It’s perhaps the greatest challenge of all web workers: how to productively get work done on the web without getting distracted.
Because while the computer and the Internet are two of the greatest productivity tools ever invented, they are also the two biggest distractions ever invented (not counting reality TV). And the productivity and distractions come bundled in one package, canceling each other out.
The trick is to get the productivity without the distractions. You have to unbundle them.
How do you do that? First, and most importantly, identify the distractions. Know the stuff you really need to get your work done — the actual work, not the communicating about the work — and know the stuff you do that’s fun, or that just keeps you busy without actually getting the work done.
You know what those distractions are — email, IM, Twitter, Pownce, Google Reader or Bloglines … and if you’re a blogger, your blog stats, Technorati, Digg, delicious, Adsense, etc. But it’s useful to identify them on paper — write them down.
Now comes the difficult process of unbundling these distractions from the stuff you need to do your work. Here are 5 strategies for doing that (and you can combine strategies in different ways to find a strategy that works for you):
Strategy 1: Cloak
This is one of my favorites — you download a Greasemonkey script to block the time-wasting sites, allowing you to do your work without distractions. Depending on what script you download, it allows you to set different types of breaks, where you’re allowed to surf your time-wasting sites (or check your email, etc.). You can customize the length of your breaks, what sites are blocked, and when the breaks occur. There are several cloak scripts available:
- Invisibility Cloak – this is the original, by Lifehacker’s Gina Trapani. Blocks time-wasting sites until a certain time of day. Can be turned off on weekends.
- Kiwi Cloak – modified version of the Invisibility Cloak, allows you to surf your time-wasting sites for 10 minutes at the top of each hour. This setting can be changed to suit your needs.
- Super Kiwi Cloak – a modified version of Kiwi Cloak, with more customizability.
- Stealth Kiwi – a modified version of Super Kiwi Cloak, but instead of only allowing you to take a break at certain times in each hour, it allows you to take your break when you want to, and then blocks you for 50 minutes. This gives you more flexibility, in case you miss the top of the hour but still want to take your 10-minute break. I like this method best.
Strategy 2: No talking
Remember when you would go to the library to do homework, and end up chatting with friends? And then the stern librarian would scold you: “No talking!” If this was a good librarian, and she enforced that rule, that would actually be the most productive homework time for me.
If you’re allowed to talk to your friends, nothing gets done. If you have to shut up and do your work, you can get a lot done.
The web worker’s equivalent? Don’t do IM or Twitter or similar constantly-on communications services. And don’t do email either, except at set times of the day.
This isn’t an easy strategy to implement. The urge to stay connected and to talk and be available because it might be important is strong. But turn off your email and IM clients, and you’ll find that the world doesn’t fall apart. And when you check your email and respond at, let’s say, two set times of the day, things will still be OK.
The problem with always-on communications is that you’re always being interrupted. And you can’t get much done that way. Don’t be available, except at very limited times in the day, and you’ll get much more done.
Strategy 3: Unplug
If the above two strategies don’t work for you, it might be because your distractions are not just communication-related like email and IM, and it’s not a set number of websites — your distraction is also the web in general. You might start out trying to look something up, notice an interesting link and click on it, start reading all about “game theory” on Wikipedia, go to another site about a related topic, and five hours later, you’re still reading. You can’t ban yourself from certain sites because you’d have to ban the entire Internet.
If that’s the case, you need to unplug. Literally disconnect your Internet connection physically unplug your cable modem or DSL or wireless connection.
But you’re a web worker, you say! You have to be able to go online for research, or to find images, or to get a link. And you need to email stuff to people.
Sure, but those things can be done before and after your actual work on a task or project. Here’s an example method for doing that:
- If I need to do research before writing something, I can give myself a time limit of say 20 minutes, and do all the research on the topic, including links and images and downloading entire web pages for reference.
- Then I can unplug, and do the task or project without distraction.
- When I’m done, I can reconnect, and email the finished project (or draft, if that’s the case) to the boss or client. And repeat.
Strategy 4: Zen-like environment
The idea here is to minimize clutter and distracting things and have a minimal working environment that allows you to be calm and focus on the task at hand.
How do you do that? Several suggestions:
- Clear your desk: Remove all papers and knick-knacks and office tools from the top of your desk. You can sort through the papers later, but for now just put them somewhere out of sight. I would recommend later going through the papers, one at a time, and deciding what to do with them, so they don’t stay on your desk. Toss out the knick-knacks and other clutter. Find a drawer for the office tools and supplies. Have nothing on your desk but your computer, phone, inbox, and a picture of your cat.
- Clear your walls: Same deal here — take down all those papers and memos you tacked to the wall, the calendar of those cover models, pretty much everything but perhaps one or two really nice pieces of artwork if you have them.
- Clear your computer: Take all the icons on your desktop, if you have them, and put them in a folder to sort through later. Don’t have anything on your desktop. Turn off any little programs running that might distract you, including IM or email notifications. Eliminate as much visual clutter as possible from your desktop. Put a serene, Zen-like desktop wallpaper. Only open one program at a time.
- Work full-screen: Only work on one task at a time. Stop multi-tasking. Only have the program open that you need to work on the task before you, and work in full-screen mode. The more minimal the program, the better. Close all other windows or tabs that aren’t needed for that task.
Strategy 5: Carrot-and-stick
Each of the above strategies, of course, still require self-discipline. Here’s a little method you could use in combination with any of the above, to help you maintain that self-discipline:
- Carrot: If you resist distractions for a set period of time (say, 30 minutes or an hour), you get a reward of checking email or reading your RSS feeds for 10-15 minutes. However, this is only if you’re good — if you’re bad, see the next step.
- Stick: If you give in to distractions, you must unplug your modem or router (or whatever connects you to the Internet) and give them to someone else to hold for a set amount of time — a time that would be at least twice as long as the above set period of time (i.e. if you planned to work for 45 minutes but failed, you have to give your modem, or modem cable or whatever, to your friend or spouse for 90 minutes).
How do you deal with distractions in the workplace? Let us know in the comments.