Start working for yourself and distractions suddenly become a great deal more destructive. You might been bothered in the past by a colleague talking too loudly in the next cubicle. The constant drip of emails into your inbox might have been pulling you away from your projects. But when the money you received at the end of the month was always the same regardless of how much you produced, it didn’t really matter how often you went back to the watercooler to escape the noise or how much time you spent looking at lolcats. Become your own boss, and those distractions aren’t just mildly irritating (or even lots of fun), they’re expensive timewasters that reduce your monthly income.
It’s when you calculate the amount of money you’re losing when you let distractions pull you away from work that you realize just how much those trivialities are costing you. If you’re charging $50 an hour, for example, and spend twenty minutes a day looking at friends’ feeds on Facebook and ten minutes a day writing jokey emails, then you just spent $25 for that entertainment. That’s about three times the price of a movie ticket.
A workday will always have some distractions but there are things you can do to minimize the power — and the cost — of the biggest timesucks.
People are the most powerful distracters. They’re demanding, they’re everywhere and they get offended when you ignore them. While working from home will mean that you have fewer people milling about the office looking for a conversation, it doesn’t make you completely incommunicado. You have to do that yourself.
So children have to be taken care of. Trying to work with little ones running around your feet rarely works out. They’ll be demanding your attention long before you’ll have completed your project, and they’re the hardest people to ignore. This is one instance when multitasking just doesn’t work, so divide the time, get help and make sure that when you’re at work, you’re working, and when you’re with the kids, you’re far from the computer.
Unless it’s a real emergency. In that case, you can always call on the TV to do its job, at least for a while.
Grown-ups are a little easier. They understand when you shut the door, even if they don’t like it. You can also choose to use voicemail instead of answering the phone to everyone who calls, turn off your chat programs and set specific times to answer email.
While people can be giant moving sources of distraction, they’re not too difficult to avoid.
The Web though is unavoidable. With around a quarter of a billion websites and plenty of unseen content that you probably should read and certainly would enjoy reading, it’s not hard to justify taking a few minutes to catch up on the news or check out the latest tweets.
The solution looks simple. You can turn the Internet off. If you don’t have the self-discipline to pull the plug or shut down your wireless connection (and who does?) you can always pack your laptop off to a spot with no connection at all. Or use a program that blocks access to certain sites except for set times of day.
But that’s a mistake. There’s only one greater source of distraction than the Internet, and that’s its absence. Instead of looking for a few minutes at the latest headlines, you’ll be wasting ten-minute blocks wondering if it’s really possible to get a connection when there’s only one bar showing. Or trying to figure out whether it’s possible to beat the blocker.
So don’t try to avoid the Web. Instead, use it smartly. Open sites that you can read in nibble-sized chunks. Twitter is good because you can read the tweets with a look. News sites can also be useful because by the time you’ve hit refresh and waited for the new headlines to load, you’ll be ready to head back to your work.
Shut down your browser completely though and deciding what site to open will take enough mental effort to pull you completely away from what you should be doing. Leave it open and when you find the cursor heading towards the toolbar, you’ll be able to keep the distraction to a minimum, even if you can’t get rid of it completely.
Turn Off the Silence
Noise is also supposed to be a distraction, but that’s not always the case. Much depends on the type of noise you’re hearing and the type of working you’re trying to do. A repetitive banging or a constant dripping will always be more off-putting than a piano concerto. And complete silence is so unusual that its presence can be even more distracting than a little background noise.
But music also brings a structure. Songs and albums are a set length, so you can tell yourself that you’ll keep cracking on until you reach the end — and you always know when that end is coming. Even talk radio like NPR can bring a schedule that can help to retain focus at least until the end of the program.
The key then isn’t to find a space in the library where you can’t hear anyone scream but to find the right kind of noise to match your project. For those whose work requires playing with words, classical music or tunes in foreign languages can work well. When the work is tedious and requires more physical than mental effort — such as data entry or QA — talk radio can keep the curious part of your mind occupied while the rest of you sticks with what you should be doing.
And even the background din of a café can be helpful. It’s not just the call of the baristas or the buzz of conversation that will keep you staring at the screen but the fact that you’re alone with a computer. That’s fine when you’re looking at the keyboard but spend any more than a few seconds gazing around the room with no one to talk to and you start to look a little weird. Reminding yourself of that should be enough to distract you from your distraction.
It’s impossible to work for eight hours (or more) straight without being distracted at all. But when you’re working for yourself, it is worth identifying the biggest slackers — and firing them.