Productive Distractions

Avoiding and eliminating distractions have always been my motto.  I employ techniques such as using a kitchen timer to force focus for a specific amount of time, or closing all browsers on my desktop, or even sticking a massive sign reading “Do Not Disturb” sign on my office door.  I practice (and teach) all of these techniques – and more – continuously. And I’m happy to report that I can mostly work without distractions getting in the way.  But I am human, just like everyone else.  And I think humans sometimes need a little distraction.  

Yesterday, my Will-Do list had, amongst others, a task called “Read and Edit Articles of Incorporation”.  I love all my clients and the work I do for them, but battling through nineteen pages of legal jargon does not really fire my pistons.  Nineteen pages, I tell you!  I knew from the outset that this was going to be a slog.  A long, hard slog.  I’m sure you’ve had tasks like that, because I definitely encounter these monsters from time to time.  But the task was on my Will-Do list and therefore had to get done.  So I set to it.

By the time I got as far as paragraph 16.4 (d), my mind started wandering.  For some reason, my lovey office chair no longer felt quite as comfortable as it always does.  And what is that noise outside?  “Oh, the plants need watering” drifts through my mind.  

And I realise I am tired and bored.  This task is getting the better of me.  So I do what I always do.  I try to “power through” – making little deals with myself.  If you can get to the end of this page, you can have a tea break. But the end of the page is still eight (boring) clauses away!  And then I knew.  No amount of discipline or clever productivity techniques will have any effect at this point.  I need a distraction!

My mind and body is already getting distracted (those plants still need watering), so I might as well acknowledge and accept it.  So I made the conscious decision to get distracted.  

And so I employed my final defence against non-productivity.  

I pulled out my “Distraction List”.  

I love my “Distraction List”.  It is designed for exactly this type of event.  I use it for times like these – when I (the human) desperately need a distraction but I (the disciplined Productivity Strategist) do not want to (or can’t afford to) be non-productive.  

My Distraction List is the peacekeeper.  It ensures that both sides of me (human and disciplinarian) are happy.  It means I can have a bit of a break or distraction and not feel guilty about wasting time.  And that is always the issue, isn’t it?  That feeling of guilt.  I think we all struggle with it.  So my Distraction List serves as my “no guilt – full permission” certificate.    And I employ it to the full, when needed (like in this case).

Here’s how the concept of the “Distraction List” works.  I make a short list of things – yes things, not tasks – on a Post-It note.  I don’t class these “things” as tasks, because then it feels like work.  And this is not supposed to be work.  It is supposed to be fun distractions.  And then – when the distraction monster hits (and it does!), I pull out this list and pick something to distract me.  

The trick is to list things that you can do in a few minutes.  Clearly, you only need a short distraction – a breather from whatever you are doing – not something that will keep you busy for hours.  And it has to be fun stuff that needs very little focus and brainpower.  Less important stuff works well.

Of course, we all have differing ideas of what constitutes fun.  So make your own “Distraction List”.  Here’s my current list, as an example:

  • Research local history-related events (one of my hobbies)
  • Play Lumosity (brain stimulating, online game)
  • Call <insert friend’s name> for a chat.
  • Water the office plants!
  • Order cat treats
  • Search new podcasts – anything interesting?
  • Book tickets for <latest favourite band> concert

The idea is, when you pick a “thing” from your Distraction List and do it, it means you are being productively distracted (if that can be a thing!).  So you allow yourself to get distracted (conscious decision) which gives you a break from whatever tedious task you are doing, but you are still doing something productive.  

For me, this works better than randomly getting distracted by non-productive activities.  I’d much rather be distracted by something from my Distraction List than aimlessly scroll through Facebook or Instagram.  At least, here I know I am still productive AND I am taking a break. 

So, yesterday when I reached paragraph 16.4 (d) and realised I needed a distraction, I chose to order cat treats (from my Distraction List) and then I had a cup of tea. And then (and only then) did I feel ready to tackle the rest of that legal horror.   Which I did – with full, reinvigorated focus.  

My Distraction List saved me from totally losing the will to live with that task. It helped me through a particularly tedious chore.  And there was no guilt!