One of the books I've been reading lately is Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. Usually I find this type of book dry and hard to pick up, but the examples used in the book and the focus on modern day knowledge workers has been resonating with me, especially since I work remotely. Right now this means I work from home, but this will be changing in a couple months.
By glancing at the side of my hardcover copy of the book, I can see that I'm only about halfway through the book, but I thought it would be a good time to reflect on some of the distractions I face and how they affect the way I work.
Internal vs External Distractions
Through some further reading I've found that one way to distinguish distractions are as internal and external. The internal distractions arise from the stream of consciousness part of your brain being active. It feels like thoughts pop into your head: "did I leave the stove on?", "what should I have for dinner?", "did I feed the cat?", "this is boring", "you probably shouldn't sit in that chair for so many hours", "is there any point to writing this?". The external distractions can be from any of your senses and their importance is relevant to the context of what you're currently doing. Some generic examples are: notifications on your phone, a knock on your door, an abrupt weather change, car horns, loud music from your neighbours.
Strategies for Focusing
I find it interesting that there are general strategies for handling both internal and external distractions and that the most effective strategies are put in place and acted on before the task that requires focusing. This seems to be related to the concept that we have a finite amount of willpower. While the romantic ideal of being able to toil away at a difficult task while blocking out all distractions to the task at hand seems noble, it's not very realistic.
I find it frustrating that the strategies to handle internal distractions are so obvious, yet seemingly so difficult to put in place. If you can manage to maintain a healthy diet, exercise regularly and get a sufficient amount of sleep for your personal needs, the frequency and intensity of internal distractions will subside. Additionally, incorporating a form of meditation has been shown to help as well, or more recently I've seen the concept of "allowing yourself to be bored" mentioned quite a few times. The reason I'm frustrated by these strategies is that life gets in the way and it's extremely difficult to work on them all at once. Also, did I mention I'm hard on myself?
The strategies for reducing external distractions are also interesting, but not because they also need to be done in advance, but because they have social consequences, as the number one type of distraction in a work environment is an interruption from a coworker. I'm not looking to avoid talking to coworkers and I don't dislike doing so, but the current success stories show individuals who set well defined boundaries on communication during periods of intense focus, or deep work. This actually means better communication with your peers and coworkers and defining rules around how, when and where you'll focus your efforts. Also, controlling your environment has a huge impact. Having an office where you can shut the door, turning off all notifications and forms of communication is a requirement of doing deep work.
Remote Working Distractions
For the last couple years I've been working remotely, most often from home, which offers its own set of challenges. When friends and peers have learned that I work remotely, they've asked what it's like or how it's going, and I find myself replying, with a bit of a smirk, that it's going pretty well, but it presents new challenges for every freedom it affords.
Working from home sounds like a dream come true, where you can create the perfect work environment and avoid any of the things you disliked about the office. I found the reality to be much more nuanced and any of the things you'd normally do at home are now distractions because they're not work and your home is now one of your potential workplaces. I think it's important to reflect on the habits you build around the places you inhabit and the objects you use. Jack Cheng wrote a great article on habit fields that I think describes many of the experiences I had with remote work and how I worked.
Ideas for a Less Distracted Future
I haven't solved the problem of distractions creeping into my daily work efforts. I've since finished reading Deep Work since starting this entry, whether due to distraction or a lack of writing being a priority is another issue. However, I have found some tools and strategies that have worked well for me, which you may find useful.
Focus, a Mac app, allows you to block other apps and websites during a time of focused work, which can also be scheduled. I found this incredibly useful for denying the urge to check email or succumb to other distracting behaviour.
Working fullscreen in most of the applications I use on a laptop (ie. web browser, terminal, text editor) has really helped me focus on one task at a time and remove visual clutter from my digital workspace. It's also allowed me to work on smaller screens and from a variety of locations.
Setting up meeting time slots, where you're unavailable for calls, meetings and even most forms of chat (unless urgent) made a big difference in how productive I was. I found setting up two periods of uninterrupted time centred around lunch worked really well.
Taking breaks, helps prevent the feeling of wanting to do something else and allowing yourself to be distracted. It's important to focus while you work and aim for a state of deep work, but this isn't always possible and it's difficult to do long stretches. I found allowing yourself to take breaks makes you more productive, as long as you set time limits on breaks.
I still have a lot to learn both regarding working remotely and achieving a state of focus to work in a deep way. I don't know if I'll ever be an expert, but I value the opportunity to work remotely and have been incredibly productive and accomplished satisfying work when I can create environments that allow for deep work.