Plan your work and work your plan. That sounds easy to do and it is, but in this day and age it is easy to be distracted by an avalanche of notifications that are constantly going on around us. When I first entered the workforce, having a cell phone was rare and most people had just started to use email. It was easy to stay focused on the task at hand without distractions. Now you can’t go more than a few minutes or even less than a minute without getting a notification of something. A text message, a Facebook post, and instagram pic, an email, a new TikTok video are here for your attention. It can quickly become overwhelming and grind your productivity to a halt.
As I saw the increase in notifications on my electronic devices increase I saw a decline in my productivity. The scary part is that I didn’t even realize it was happening. Social apps, especially have algorithms that are designed to identify content that you will really enjoy and serve it to you immediately. I see a new YouTube video from one of my favorite creators and I get a dopamine rush with the anticipation of clicking it and watching it. The same thing happens with any notification on my phone or computer. What am I going to see when I click the icon? This is exciting.
This habit was pulling me out of my focus zone when working and breaking my workflow. I could be cruising along on something important and making progress and suddenly my entire day got derailed by a Facebook post. I could read that post and then several more, of course, before returning back to work. I not only lost the time while I was engaged in the app or the website, but also the time it took me to get back into a proper mental place to begin working again.
This habit of focusing on work, getting distracted by a notification, spending time in the app or service, returning to work and then spending time getting mentally back into my project was killing my productivity. I started to notice that tasks were taking me longer than they normally would. I started to bump up uncomfortable against my deadlines and in some cases would end up turning in work a little late. I’m usually good at working under pressure and getting things done in a limited time frame. (Most people are and that’s called Parkinson’s Law) I felt uncomfortable turning in a report due at 2PM at 2:30PM.
I had to make a change. I started by researching ways to put my notifications on a schedule, so that I could turn off notifications during work hours. As an iPhone user, it turns out that isn’t possible with the built in notification settings, but I did find a workaround. There are applications on Android that can achieve this more easily. I needed to do something different. I came up with a strategy for my computer and phone to reduce the amount of notifications I get and stay focused on the task at hand.
How I Keep From Getting Distracted
Do Not Disturb
I realized that there were cues in my environment that were causing me to get wrapped up in notifications and distracted. I’d have to eliminate those to ensure that I could stay focused. When I am working on something very important, I will take the step of turning Do Not Disturb on. This stops all notifications on my device. This isn’t limited to my phone either. I leave my iPad on DND by default, but will also turn off notifications with a couple of taps on my Mac or Windows Laptop too to avoid any unwanted notifications during crunch time.
Rather than go through all of my notifications as they come in, I’ve learned that it’s better to batch notifications. I will, after finishing a project and before starting a new one, go through all of my notifications at once. This helps to ensure that I get a look at everything and don’t miss anything important while also allowing me to stay on track with my workflow and deadlines.
I’ve experimented with delayed responses. For email I’ve tried different timelines for responses. I have a 2 business day response time. For Slack and Text I have a 2 hour time. This doesn’t mean that I will not respond at all to an email for 2 days, but it does mean that I’ll send a note back that lets them know I’ve seen it and will let them know when I have something. When I’m going through my Batch Notifications step, I’ll say something like “Hey, thanks for the message. I’ll take a look at this and get back to you in the next couple days, as soon as I have the answer.” I’ll do the same thing with a slack message. I’ll put an eyes emoji on an important message and drop a similar note. “Hi, I’m taking a look at this, I’ll let you know when I have something.” This strategy works because it lets the other person know that I have seen their message while also letting them know that I plan to respond. This helps to prevent them from moving from one communication stream to another trying to get a response from me, further reducing my notifications.
On my iPhone I moved almost all of my apps to the app drawer and only have a handful of apps on my Home Screen. Right now those apps are some news apps, my music app, the phone, text and email. All of my social and video apps are buried in the app drawer. Not only are they buried in the app drawer, but I’ve done a few other things to help ensure that I don’t see a cue that requires me to respond. First just by being in the app drawer, I have to consciously swipe to the right to view them. To further reduce my urge to click apps, I’ve turned off badge notifications on apps in the app drawer. Even if I do swipe right to open an app I need to at the moment, I won’t see 30 notification badges urging me to open those apps. I’ll get to them when I get to them.
Turn Off Notifications
For apps that I don’t need to view the moment something comes through, like social, YouTube, email etc, I’ve turned off notifications. I don’t need a push notification from the Amazon app telling me to buy something they think I’ll like. That email will be OK until I open my email app for a couple of hours. I’ve done this on the desktop and my mobile devices alike. Notifications are a net negative to my workflow and I have a system to look at them on a regular schedule, so I know that everything will be OK and nothing will get lost.
This one was huge for me. I found it was easy and socially acceptable for people to add a calendar invite to my calendar whenever worked for them. To help ensure I can stay on track, I’ve started intentionally adding time to my calendar to work on things. I know that I have routine tasks every week at specific days and times and now those are on my calendar. I schedule time to focus everyday, I use focus time to ensure I have the time I need to deep dive on important projects or tasks. I have independent learning time scheduled on my calendar where I can take time to read a book or article on leadership and improve my skills. I schedule my lunch break every day to ensure I take time to refuel physically and mentally. By scheduling out my day, I ensure that I have the time set aside to complete my most important work and tasks. I do leave some time open on my calendar and if someone looks at adding a meeting and asks me, I stick to what time is actually unscheduled on my calendar. I have 30 minutes from 2 to 2:30 today or from 9:30 to 10:30 tomorrow. What works for you? Works like a charm.
On Mobile devices it’s easy to stay focused on one task at a time, because your apps typically run in full screen mode automatically. If I’m using my laptops without an external monitor I always full screen my apps to ensure that I can stay focused on one app at a time. If I can’t see slack and email, I won’t get distracted by them. When I’m at my desk, I do use an external monitor and it is a 34" widescreen. This can lead to more distraction because it is easy to have two or three apps open at once. I use a program on Windows called PowerToys and WindowTidy on Mac OS to help me keep things focused. These programs allow you to define specific areas on your desktop where you can snap an app into. I use two default configurations. Split Screen, for when I need to use two applications at once. For instance I might have PowerPoint open in one half of the screen and a report or other data I’m referencing in the other. Having both open increases my productivity. The other mode I use is focus mode. This is where I have 50% of the center portion of my screen set aside for a single app. This app will be front and center in my field of view. Even if I have slack or outlook open to the right or left of this window the monitor is wide enough that I don’t even see the notifications come through. This combination of being able to have multiple apps open or just one in focus mode has both increased my productivity and reduced my distraction by notifications.
Staying focused is always a challenge and something you have to remain conscious to work towards. How do you stay on track? Do you have a strategy or do you struggle? I want to hear about it! Tell me below, contact me or meet me at my website LeaderLifeline.com!
Originally published at https://www.leaderlifeline.com on April 12, 2021.