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On working without distractions.

Eliminate distractions and create an environment that supports your focus and productivity.


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Milosz Falinski

3 years ago | 6 min read

Over the last decade, I’ve spent many hours, days and weeks thinking and doing around the project of being more productive. I’ve read most major books on productivity (over 50), experimented with every major ‘productivity app’. I’ve read studies, took extensive courses and tried on whole new systems every 3–4 months.

I even created my own productivity tools and systems.

At the end of last year, something shifted. I’ve found that the answer doesn’t lie in any new app, course or book. The perfect combination of focus, performance and a high level of wellbeing are not going to come to us from tools that promise them. No app or new system will address the underlying problems.

At best, they’ll give us a jolt of energy that will push us a little bit further to discovering the real answer.

At worst, they’ll lead us down a wrong path.

Of all the things I’ve learned and read, I’ve distilled three principles that guide me to be focused, effective and healthy. Even while juggling 5 or more big projects at a time, working in different environments, with changing conditions.

These are general principles, and for each I will give specific examples that apply to me or people I know. For you adopting them they may look quite different (and that’s ok).

Big idea #1: Know your priorities

Originally, I wanted to just write about tools. But while writing this article I realised that changing what I work on, rather than how I work is what has the biggest impact on my day.

The idea of prioritising that I share here comes from one simple but very important distinction. Distinguishing what is actually important from what is simply urgent. Your ability to do this consistently and act on it will have huge impact on your ability to accomplish your goals.

What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important.
— Dwight Eisenhower

Let’s dive in.

Every day, I start with 2–3 hours of important work, before I open email or do any other activity. Important are the things that move you towards your goals. Your KPI’s at work, your specific goals in the business, your 12-, 6- and 3-month plans. For me, today, what’s important is building my business and writing.

Then, I shift to things that are urgent. These are requests, requirements, demands that have a specific deadline, expressed or implied. Working with my clients, responding to important emails, executing on things that fulfil what’s most important to others.

We normally do the opposite. By the time we’ve done everything requested of us, they day ends or we’re too tired or distracted to focus on the things that matter to us. And the more effective we get at executing for others, the more requests we’ll get.

Finally, if you have the time left, do the rest. All the other things that are neither urgent nor important. Or just stop working and enjoy your life, because if you’re done with both important and urgent stuff, you’ve earned it!

Whether you’re aware of it or not, you will prioritise activities every day, for the rest of your life. And your ability to focus, be effective and healthy are your own priority only. If you don’t act on it and protect them, no one will.

In short, rules for prioritising are actually rather simple:

  • Important things always come first
  • Urgent things come second
  • Everything else comes last

Big idea #2: Limit number of inputs

Hundreds of studies have shown that despite the revolution in productivity tools in the last 40 years, actual productivity hasn’t increased. And I’m not surprised.

Working remotely for the last 7 years I’ve looked at a lot of shared screens. A look into a person’s desktop is deeply personal and reveals a lot about how they work.

And almost every time, I see an environment that’s completely unsuited for deep productive work and being effective, with many open tabs, an onslaught of notifications and distractions. And with lines between home and work blending further than ever, this has become a problem that many more of us are experiencing.

Consider that absolutely everything that is displayed by your devices is a request for your attention. Every single pixel of the screen you look at wants something from you. From the hundreds of notifications, through the icons that are always on your screen, to the stuff you only look at occasionally.

Every single one of these consumes a tiny bit of your attention, whether you’re conscious of it or not. And the more you dilute your attention across many of these often very unimportant things, the less you are able to focus deeply on one specific important task.

That’s why many famous writers, like J.K. Rowling, Neil Gaiman, Quentin Tarantino, Stephen King and George R.R. Martin known for their reliable productivity still use either pen and paper, typewriters or old-school pre-internet computers.

While I don’t think you have to ditch connectivity and convenience to get things done, there are some simple tweaks you can make to the way you work to support your focus and health.

Clean up your workspace

On Mac, start with emptying your Dock and Menubar. Empty your desktop. Set up your workspace, so that you’re only looking at things that are relevant to you right now.

A rare screenshot of Windows, coming from a designer.

Close apps you’re not using

Building on the above, close all apps you’re not actively using. If you’re writing, you don’t need the 50 open tabs in your browser from yesterday. If you’re on meetings, you don’t need your writing documents open.

On a Mac, I often use a simple script I created called Laser — which cleans up my workspace automatically whenever I want to focus. You can read more about and try it out here.

Block distracting websites and apps when working

You can use apps like Focus or ColdTurkey (no affiliation to either) to block news and social media sites in given times. This is an app I use every day. From 7AM to 6PM I can’t access any news, social media or content sites.

Take regular breaks

I don’t know about you, but when I start working, I don’t want to stop. I can work for hours without breaks. The problem — after those few hours I’m too tired to be really effective for the rest of the day.

The only thing that keeps me energised and focused throughout the day is taking regular breaks. For that I use a Pomodoro timer — 25 minutes of work and a short break after, away from the screen. I recommend an app called Focus on Mac and the free Focus 10 on Windows, but you can try any of the hundreds of free apps and websites available.

Keep your phone away

Unless your work involves receiving important phone calls, put your phone on silent and set it aside, far from your reach.

Bonus idea: Stay curious and catch bad habits as they form

Our environments and tools are constantly changing, and so are our habitual way of acting. Our restless minds are constantly looking for new things to latch on to. Observe carefully, and you will notice new habits and automatic behaviours forming constantly.

Browse news while having your post-lunch coffee just once, and next time you have a coffee you find yourself automatically going to a news site. Without even giving it a single thought.

It can seem tiny and innocent. But unchecked, these habits slowly add up to fill your day with automated activities, undoing all the work you’ve done to stay focused and healthy.

So stay curious and keep questioning everything you find yourself doing automatically.

One of the biggest takeaways I have from my journey with productivity is that technology is not always the right solution. Despite hundreds of apps designed to help people meditate and build better habits, I still use an old kitchen timer and pen and paper for both.

There is simplicity and flexibility in old-school tools that is rarely achieved with digital technology.
And remember, just the fact that you are easily distracted is not wrong and doesn’t make you a stupid or lazy person. Don’t blame yourself for not having the mental tools to get out the digital wasteland, none of us are born with them and people are just now realising how big of a problem this is.

Our brains are genetically wired this way and most technology companies today are built around extracting that design to their benefit.

So stay present to your own goals, stay curious and see if you can consciously use all this technology to your benefit!

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