Taming Distraction

Using apps on a phone can lead to greater distractions. A self-inflicted interruption can happen as much as every 15 seconds. One study found that people switch between computer programs as much as 566 times in an average workday. In addition, after being distracted in a self-inflicted manner, it can take as much as 25 minutes to return to a task. In the meantime, an average of 2-3 other tasks have appeared to fill in the meantime.

This is largely because the brain has a built-in novelty bias and is constantly on the lookout for new and usual things. This may be a result of the need to spot dangers before they become a problem. Because distractions can be so effective, it’s important to deal with them ahead of time before being forced to expend willpower to defeat them as they happen.

The Four Types of Distraction

A distraction is anything that can turn someone away from that person’s intentions. There are four types that can be turned
into a matrix as follows:

A grid for types of distractions people experience

A distraction matrix outlining the types of distractions

Create this distraction matrix and fill it up with every single distraction that can be thought of an categorized into the matrix. It doesn’t matter if the distractions are relevant to any given moment. Simply put them down in order to be aware of what they are (or, perhaps, keep multiple matrices).

Be aware that distractions from others are not as damaging as distractions to oneself. The best way to deal with either is to keep remembering to re-focus on the original intention and get back to work.

The best way to deal with fun distractions is to actually enjoy them. Use them to relax and enjoy life a bit, while periodically making a note about getting back on track when the distraction is over.

Dealing with Distractions

Use the following chart as a guideline on how to deal with distractions:

distraction matrix image

The distraction matrix with ways of dealing with the distractions

Remember: Remove every object that is potentially more stimulating that what the task is. This forces the brain to work on the task at hand, the only source of stimulation available. A few ideas are:

  1. Put mobile devices in Do Not Disturb mode and keep it out of site until it is needed
  2. Put on some noise-cancelling headphones to reduce distractions from the surrounding environment
  3. Get out of the office to recharge for a bit
  4. Remember to socialize a little to relax from focusing and enjoy the surrounding company
  5. Allow a reward every once in a while as a bit of positive feedback or to take a break from Hyperfocusing

Creating a distraction-free mode can help make mental energy last longer by reducing the amount of distraction that eat up
mental fuel. That said, not all distractions are equal. Think about what distractions appear throughout the day that are not worth losing 20 minutes over. Email can be one such distraction, but it is also impossible to eliminate. For distractions like
this, try the following:

  1. Set a specific time to go address them instead of sporadically throughout the day. This transforms them from distractions to purposeful work
  2. Turn off notifications on all devices, or at least set devices to mute and no vibrations. Consider putting the phone into Airplane Mode during work hours (8am to 8pm, except maybe lunch)
  3. For email, try to turn off any notifications or alerts
  4. Check for new messages at predetermined times when there is energy allotted to do so
  5. Keep a running tally of how many times email was checked for messages. This will create an estimate on how much mental energy email is consuming
  6. Hyperfocus on the email that has built up in the meantime. Get everything out of the way to resume non-email work
  7. Don’t use email for To-Do lists. Find something more purpose-specific for that
  8. If possible, keep public and private email accounts to separate interests
  9. Wait before sending important message. It will give time to consider the best response

Dealing with the Smartphone

The smartphone is more powerful than the computers that sent astronauts to the moon and it uses that power to distract its users. Consider the following ideas on dealing with these devices:

  1. Stow it away whenever possible
  2. Resist the urge to check it during brief periods of waiting or boredom
  3. Take advantage of Airplane Mode and deal with those alerts later
  4. Put the most distracting apps in a “Mindless” folder to reinforce the idea that they are wasting your mental energy
  5. Periodically go through the phone and delete unnecessary apps or excessively distracting apps.
  6. Don’t buy a new device without asking what purpose it really serves. Be sure how necessary it is before acquiring it.


Meetings are one of the biggest distractions throughout the day. They are incredibly costly and can waste hours of work depending on the number of meetings throughout the week. Here are some ideas for dealing with them:

  1. Never attend a meeting without an agenda. Always ask for the objective of the meeting if it isn’t already known
  2. Question the value of each recurring meeting on the calendar. This is not for arguing against the meeting, but rather reinforcing whether or not the meeting is necessary
  3. For managers, if possible, challenge the attendee list. Does everyone need to be there?
  4. Hyperfocus on the meetings to get the most out of them. If you’re there, you may as well get something out of it.

The Environment

The Internet

Disconnect from the Internet to the greatest degree possible. For all its benefits, it can still be an enormous time trap. About half the time spent on the Internet is pure procrastination, reducing the amount of value per moment that it takes up.

Surrounding Circumstances

People with smartphones tend to check them every 3 to 5 minutes. What is more, the mere presence of a smartphone in the periphery of one’s vision has been found to interfere with social and relationship quality. Keep phones and tablets in another room to avoid distractions, if possible.

Cleanliness can also be a factor. Clean environment tend to be more conducive to focus and messy environments tend be more conducive to creativity.

  1. Take stock in the distractions in the environment. Make a list of them
  2. Make a plan to remove attractive object of attention from the environment so as not to be tempted by them. This might not always be possible, but try
  3. Have a whiteboard or notepad to brainstorm intentions, thoughts and so on
  4. Keep a fidget cube on hand for the purpose of taking a break now and again without getting too distracted
  5. Keep a book on the nightstand intstead of a phone to encourage reading more
  6. Store fruit on a bowl at the table for easy snacking instead of junk food
  7. Keep a clean environment whenever possible to ease mental stress. Having dirty dishes occupies the mind and a dirty work desk does as well. Be sure to tidy papers, sort files on the desktop and archive email each day to wipe away any distractions


Research suggests that productive music has two attributes. First, it sounds familiar. Second, it is relatively simple. Further, ideally, there are no words to listen to. Essentially, the music doesn’t have much going on when listened closely, but can be comforting and easy when it sits in the background.

The value of background music is to drown out outside noise. Conversations and chatter can distract, especially if one is prone to imagining the other half of a phone conversation. Using music to mute the noise out is helpful.

Clearing the Mind

The brain is an idea machine. This also means that thoughts are not meant to be stored in the mind for too long. Keep a notebook handy at all times in order to jot ideas and information down. This used to be called a Commonplace Book and it was once quite a popular thing to have. Storing the information there allows the brain to free up its resources for Hyperfocus.


  • Create a “Distraction-Free Mode” by marking out time to spend intentionally
  • Filter out distractions to reclaim more focusing energy
  • Simplify the working and living environment to eliminate tempting distractions
  • Clear the mind of distracting thoughts by getting out onto some other storage medium