planning and following through on deep focus sessions

Serene isn’t just a distraction blocker: it’s a productivity system built around periods of deep focus. Users choose a list of websites and apps they find distracting, then block them when it’s time to buckle down and get some work done. But there’s more than that here.

The app is built around planning your day. List how many things you want to work on and how long they’ll take. Then, when it’s time to work, click the Go Serene button to start a timer. All of your distractions will be blocked, optional concentration music will play, and you’ll be reminded that it’s time to focus and shown your countdown timer every time you try to open a site that you shouldn’t. These elements work really well together—you’re not only blocking distractions; you’re also reminding yourself of what you’d like to accomplish.

Create Serene sessions from new Trello cards

Create Serene sessions from new Asana tasks

Create Serene sessions from new incomplete Todoist tasks

Minimize distractions

We also have found that breaking up the work into smaller chunks throughout the evening is very helpful. We sit down after school and do a section then let the kids go off and play. This gives them a concrete “finish line” which for many kids is necessary. It also re-energizes them and allows them to burn off energy. We slot in another short work session before dinner and then dinner becomes another break, another chance for your child to stretch their legs, laugh, talk, etc. A third chunk after the dinner dishes are done usually does the trick and gets the kids in bed on time with their work done.

distractions at work

How to Study Without Distractions – 10 Tips From the Experts

Q: Sometimes homework and studying time can be right in the middle of other family member activities. What are some ways students can concentrate and avoid being distracted when doing homework or studying in a high-traffic area like the kitchen or family room?

A: I would say a few things — make sure that room is at least concentrate-able. Play some classical music and keep any play to a minimum in that room (which can be harder when there are small brothers and sisters). Also, teach and encourage your kids to concentrate even when a lot is going on. That will serve them well in the future!

Q: Sometimes students just can’t concentrate because of physical needs such as hunger or fatigue. What are some of the ways that students can combat fatigue or hunger when it comes down to doing homework?

“Make sure you serve a healthy and fulfilling after school snack.”

A: Students with cell phones need to recognize when the phone is helping and when it is distracting, and become more self aware of its impact on their productivity. The easiest way to avoid the distraction of a phone is to put it out of reach and place the phone on do not disturb. However, they may want to make frequent friend and family contacts who may need to get a hold of them aware that they are studying and away from their phone. This way they can prioritize studying while also ensuring that friends and family are not insulted when they are ignored during this time.

A: When studying or doing homework, students need to learn what works for them. For some students, they need noise and activity because they cannot focus in a silent environment. For others, they need silence away from any and all distractions. Getting students to reflect on their study style is important to ensure their success.

For students that need noise, they should avoid the temptation of using music videos or YouTube. They should figure out what kind of music helps them the most and create a playlist so they know they can avoid the distractions of Spotify or YouTube.

For those students that need silence, they need to move to an area where they can focus and set themselves up for success. Move the phone or tablet away from themselves and purchase a pair of noise cancelling headphones or download a white noise app for their device. Additionally, it is important for students to recognize that they may need different conditions for different types of homework situations. If a student needs to be on their computer to complete their homework, I highly recommend the chrome extension simple blocker, which blocks your access to social media sites for a specified amount of time.

“Getting students to reflect on their study style is important to ensure their success.”

Q: Sometimes a computer is required to complete projects, homework, or studying. What are some ways that students can resist the distraction of other sites or programs on the computer when it comes down to getting studying done?

A: I advise my kids to set a timer for 30 minutes to an hour. I encourage them to work efficiently for a manageable period of time. Then take a break – watch a video, check out Snapchat, or have a snack. You can get a lot accomplished in a short period of time if you truly focus. I also remind my children that working efficiently and without distractions means work is done more quickly and they have more time to themselves later to do the things they prefer to do. That being said, I’m not always successful in getting them to focus. There are far more distractions now than I experienced as a child. The lure of the online world is always there.

Q: Family means well but sometimes they can be a major distraction to their children when they’re trying to study, whether it’s by being distracting or not appreciating homework time. In your experience, are there steps parents or family members can take in creating a distraction free zone?

