How Successful Entrepreneurs Block Out Distractions And Stay Focused
At any given time, dozens of things are fighting for your attention. Pop up banners want your email address, ads want you to look at them, colleagues want you to respond to them and friends want you to talk to them. Not to mention the delivery driver at the door and the phone ringing, the washing machine pinging and the cat that wants letting out. Plus there’s that small matter of the work you’re actually meant to be doing.
When there’s so much vying to be addressed, it can feel like finding focus amongst distraction is impossible. I interviewed entrepreneurs about their tactics and found four key methods they use.
If you don’t break up your day, work can expand to the time made available. A ten-minute task could take hours because you’re multi-tasking and addressing other requests when they arrive. Entrepreneurs find focus in time blocking; allocating arbitrary chunks of time in their diary to signal when the important stuff gets done. Should they find flow during that time, they might keep going, but the presence of the time block ensures they get the task started.
Philippe Wilson, founder of boilerbooker.com, turns his mobile phone off for two-hour blocks in a bid for focus. “I work well to deadlines, so I give myself less time to do things and take fewer but longer breaks, such as playing tennis, going to the gym or cooking food.” Wilson also plans ahead, so he knows exactly how his focused work blocks will be used. “Every Sunday evening I write down my goals for the year.” Goals give direction to blocks of time and create a compelling reason to stick to them.
CEO of cycling tech company Hammerhead, Piet Morgan, has his time blocking to a tee. “Work in focused sixty-to-ninety-minute blocks, prioritise the most important work at the start of the day. Batch communications into twice per day slots to avoid distractions and turn off Slack notifications to stay hyper-focused and avoid multitasking.” Ruth Chubb from the 3 Bears Cookery Club makes sure her daughters are sufficiently occupied and happy first, “I tell them I’m in a meeting for an hour so I’m not interrupted.”
Stick to your rules
Having rules in place doesn’t stop the fun, it provides much-needed boundaries. Some distractions need policies, so they are ignored without exception. It matters more what you don’t do than what you do, especially where focused work is concerned. Rules for which applications, sounds and notifications are allowed into your zen zone create productive work habits that set up success.
Ed Barton, chief commercial officer at Moshi Sleep, admits that he gets easily distracted but he uses “Rescuetime for tracking and keeping me honest.” He also makes himself sit still, “with a notepad and no devices.” Rescuetime tracks your activity to show you reports of how you spend your time. It also lets you block distractions within the software. Will Woodhouse, owner of Fix My Broken Mac, makes sure he stays off Twitter. He will “quit any app that gives notifications or switch the do not disturb features on” in a bid to remove notifications and keep his phone at bay.
Joe Welstead, CEO of Motion Nutrition, sets strict rules on when his devices go off and swears by time allocation rather than to-do lists because he believes they “put the emphasis on progress rather than simply completion.” Claudia Colvin, founder of Nobody’s Watching, combines rules with awareness by writing down everything she does. “This way If I get sucked into distracting rabbit holes I can say no and go back to it. Before doing this I used to forget why I’d opened my laptop in the first place.”
What you hear whilst working can make a big difference. A baby crying or a dog barking might make you feel panicked. Music has the power to rev you up or chill you out depending on the style. Some people thrive in a bustling office and some need peace and quiet. When is a sound a help and when is it a hindrance?
I love listening to music without lyrics when I’m writing or powering through work. It might be piano, guitar or trance. It could be the soundscapes on Calm app, of rain on leaves or the sounds of the ocean. I enjoy writing in coffee shops abroad because the conversations in foreign languages become white noise, whereas I’d be distracted by chatter around me that was in English.
The most industrial example of blocking out distractions came from singer and coach Daniella Wallace. “I use builders' ear defenders when writing. I am quite an auditory person so any sounds can lead me to quickly be distracted and procrastinate. I look utterly ridiculous, but it works!” Leave nothing to chance by hiring professional equipment on the quest for focus.
Learn how to deal with them
Whilst creating productive ways of blocking distractions and instilling discipline into a routine is undoubtedly useful, some of the entrepreneurs interviewed think we’re all becoming a bit soft. Should we be adapting the world to suit us, or adapting ourselves to suit the world? When should we ask someone else to be quiet and when should we learn to deal with their noise and get good at not noticing?
Dmitry Bagrov, managing director at DataArt UK, is a fan of good noise-cancelling headphones but also believes the problem needs solving from within. "You cannot block out distractions. Learn to work around them.” Claire Lyons, owner of The Frugal Family blog, says that blocking out distractions is “impossible for me, so instead I’ve trained myself to work in chaos.” It conjures up a poetic image of an artist so engrossed in their work that they don’t notice the carnage happening around them. “If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs” mused Rudyard Kipling, and perhaps he was onto something where productivity is concerned.
For publicity coach and media trainer Sandra Coffey, it’s all about distraction management. “Distractions are a part of life; you need to figure out how to keep them in the background until you reach a goal or part of a goal. Let them in for a certain time period and then push them back out again and get back to work.”
Stay focused by working out what diverts your attention and intentionally blocking your time away from distractions. Choose your working soundtrack carefully, set boundaries and have rules in place that you stick to, whilst developing the ability to work happily among chaos.