My Best Distraction : How To Be Positively Distracted

We all know the feeling of resisting distraction. Perhaps you’re sat at your desk, trying to avoid your colleague’s noisy recap of her crazy weekend. Maybe your group chat is sharing some serious gossip that you desperately want to partake in. Or maybe your favourite podcaster has just uploaded a new episode that you cannot wait to listen to.

But of course, you have work to do. Projects need completing, emails need replies and deadlines must be met so spending all of your working hours scrolling through Pinterest or deep-diving into a Youtube conspiracy channel isn’t really the best use of your time. If you do give in to the distraction, the guilt can be overwhelming and the consequences can be so much bigger than we anticipate. Whether it’s a stern email from a supervisor or a penalty for a missed submission date, procrastination can actually be a huge drawback in our working lives.

So how do you manage the distraction? Is there such a thing as a good distraction, and if so, how do we timetable our procrastination? I’m sharing my tips for staying productive, whilst still enjoying the distractions that matter.

Firstly, I want to explain a little bit about my attitude to distractions. I work from home 90% of the time and so my working space can get incredibly quiet as the hours go by. This can lead to me feeling self-conscious, isolated and even depressed if I spend too much time sitting in silence, so I like to introduce certain comforting sounds into my workday to help drown out some of the quiet. I’m a big fan of podcasts, so I can happily stick on a series of Death, Sex and Money to keep me going whilst I work or if I’m deep into a lengthy admin job, the more engaging podcasts such as Freelance Friday, Ask A Manager, My Dad Wrote a Porno and Shagged Married Annoyed are some of my favourite choices. If I’m working on something design-related however, so when I’m curating images or mocking up an asset, I can easily play a few episodes of The Office in the background to keep me company. Youtube videos are also a great source of comfort for me when I’m working as they can help inspire productivity and motivation, depending on who I tend to watch.

For me, the Youtubers I tend to binge-watch when I’m working are all strong, independent women who are just generally inspirational and hard-working. This includes BestDressed, Safiya Nygaard, LadyLike, Lucy Moon, Girl in Calico and Fairyland Cottage – a diverse mix of women who talk about their hustles, working life, productivity and aspirational lifestyles. Whenever I’m in a bit of a slump, I can happily play through some of their videos to help me get back into the working routine.

So, what is classed as a negative distraction?

If I am spending more time watching or listening to the media, than working, then the distraction has become negative. Distractions such as new episodes of your favourite TV show, unseen content that you’ve never encountered before, exploring new content creators or anything that encourages you to pause your productivity is going to be a negative distraction. Emotional distractions can also be a barrier to working, so listening to an album that reminds you of your ex, playing the devastating finale of your favourite show or even scrolling through a controversial Twitter thread can all cause an overwhelming emotion to stop you from being motivated. It’s also important to remember that if you’re working through a task that doesn’t necessarily need your full attention, then your mind will automatically wander and might just land on an emotional topic for a while. This can also be a big distraction as you can get caught up in your own memories, past arguments or worries about the future – meaning your attention span will be a lot shorter. Make sure to bring it back to the present by using some mindfulness techniques or switching on some media that is directly relevant to your job or industry.

If you’re doing something creative that requires a lot of brainpower then try listening to some generic, instrumental music. Composer Tom Misch, for example, has a great collection of music that is designed to be background music, without lyrics and with plenty of repetitive rhythms to keep you focussed.

How to handle job-related distractions?

Sometimes there is such a thing as too much inspiration. As someone who has experienced her fair share of spontaneous, and often inconvenient, bursts of inspiration for new projects, I’m well aware of just how distracting they can be. You could be reading through your to-do list with a great plan of what you need to do, and then suddenly an idea will just pop into your head of something even more productive you want to start. Whether it’s starting a podcast, writing an unplanned blog post, setting up a new website or beginning a new hobby, this inspiration can quickly consume your thought process – blocking out everything else you still need to finish doing.

Often these moments of inspiration will come to you at points of boredom or dread, as your mind tries to find something positive for you to focus on to keep you productive. These ideas might not be great ones or even realistic ones, but at the time they can feel like the most important task in the world. Unfortunately, however, your existing jobs will still need to be completed. The best way to handle these job-related distractions is to write them down, and allow yourself 10 minutes of attention to your idea. Make a rough and quick plan of when you want to work on it, what you will need, who you want to discuss it with and what your end goal will be – and then move on. Once you’ve finished your original to-do list you can return to it, and although most of the time these ideas will look quite different a couple of hours later, if they still look appealing then you’ve got the time to really think them through.

How to ask someone else to stop distracting you?