A: It really depends on the child and how they learn best. My son prefers to be close to Mom and Dad when he’s doing schoolwork, so he can ask us questions (and, yes, vent about having to do homework at all). He doesn’t often choose to use the desk in his bedroom. My daughter, on the other hand, prefers to work in her room, whether at her desk or on her bed. I think the key is providing each child with an environment they find most conducive to homework and studying.

For example, some people like to work with music playing in the background, whereas others can’t concentrate with music going. When you’re sharing a home, everybody has to take those factors into consideration and be respectful of other family members.

“The key is providing each child with an environment they find most conducive to homework and studying.”

A: In my house, we keep to a strict routine. After school, everyone comes in after school we spread out their agendas and make a list of what tasks need to be completed for the week. Due dates are written on the family calendar and homework is prioritized based on due dates and importance. We complete homework prior to moving on to free time. With all three kids doing their homework together, they encourage and help each other complete their task.

Create a plan for your workday and stick to it.

It’s much easier to avoid distractions when you have your day planned out. Having flexibility in your schedule can be a good thing, but when the workday is too fluid, various distractions can steal our work time.

One of our favorite ways to plan for the workday is to leverage time blocking. Time blocking consists of choosing what to work on (or creating a to-do list in advance), deciding when to tackle each task, and blocking off time on your calendar to work on each task. This strategy helps reduce distractions for a few reasons.

First, time blocking adds structure to your day and fills in the “empty” space (like the random 30-minutes between meetings that lead to scrolling through your favorite social media feed). Second, it enables you to take control of the hours since you’re proactively determining what you need to get done. That way, you spend less time during the day deciding what to do next, which can inevitably lead to unintentional distractions — whether work-related or otherwise. Finally, time blocking helps you set time limits for your tasks, which can add an element of healthy pressure to stay focused.

Another pro-tip to minimize the impact of distractions on your schedule is to schedule the most important tasks first thing in the morning (or, in the world of time management strategies — eat the frog). This helps ensure that distractions don’t prevent you from getting your high-priority work done on time.

Finally, as part of your workday plan, schedule time for deep work. Deep work is cognitively demanding, requires deep concentration, and improves your skill. Just like you set aside time on your calendar for meetings and other rote tasks, build time in your schedule for deep work to get in the flow of distraction-free concentration. Clockwise can create more Focus Time in your calendar that you can use for periods of deep work, so you don’t have to do it manually.

Store your phone when you don’t need it.

Could you live without your cell phone? Research suggests that Americans check their phones 344 times per day on average. Divide that over approximately 16 waking hours per day (taking into account sleep time), and that’s just over 21 checks per hour. The same study revealed that 70% of Americans check their phones within five minutes of receiving a notification (talk about a serious interruption!) Phone calls, text messages, and other notifications are flooding our brains constantly.

While smartphones offer many benefits, including connectivity, mobile banking, GPS directions, educational applications, and more, they can hurt our work if not appropriately managed. The expression “out of sight, out of mind” is helpful if you don’t need your smartphone in your direct line of sight while working. Consider storing it in a bag, drawer, or another room if you’re working remotely. If you can’t keep your phone out of sight, try using Do Not Disturb mode on your iPhone or Android to tune notifications out. With these settings, you can set who can interrupt you. That way, a friend or family member can reach you if needed.

To set boundaries with the apps on your phone, try using the Screen Time settings for iPhone or Digital Wellbeing settings for Android. These features allow you to set time limits for various apps. When you reach your time limit, your phone will notify you. Timers reset daily, and you can always adjust your settings if you need to get back into an app before the timer resets.

Speaking of apps, if your social media apps are particularly distracting, you aren’t alone. One study estimated that logging onto social media costs the United States economy $650 billion because it’s a significant distraction for the workforce. Social media can be addicting, and if it’s preventing you from getting your work done, consider removing social media apps from your phone or disabling all notifications. Or, try a focus app.


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