Dealing With Yourself as a Designer: Distraction

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As a designer, one of the most difficult things you have to deal with is constantly getting distracted. It’s easy to blow 15 minutes here, 30 minutes there on things that do not further your work or your goals.

This is especially true if you work for yourself and from home; with no one around to keep you accountable, it’s effortless to blow off work to do any number of other things around your house.

And while distraction is an unfortunate facet of modern life and technology, it can really hamper your productivity if you don’t get a handle on it. Here are a few strategies to avoiding and overcoming distraction.

Give Yourself Work Hours

This may seem trite, but when you’re working, it’s helpful to actually work. That means that your focus is completely on what you are doing when you are doing it. Focus has the power of channeling all of your energy and talent into your projects at one time, when can give huge productivity gains. In fact, if you can master the art of focus (I still am working on this…) it generally means that you get more efficient at what you do, and usually with better results.

Distraction can rob productivity by competing for your attention. In design, while certain things may not take a lot of overall time, they often require large blocks of uninterrupted and focused time. If you can cut distraction down to a minimum with fewer things competing for your attention, you may actually find yourself working harder when you work, but then working less as a whole.

In my own work, while I’m not great at this yet, I have found that giving myself certain hours or times to work helps me to focus on work at that time. There are other things I’d probably rather be doing at any moment, but I have to consciously make myself work when I’m working and, as a corollary, not work when I’m not working.

Distraction can cause you to work all the time, in that you either put things off too long, start to feel guilty about not working earlier, or even just constantly put the thing you’re putting off front of mind all the time. But disciplining your mind and work ethic for specific times can help you find balance even when you’re busy.

Turn Off the Phones and the Internet

Smartphones have allowed for greater productivity in many respects, in that we can do lots of things anywhere that formerly we could only do at work. This is naturally a double-edged sword, since it means work is always only a buzz or chime away.

Similarly, smartphones could be legitimately labeled distraction devices, since they are chock full of notifications just ready to clamor for your attention. The constant buzzing and beeping will not help your focus, and there’s always just one more text to send or one more notification to check, which ends up eating hours our of your week without you even realizing it.

Even on more traditional computers the internet and all its pomp is just begging to suck your life down the distraction hole. The difficulty I have found in my own work is that I have to use the internet for certain things regularly as I’m working. But it’s oh so easy to pop over to Facebook to check on updates in X group or to refresh Feedly to see if there are any new posts from bloggers I follow, or to see if there’s anything new on YouTube. And half of the time all of these things are colluding with my smartphone to show me something new or shiny or OMG! that I just have to stop what I’m doing and see.

I have been experimenting over the past week with just leaving my phone somewhere else, either in the house when I’m working or somewhere else when I’m out. I find it both fascinating and sad how naked I feel without my phone, how my first reaction in any lull or moment of silence is to reach for my phone to do, well, something. I complain that it’s usually boring or uninteresting, but I’m the one constantly staring at it or checking it, so who’s the boring one?

In the current day and age it’s likely impossible to completely get away from these things, but we have to become more intentional about our time and our focus. These manufactured (and often chosen) distractions will ALWAYS be there. The goal isn’t necessarily to completely unplug, but rather to mange our online and connected life before it begins to manage us.

For a sort of nuclear option, try out the Self-Control app.

Take a Break and Get Distracted

In my own work I often find that distraction arises when I either get stuck on ideating or reach a point of mental exhaustion. The distraction becomes a way of coping with feelings of frustration. The problem, however, is not necessarily in getting distracted, but rather in not getting distracted enough.

What happens is that the more frustrated I get, the more stressed I get. I start to try and force ideas out of my head, but with each failed attempt I tend to look at my phone or visit Facebook or something to try and take my mind of how frustrated I feel. The end result is that I am only half-heartedly working, and in the end I don’t get the result I want, which leaves me feeling even more frustrated, and thus tens to increase the likelihood of distraction, culminating in a death spiral of distraction.

In those moments, I have learned that it’s usually best to go all in on the distraction. I force myself to get up and go something else; sometimes play a video game, sometimes read, sometimes take a walk, sometimes get a sno-cone. Granted, on paper it’s not the most productive time, but in reality it usually turns out to be a productivity booster. By getting away from my frustration for awhile, even if it’s brief, allows me to consider other alternatives by not focusing on them. Often times new ideas will come when I’m focused on something else, even if that focus is distraction. But for this to happen, I have to go all in, which for me usually has the physical component of leaving.

Distractions can be a good thing in this instance, and at some level we probably all need them. I sometimes try to structure them into my day and even have set times for them. For example, I tend to wake up pretty early and work out, listen to a podcast, sometimes write, etc., fairly early in the morning. This means that by the time 11:00 rolls around, I’m ready for lunch. Sometimes lunch is 15 minutes, sometimes more like 45, but during that time I try and make time for something different than work if I can. Often around 2:00 I’m needing an afternoon energy boost, so I’ll try and take 15 minutes or a half hour to do something different as well. All of these intentional periods of distraction help me to focus on work when I need to, and not focus on it when I need to.

Distractions will always be with us, and to some extent or another can be self-inflicted. Develop strategies for dealing with distractions and you can boost your productivity and efficiency, while still having time for some much needed distraction!

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Jason Watson

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