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Tuning out distractions

Here’s something we’ve all experienced: you’re reading and something happens to distract you. So you go back and re-read the sentence, get distracted again, and again, and then you have to back up and re-read the whole paragraph, and then the page, and then finally you’re just sitting there staring at it, thinking “wait, what’s happening?” and you realize that with all of the distractions, you’re actually kind of un-reading.

You can see that whole process happening when you’re reading, but with writing, it usually just manifests as not getting anywhere. How on earth are you supposed to get through your manuscript, this paragraph, this sentence—hell, even this word—with so much noise around you? Smartphones, kids, emails, social media—there’s an endless supply of things you can do other than your writing. And if you’re not going to them, they’re coming to find you.

Like many things about scholarship, it’s a good idea to have your toolkit assembled before distractions crop up so they’re in place when you need them. There are way too many distraction-muting methods for us to cover here, but we want to share some of our Studio Scholars’ favorites:

  • Software to block distractions. Apps like freedom.to can keep you from checking your Facebook feed, shopping Amazon, Wikipedia rabbit-holing. Freedom lets you customize working blocks on the fly or in advance, and you can also tell it which apps and websites to allow or block. It also has a “locked” mode in which you can’t override those settings.
  • Last summer we wrote about the Pomodoro Technique. Virtually everyone we know who uses it likes it. Pomodoros are all about committing your focus for a unit of time; when distracting thoughts pop up, you offload them to a list to revisit later, when the pomodoro is over. Doing so releases you to stay focused on the task at hand.
  • One aspect of the pomodoro technique that’s important as a general principle is to take designated breaks. The more tired your brain is, the less willpower you’ll have. Take different kinds of breaks, too—check your email, get a beverage, go for a walk.
  • Maybe this goes without saying, but change up your environment. Leave the house. (Laura finds it easier to focus when she’s outside.) Listen to music. Don’t listen to music. Mix it up and see what happens!
  • Explicitly boundary-set with the people in your life. This means telling your spouse, kid, or friend, “hey I need to work for an hour or so—I’ll message you when I’m done.” Or make a work date with a friend at a coffee house, but agree to get out your earbuds after 20 minutes (and then, if you’re staying awhile, use that designated break option to catch up some more.)
    • If you can’t fully do this, try requesting that you be called in case of an emergency.
  • Snooze your notifications! The pop-ups, chimes, lights, and other ways our electronics get our attention can be really helpful when we need them. It’s also important to know when and how to shut them out. You might think you can just ignore them, but you really can’t. The research is absolutely clear that notifications will mess you up (and in fact, that having your phone in the same room with you, even when it’s totally silent, is a significant distraction).
    • Can you customize your notifications so you’ll hear if, say, your kid’s school calls, but everything else is blocked?
    • (Actually … you may already have your notifications “customized” in the sense that no one voice phone calls you except your spouse or your kid’s school. If your mom hasn’t learned how to text yet, teach her now.)
    • You can probably shut up notifications on your laptop as well. Windows 10 has a “Focus assist” mode and Mac has a “Do Not Disturb” feature.
    • Generally, go through your devices and perform a “notifications audit.” Which apps send you notifications? Do you really need all of them?

Most of these techniques are probably familiar to you, but hopefully we’ve given you at least one or two new ideas, or new inspiration to try an old one. One of our scholars reported today that she had rediscovered her focus by leaving her house and going to a coffee shop—not because there was less to distract her there, but because the bustle has a way of being energizing and soothing at the same time. Rotate through focus-boosters you haven’t tried in a while; what you need in one set of life or research circumstances isn’t necessarily what you need in another.