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how to focus in a distracting world

My mother told me a story once – about a time when personal computers and the Internet first became common in the workplace. It was a different time for many reasons, but one that stood out to me in stark relief: Most of the websites were blocked. I guess employers didn’t trust that employees could avoid being distracted, so they simply blocked most sites. Or maybe they just didn’t trust their workforce period.

Today, there are more distractions than ever and the Internet is an invaluable tool to every position. Are you a salesperson meeting a new client? Look them up on LinkedIn. Are you a programmer that’s encountered a bug you don’t understand? Look it up in a search engine and if that fails, post about it in a coding forum and you’ll usually have a response from more experienced programmers within a few hours. The internet has become a very helpful tool, but it also can become a distraction.

I’ve been told that many of my friends find it hard to concentrate when their phone notifications are blinking announcing a friend has posted on your Facebook wall, commented on your Instagram photo or replied to your tweet. I suggested turning off their phone notifications, which was countered with the fear that they would miss an important call or text from a loved one. So, complete radio silence while at work was off the table. But are there other options if our constant connectivity is getting in the way of meaningful work?

Luckily, the internet has a solution to this problem it seemed to create in the first place. There are several websites, apps and extensions you can use that block certain sites for a certain amount of time so you can focus on what’s important and increase productivity without distractions.

My personal favorite is the free extension called Strict Workflow. It has equivalent apps for other browsers, such as SelfControl and LeechBlock. The general idea is based on the famous Pomodoro Technique, which recommends that, for optimal productivity, you work without distractions for 25 minutes, take a 5-minute break and then repeat until all your work is complete. The added layer to these apps is that it also allows you to “blacklist” certain websites that you find distracting so you will not be able to access them during your 25-minute work time. If you try to visit them, a tomato will appear with the words “Page blocked until a break timer starts. Back to work!” There’s nothing like being yelled at by a tomato to get me back into the groove.

If I find myself distracted by the goings-on from the internet, I turn on Strict Workflow. Not only does it eliminate those distractions, it also gives me a set amount of time to complete a task – almost like a game. So, if you have an issue with being distracted when trying to focus on difficult tasks, feel free to try one of these free programs. Happy focusing!


Also see: 4 tips to increase email productivity

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