Blog Post

Why Distraction Blockers Don't Work in the Long Run

In my experience, there are two types of things you can use to improve your productivity. There are blockers — things that block out or eliminate distractions from the work you have to do. Some examples of blockers could be software tools like Leechblock or DoNotDisturb, ear plugs, or muting the ringers on your phones. Then there are aids, which are the things that encourage us to work faster and better, like text substitution apps, calendars and to-do lists.

As someone who spends a considerable amount of time thinking about productivity, I realized that over years of testing and experience, the blockers don’t really work in the long run.

Don’t get me wrong — there are instances where a blocker might work. If an app, tool or hack can shut out things that you can’t control — such as noisy neighbors or needy pets — then they’re a must-have. Things that fall under this category include sound-proofing your office, or creating a separate room for your work. Blockers can also be useful if you need an urgent fix, but as a long-term strategy they tend to fall short.

Here’s why: if a blocker is removing a distraction or obstacle that’s within your power to control like, say, checking your email or looking at Facebook updates for the umpteenth time, then the fix is no more than cosmetic. It’s like sticking a Band-Aid on your problem and telling yourself that it’s cured.

Apps can be disabled and uninstalled. The same goes with the manual tweaks you do to “block” distractions, such as tinkering with your hosts file and whatnot. Some developers of blocking tools know this, so they add certain features that make it difficult for you to disable the app. But there’s always a way to disable a block if you try hard enough. If you’ve muted your ringer, you end up looking at your phone to check for messages. You reconnect to the Internet and uninstall your site blockers to see if someone’s emailed you or commented on your latest Facebook or Twitter update. We easily give in to disable a block “just this once” and, in doing so, give in to distractions which may eat up the rest of your day.

The funny thing about this is that your “productivity tool” is actually making you more unproductive at being unproductive. You need to jump through all these hoops just to give in to procrastination, which you need or want to do for one reason or another. And the reason I know this phenomenon so well? Because it happens to me, too.

So what really helps? Using aids rather than blockers. Finding our own internal ways to block out distractions. At the same time, we really need to be easier on ourselves and allow for slips in our productivity. This is especially true for knowledge work, where the difference between procrastination and healthy play may be blurry.

If we’re to become truly productive people rather than just “productivity people,” we need to develop our own distraction blockers that can’t be turned off by a “Disable” button. They have to come from our own efforts to change our habits and behavior. Not enough is said about this, probably because it’s a difficult, lifelong, and highly individual process. Maybe that’s why it works.

Have you tried using distraction blocking tools? How did they work for you?

Photo by stock.xchng user danzo08

Related GigaOM Pro content (sub. req.): Enabling the Web Work Revolution

9 Responses to “Why Distraction Blockers Don't Work in the Long Run”

  1. David

    What if you struggle with internet addiction – which is something thats been shown not to be an addiction to the overall medium, but to the highly interactive apps that are out there, as well as the endless supply of novel information.

    Thus i disagree with you, control the context in which you make decisions via what ever tool you want wheather blockers or what not, and make sure there is minimal maintinance to maintian blockers on a default schedule, and suddenly you will be more productive i believe.

  2. Celine,
    I began reading your article thinking that I was set to completely disagree with your position on distraction blockers. Then I got to the last two paragraphs where you state that aids, rather than blockers, are really what we need to be more productive. Changing habits, and also allowing for our human nature to “slip” in our productivity, is really what will help us in the long run. On these two points, I couldn’t agree with you more.

    My company, OptaVista, has developed a software product that enables employees to block out desktop distractions and also identify (and correct) unproductive work habits. I’ve been using the software for the past few weeks, and was amazed as I looked at my desktop usage reports! Those “mini-mental breaks” that I was taking were really eating away at my productivity… while I thought that I only jumped out to view my personal e-mail and the news headlines once or twice a day, it was really more like once or twice an hour. Having the ability to block desktop distractions, as well as document and identify my work habits has helped me to improve my productivity and time management.

  3. One way to minimize distractions is to personally embrace the tremendous value of focusing.

    By focusing we’re more likely to…

    * contribute more
    * waste less time ramping back up
    * serve customers better (internally and externally)
    * find more customers
    * come up with more ideas
    * plan better
    * be less frustrated and stressed
    * help others focus more (by interrupting them less)
    * make more money (for everyone... including you)

    Here’s 4 other more tangible ideas…

  4. Thanks Celine, I completely agree. I’m definitely one of those people who would waste time trying to get around the app blocker.

    I find it’s best to allow some time throughout my day to check out things like Twitter and Facebook. It’s much faster to do a periodic glance, add any responses, and get back to work. It also helps to prevent that “feel like you’re missing something” syndrome that seems to rise up when using social networks.

  5. Guilty as charged, haha. I’m a certified Facebook and Twitter addict, which is great if I’m working on a social media campaign. Still, I find it hard to stop posting my thoughts on the world wide web. I have tried using the system of reward to stop my addiction. Like, if I finish 3 hours of work without ever going to my account, I’d reward myself something. It works for a while, until the compulsion begins. I wonder if people have been diagnosed by social media addiction.. Thanks for your insights, anyway.

  6. Kelly Monroe

    There’s also an excellent whitepaper download from Palo Alto Networks, “To Block or Not. Is that the question?” here: It has lots of insightful and useful information about identifying and controlling Enterprise 2.0 apps (Facebook, Twitter, Skype, AIM, etc.).

    I would love to hear what you think!

  7. I disagree with the core tenet of this article.

    Interruption-proofing our lives is a great approach to productivity; for example – turning phones off while concentrating prevents interruption and creates underlying conditions conducive to productivity.

    One of the challenges of modern day living is it’s easy to get a great deal of stimulation in return for very little effort. For example, we can watch a very stimulating video just by searching for it on YouTube. If you had to pay €3 each time you searched for a video, or if you had to wait 45 minutes for each video to download, you’d act differently, the impulse value would be gone. Making it too easy for people to make bad choices means they end up more likely to make sub-optimal choices. Many people are obese because at every checkout there are brightly packaged sugar based sweets…

    I think tools that make it easy to manage our attention, blinkers if you will, that change the effort to reward ratio of ultimately whimsical low value distractions, encourage people to be more mindful and make better decisions because they give people more time to think. Making being unproductive unproductive does exactly this; edges a person towards a tipping point where getting more of the right stuff done makes sense. This is a worthwhile counterbalance against a World full of interruption marketing and impulse purchases / impulse action of various forms.

    This compliments the inner game of intentional productivity. They are not mutually exclusive. A good inner game of intentional productivity, after all, involves using all smart external tools to support the conditions of success.