The creative mind is the engine of innovation, but it is often beset by distractions which impede achievement. What can you do about them?

First, don’t worry about reading an article instead of doing something. This article will give you some tips about how to get away from the many distractions that turn your simple plans into obstacle courses and mine-fields.

Make a List

This is a personal tip that works for me. I’m frequently overwhelmed with a dizzying array of thoughts. Sometimes they even become a horrible loop as though my brain has gone into an infinite loop. I haven’t found the biological equivalent of BREAK, but a strategy that has really been beneficial is to make a list of the things that are distracting me. This might be a “to-do” list if it turns out that the items are actionable. Or, it might just be a reminder to look at these problems later. Whatever the mechanism, writing these distractions down and putting them to paper seems to extract them from my “looping” thoughts and makes my mind more orderly. Then I can tackle the list one item at a time.

Earlier this year I read David Allen’s book Getting Things Done and this turned out to be one of his tips as well. He describes it as getting control of the things that demand attention in our workflow. (In a full-blown workflow improvement program, there is more to his method than this.) Sequestering these distractions gives you permission to focus on the one you need to focus on right now, with the assurance that you’ll get back to the rest of the list soon. Put your list somewhere that reliably prods you to return to the other items later.

Avoid Interruptions (if you can)

I’ve read that it can take half an hour to get back into a “state of flow” after an interruption. One university study suggests that on average, an interruption takes 23 minutes and 15 seconds* to recover from.

When it’s time to get work done, shutting out the world can be difficult.

As if interruptions didn’t already cause people to snap out of their flow state, they also literally take you away from the task at hand. So you lose not only time for the duration of the interruption, but also the time it takes to get back into the correct state of mind.

Before getting into a task that requires a high degree of mental focus, it might be a good idea to look at your calendar and plan your work sessions well outside of meeting times. During a busy day it may be difficult to find time to sit down and seriously apply your mind to these high-cognitive load jobs, but making sure that you don’t cram your work into the five minutes between back-to-back calls is probably going to give you better outcomes and lower your stress about the workflow.

More ideas:

  • Block out time in your calendar for high-focus times
  • Disable instant-messaging with a notice that you’re busy
  • Turn off phone notifications
  • Enable social-media blockers for the duration of the work period
  • Close your office door (if you have one) or move to a quiet workspace
  • Practice meditation (?) — Many people report they are able to achieve a better mental-state for work by practicing meditation. I’ve never had much luck with it, but some people find it very helpful. Because there’s an app for everything, of course, there are Meditation Apps. Your enlightenment will be quantified.

Work at home?

I’ve been working at home a lot lately and I can tell you that there are specific rules that need to be set to keep your focus. As a culture, America has been shifting from an Information Society to an Attention Economy. Nearly every “entertainment” device in a modern home is designed to distract you from the present. I am all too aware of the delightful distractions that social media, streaming shows, radio, and television can provide. Distractions do not lend themselves to moderation. That has to come from you. So here are a few suggestions to help with that.

  • Set up “commitment devices” — this means figuring out ways to reward your self-discipline later after you’ve worked through the hard part of staying on-task. I can’t tell you what that will be for you. For me, it might mean allowing myself to relax and watch some TV only after I’ve completed an item off my checklist. The point is that you don’t have to abstain from the distraction forever, but that you reward your self-discipline so that you feel better about doing the right thing.
  • Establish boundaries — during the summer, my children kept interrupting my work with questions that could easily have waited until after working hours. I finally had to call a family meeting and state: “Between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m., I am at work. Sometimes those hours will be longer, but Monday through Friday, between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m., please do not bother me unless it is an emergency. If I’m out and about in the house, feel free to talk to me as normal. If I’m at my computer or hunched over some documents, I am working.” I know that’s not an inspiring Winston Churchill level speech, but it did the job. I only had to ask my kids once or twice, “What time is it?” when they walked into my office during these work hours.
  • Take regular breaks — this is a good idea in general to prevent cognitive depletion. I’m not talking half-hour coffee breaks. Just take five minutes or so every hour and get up and move around. Just taking a lap around the house can clear your head and also get your blood flowing.
  • Listen to music — music can help alter your mental state. This works in the gym and it can work at the desk as well.

Putting it All Together

Everyone is different and works under different circumstances. However, these suggestions might help make the difference in your getting things done and losing work hours. Remember the things you love about work and the challenges that inspire you. Take steps to minimize distraction and maximize enthusiasm.

You’ve got this!

*That study only had 43 participants and seems highly subjective. I think the correct take away is that interruptions can disturb one’s mental state, and the length of that distraction is going to depend on the nature of the interruption.