You might think that working from home means that your distraction levels would be lower, considering your office is typically just you and your pets. In my experience, however, I’ve found that working from home can be just as distraction-friendly as a large corporate office. With social media and messaging services available almost everywhere, it can be impossible to escape the barrage of emails, messages and texts you get throughout the day from well-meaning friends and family who just want to chat. Some of them might have taken ‘working from home’ a little bit too loosely, and simply imagine you’re relaxing on the sofa for 4 days a week, and are always available to talk – even when you’ve explained to them that you’re not.

There are a couple of different ways to handle this. One of the most obvious is just to turn your phone off when you can. Allow yourself blocks of time where you ignore all of your messages and just focus on the work, before checking in to see if there is anything urgent that needs replying to. Another is to set up a system with the worst offenders where you explain that for certain hours of the day, you won’t be reachable or contactable. If it’s urgent, then they can call you but for anything else, they most likely won’t get a response until after the workday is done. It’s important to stay polite as often your friends and family are contacting you for well-meaning conversations, but firm to remind that you’re still working and you still need to finish your jobs before the day is out.

How to handle post-distraction guilt?

On some days, our minds simply need to be distracted. Maybe we didn’t get enough sleep, or we haven’t had enough coffee and so the only thing our brain craves is the quiet distraction of a sitcom episode or a gentle audiobook. We switch it on for half an hour, fully prepared to get right back to work immediately afterwards…and then all of a sudden it’s 5 pm and we’ve done absolutely nothing all day. It happens to the best of us, so the most important thing to remember is that you’re not a bad person for letting yourself get distracted. You’re human and it’s impossible to be 100% productive every second of the day.

But what do you do now? The work hasn’t been completed, you’re tearing yourself up with guilt and you know you might get in trouble for your lack of productivity today. First, take a breath and calm down. This is fixable and can be managed with just a little bit of organisation. Now, make a list of every task you were supposed to complete today – even the small jobs such as logging your timesheet or organising your desktop. Markdown when these tasks were due to be completed, and any that aren’t urgent and could be pushed back until tomorrow. Take a look at your schedule and see if you can work in some time on your next working day to get them done, whether it means working overtime or through your lunch to get them done. Any that are urgent and need to be completed might require a quick conversation with your manager or boss once the working day is finished.

Days wasted to procrastination are usually a symptom of larger issues, such as lack of sleep, lifestyle changes, diet changes, emotional distress or burnout. A good boss will understand that their employees will be facing these issues in their personal lives, even if they don’t publically discuss them in the workplace so try and explain this to your supervisor. Open with ‘I’m so sorry to ask, but is it ok if I carry on this project at home? I’m dealing with some issues at home that have made me super tired today so I’ve not been able to finish my tasks but I’m happy to spend a couple of hours working on it from home this evening. I understand the deadline is today and I want to make sure it gets met so I don’t mind putting some extra time into it.’ Whilst no one can ever predict the exact reaction your boss will have, but from your perspective, you’ve been honest, open and clear about what you want to do to fix the situation and there’s nothing else you can do from this stage.

In the long run, however, it’s important to really evaluate what is causing these periods of sustained distraction. Whilst the odd moment of procrastination is normal, to be completely distracted for a long stretch of time might be something you need to look at within yourself and perhaps seek some help for.

What are my worst distractions?

Ok, it’s time to get personal. When I was at university I used to struggle for hours over my essays, fighting off the strongest urges I’ve ever known to simply give up and distract myself. I would sit for hours in the library staring at any empty document, whilst letting my mind wander onto entirely random subjects, and then beating myself up with the guilt afterwards. Whilst I never missed a deadline, I definitely lost some valuable marks due to my lack of productivity in my courses. For my dissertation, I made the mistake of picking a topic based on my favourite television show. As you can imagine, this provided me with the perfect example to waste crucial research time binge-watching my favourite episodes and seasons, whilst convincing myself it was useful. I was a slave to distraction and looking back now, I can understand that I simply wasn’t interested in my course or the essays I was writing so it was only natural my mind would latch onto anything that gave me that small hit of endorphins.

Luckily I quickly grew out of that as I started my own business. When I became responsible for every single penny I earned, I learned very fast that procrastination doesn’t pay the bills. Work pays the bills. As a freelancer, you only get paid for the hours you actively work and so I had to adapt to maximise my own productivity if I was to have a chance at funding myself independently. But for me, this didn’t mean letting go of distractions entirely. It meant finding the right distractions for my working style, and I’ve now reached the point where I find it harder to work in silence than surrounded by noise. In the end, though, I’m maintaining a good level of productivity, I’m happy with the work I’m producing and more importantly so are my clients. It shouldn’t matter how you work, as long as the result is good.

What are some of your worst distractions? Are you a sucker for a subReddit or do you get pulled into family arguments on Whatsapp on a daily basis? Let me in the comments below!

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Thanks for reading and have a great week!

Nikki McCaig

Nikki McCaig

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