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How to End the Distraction That Saps Your Productivity

Un-clutter your mind and your space with distraction-fighting habits

A friend recently handed me the book Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity. It seemed like a great idea, but I started feeling awful while I was reading it. I became super-conscious of all the “someday” piles cluttering up my desk, my office, and my home.

The author, personal-productivity guru David Allen, says that an un-distracted mind is the key to productivity. You may think distraction is inevitable in today’s world, but he offers a step-by-step plan to transcend it.

The more I thought about it, the more I noticed that I have some good clutter-fighting habits. I successfully resist distractions whenever I have a regular habit, but when I don’t have a routine for dealing with a particular distractor, little things accumulate to the point of intruding on my attention. So I decided to celebrate my good habits, and build some new ones.

Here are my good clutter-reducing habits:

I click unsubscribe
My email used to be full of things I wanted to follow up on “someday.” But the over-hang got so big that I started feeling suffocated. So I unsubscribed from Kickstarter, as inspiring as it is. I unsubscribed from great travel deals, as seductive as they are. I unsubscribed from comments about books, and comments on the comments. I don’t need constant reminders of what else I could be doing, so I became a ruthless unsubscriber. I click that devil the instant it rings my inbox, even though I’m the one who signed up for it in the first place. Now, I feel good about how I spend my time instead of pondering alternatives when I could be getting something done. The other stuff will always be there if I change my mind.

I pack far ahead of a trip
When I have a trip coming up, my mind wanders to things I need to bring. Instead of struggling to push out the thought and then struggling to recall it later, I pack the item immediately. If it can’t be packed until the last minute, I keep it on a last-minute list. I have thus freed myself from panic before trips, and self-flagellation on arrival. More important, I’ve freed up the mental workspace that gets wasted when you keep trying to forget things at one moment and remember them at another. I do this with all kinds of future projects: instead of worrying about forgetting, I just do it in advance.

I make catch-up fun
Sometimes I put things off. To get one thing done, I let other things go. Piles soon accumulate, and I know I must tackle them before they grow into monsters. I hate to do it, so I look for ways to make it fun. I listen to an audio book while clearing items that don’t require thought. For tough piles, I wait for a day when I have something fun planned.

But I still have these piles all over my life. Why? Allen says the secret is to build an organizing system that you trust. We leave things in the way because we’re afraid we’ll forget them. When you create a realistic filing system, the pile disappears.

Why don’t I do that? I could blame the pile, which is full of things that push my buttons. I could blame Allen’s strategy, since filing things forces you to make predictions about the future that you can’t possibly make. I could blame “our society,” with its never-ending supply of new distractors.

clean desk

But I know the truth. I don’t do it because I’m not in the habit. If I spent ten minutes a day processing the junk on my desk, I would conquer it. If I faithfully repeated the ten-minute task for 45 days, it would be a wired-in habit. I’d face clutter in manageable chunks instead of seeing it as an intimidating mountain. Soon, peace would break out on my desk and it would spread to my drawer and my closet. I would feel good each day when I’ve accomplished the task, and the good feeling would wire me to want to do it more. Thinking of myself as a person with a clean desk would be an added bonus.

Where can I find time to do this? I’d hate to do it in the morning when I’m fresh enough to do real work. I’d hate to do it at night when I’m cranky. I think I will do it just before I exercise. I don’t love exercise, so I won’t mind delaying my afternoon exercise break for ten minutes.

When should I start? I’d like to say “soon.” Tomorrow? That may never come. I must start this new habit now. Before I click the “publish” button on this post. I’m setting a timer for ten minutes........

Aaaaaaaah.....that wasn’t so bad. Making decisions is draining but I can do it for ten minutes. Maybe more. I’ll report back in 45 days.

Distractions are often blamed on “our society.” But consider how distracting the world was for our ancestors. They looked everywhere for information about why the rains failed and why their children died. They found clues in the stars, in the intestines of animals, in the eye movements of their neighbors. Everything was information, and still the rains failed and children died. We have inherited a brain that scans constantly for information because that promotes survival.

But this primate brain also evolved the ability to manage distraction. A monkey can focus for an hour on cracking open a nut because he knows the reward is worthwhile. Our mammal brain focuses where rewards have been found in the past. The extra neurons of the human cortex enable us to imagine rewards that we have not actually experienced, and persevere in their pursuit.

Instead of blaming your distraction on external forces, honor the internal force that controls your attention. You already have some good distractions-fighting habits, and you can build more if you commit ten minutes a day for 45 days.

Wiring yourself for new happy habits in 45 days is the subject of my new book, Habits of a Happy Brain: Retrain Your Brain to Boost Your Serotonin, Dopamine, Oxytocin, & Endorphin Levels.