Maintaining Focus in a Distracting World

Technological progress improves labor productivity and increases living standards, but is also making the world a more distracting place. Text messages, social media notifications, and web forums can quickly divert your attention from a meaningful task to useless news. It is challenging for makers to remain productive and focus on creative tasks for long stretches of time in a world of distractions.

I get distracted by text messages, phone calls, forum responses, Trello notifications, email, gChat, and random thoughts that give me the urge to Google. It is much easier to respond to a text message than work on a hard problem, so distractions are also a tempting mental break.

Here are tactics I have developed to manage distractions:

  • Keep smartphone on silent, out of sight, and out of reach and try to have the discipline not to check it.
  • Turn internet off while working to avoid Googling random things (I don’t usually realize I am doing this till I get the “You are not connected to the internet” error message and realize I should stay focused).
  • Make PDFs of Trello cards, so I can check the PDF and not get distracted by notifications.
  • Do not participate in Internet forums since the responses to my comments are bound to be distracting.
  • Close gMail, so I don’t get any email or chats.

My concentration tactics have largely been unsuccessful because I tend to cheat (i.e. check my phone on the way to the bathroom). The tactics are also reactionary (i.e. I don’t turn off the internet until I realize it has already been distracting me), so damage is already done when they are implemented.  Paul Graham wrote an article about how he tried to deal with distractions by having one computer for work and another for internet stuff. His tactic was unsuccessful over time because he gradually started using the internet on his “work” computer.

The distractions of modern society are already difficult to cope with, but will likely get worse as technology progresses. I’ve found it easiest to focus early in the morning, late at night, and during the weekend, but that isn’t much of a solution. I don’t know how makers will continue to focus in an increasingly distracting world, I guess it will require a sophisticated distraction suppression system and self discipline.


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