Productivity is a combination of sacrifice and discipline. But our smartphones and various other devices make it especially tough to turn off all of the distractions in our lives.
You can turn off notifications, but the fact of the matter is, you probably want alerts for news and texts from loved ones to be available at any time. You just want to stop looking at them. Looking at one important notification can send you down a rabbit hole of mindless social media feed scrolling.
Then there’s the deluge of emails you feel guilty for not reading and responding to quickly, various forms of entertainment available and human nature itself, which tempts us to make irresponsible decisions and skews our priorities.
Read on for some strategies to help you do more of what you truly want and need to do.
1. Say no to something.
Sometimes, this might mean turning down freelance work, a speaking engagement or another professional opportunity. Other times, you might have to decide whether grabbing coffee with an acquaintance or some other potential plan is worth your time.
Entrepreneur magazine editor-in-chief Jason Feifer recently made a major personal sacrifice for his work. A long-time Miami Heat basketball fan, he stopped following the team, and the sport all together. He needed more time to focus on his editing duties, two podcasts, speaking gigs, forthcoming novel and family.
“I was forced to make a decision,” Feifer wrote in his column for Entrepreneur’s March 2018 issue. “My life had become too busy. Something had to go. That thing was basketball. So when people ask me how I do so much, that’s my answer. I quit basketball."
Feifer has learned to prioritize based on what he’ll get out of his time spent doing things. He’s realized he finds having strong relationships with his family, work he’s proud of and eager readers and listeners more satisfying than knowing the play-by-play of March Madness.
2. Help others stay on track.
If you’re having a conversation with someone, and things start to go off track, sometimes, those tangents can lead to new ideas, which can bring unexpected value. But they’re often just a waste of time.
Say the person you’re talking to is long-winded or veering off course. Politely tell them what you’ve observed, especially because they may not even realize that they’re derailing.
When you can get a word in, you can civilly say something such as, “Did you just hear that? You started talking about X, but then you started going into Y and Z.”
Related: 15 Ways to Command a Conversation Like a Boss
You can also find creative ways to bring the conversation back into focus. If you’re not talking about something relevant in a given moment, think of how you could connect the current topic of conversation back to the one that sparked the conversation initially. Be creative, rather than say something jarring such as, “Can we get back to the task at hand?” Say, “speaking of Y, that makes me think of how X …” If you’re using this method, just make sure you’re not connecting the dots in a contrived or awkward manner.
3. Use an app to restrict your online activity.
Conference hosts and musical artists are starting to request (or mandate) that guests stow their phones during live events: They want attendees to be present. If you find yourself checking your phone multiple times a day -- or hour -- and want to cut it out, there are apps out there to help you.
Yes, it is ironic to use an app to keep you away from other apps. But they can help.
Try StayFocusd, which allows you to limit the amount of time you can spend on certain sites (you won’t be able to access them if you spend more than your specified amount of time on your specified sites in a given day). Or, test out WasteNoTime, which works similarly but also generates reports about the time you’re spending on various sites. There’s also Freedom, which allows you to block certain sites on both desktops and mobile devices.
Another option is Forest. It’s a gamified version of the apps above designed to keep you off your phone. When you want to keep away from your device, plant a virtual tree with Forest. The screen will tell you how many minutes remain until the tree is finished growing. Eventually, you can work your way up to an entire virtual forest. Plus, Forest allows you to convert points you earn from avoiding your phone into real trees planted on Earth, via donations from Forest to Trees for the Future. The app costs $1.99 and is the number-one productivity app in the iOS App Store.
4. Block your time into chunks.
There are various ways to employ this strategy, and it may take some experimenting to find the one that works best for you. It might be as simple as dividing your daily or weekly calendar into sections of work time, break time and whatever else you need to do.
If you divide your calendar, whether digitally or on paper, color coding can help. If you make a specific sub-calendar for each type of activity in this way, just glancing at your calendar will give you a sense of the make-up of your day.
A helpful strategy for anyone thinking of trying time-blocking is to commit to it for at least 30 days. If you try it for a couple of days and can’t stick to your schedule, don’t give up. Make time blocks recurring so that you form a habit over time. On digital calendars, you can set events you create to repeat periodically. During those first 30 days, you can also evaluate whether you’ve allotted too much or too little time to a task, or if you’d fare better if you moved the time block to a different part of the day or a different day all together, writes productivity expert Mike Vardy for Lifehack.org.
If you’re looking for a more one-off approach, you can also tackle a task you’ve been putting off by setting a timer for 15 minutes, then committing to working nonstop until the time is up. Chances are, if you get focused during that time, you’ll have momentum and will trick yourself into working beyond the duration you’ve allotted yourself.
5. Figure out what times of day are best suited for which tasks.
Self-reflection can be challenging. Again, you might have to experiment to figure out how to most effectively manage and optimize your time. But Joshua Zerkel, Evernote’s director of global community, offers one approach:
Zerkel starts his day (after a workout) with work that requires the most creativity, critical thinking and focus. As the day goes on, he makes time for meetings, and for following up on ongoing tasks. For everything else -- odds and ends that can be done quickly or require less mental effort -- he reserves for the late afternoon.
“I don't think most people think about their tasks in that way,” Zerkel told Entrepreneur. “They're trying to do all their tasks in whatever shoehorn moment they can find.”
He also starts Mondays with the most important tasks of the week. That way, they get done even if unexpected, unavoidable delays or distractions arise as the days go on.
6. Set boundaries.
If you find yourself interrupted at work, suggest an indicator to your colleagues that you need to work head-down.
At Evite, employees have agreed upon a “do-not-disturb policy.” Despite the company’s open office layout, there are several areas where people can break away to sit alone in a comfortable chair. If someone sees a fellow employee doing solitary work in a designated do-not-disturb area, it’s an unwritten rule that they’re not to engage with that person.
If you work from home and have family constantly barging into your office, you could instate a similar rule, even with a good old fashioned door hanger, like the kind you leave for hotel housekeeping. For those plagued by digital disruptions, you can set up auto-replies. Arianna Huffington’s Thrive Global app, for instance, allows users to set up replies to text messages (i.e., “I’m in Thrive Mode right now”).
If these signals don’t work, you might have to sequester yourself further, or put your phone in airplane mode.
Do you answer calls from unknown numbers? Either way, you still have to stop what you’re doing every time you get a ring from a mystery number and evaluate how to proceed.
If the same number keeps calling you over and over, you can block it. If you’re an iPhone user, you can tap the blue circled “i” symbol next to the number in your recent calls list and block the number from there. On Android, hold down the number in your recent calls list and select block.
Wireless carriers offer a variety of free and paid options for identifying and blocking spam numbers, too. T-Mobile, for instance, has a $4-a-month Name ID service, which provides caller ID for those who aren’t in your contact list.
Third-party apps keep databases of robocallers and fraudsters. If you subscribe to one of these services, such as RoboKiller, it will prevent unwanted calls from ever going through. Certain Samsung and Google phones have a similar function built in.
Other options include blocking any number that isn’t in your contacts from ringing (instead going right to voicemail), though this is extreme. You can also add your number to the National Do Not Call Registry to stop sales calls. Finally, never speak on a call with a robotic voice at the other end -- this will confirm to the computer that it’s reached a valid number, according to The Verge’s guide on how to stop robocalls.