Perhaps the biggest obstacles to productivity are distractions. One researcher found that it takes an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds to get back to an interrupted task.
Distractions come in many forms. I can't do anything about students coming to see you outside of office hours, meetings that go longer than they're supposed to, or your neighbor's lawn mower running while you're trying to read. But I can tell you about some tools that can help you stay on task once you're sitting at your desk.
One of the most distracting inventions of all time is the pop-up notification. Every email, message, and update makes a sound or flashes on the screen, completely derailing us from what we're doing.
One of the best ways to take control of these notifications is to take some time to turn off any notifications that are not essential. Let's take Facebook for example. You can turn off Facebook notifications on your phone and computer but leave them on within Facebook's website. That way you'll see all the notifications only when you log on. The same goes for all social media platforms.
Turning off pop-ups works excellent for email too. If you set aside time to check your inbox every day, the emails will be there when you check. There may be no need for you to read emails as they arrive. Microsoft Outlook and other apps can notify you of every new message as it comes in, if you allow it to. Turn off the notifications and take control of when you read email. This is often referred to as batching. Set aside a specific time for email and read and respond to all of them in one batch.
Do Not Disturb
Your computer and phone may have a Do Not Disturb (DND) setting that turns off all notifications on that device while active. You may not want your phone buzzing while teaching your next class so turning on DND right before class will make sure it stays quiet. Same goes for your computer. If you've ever had a notification pop up while your computer was connected to a projector, you can appreciate how great DND can be.
Depending on your operating system, you may be able to schedule Do Not Disturb to turn on and off automatically. Set it to turn on around the time you get to your office and turn on after dinner. There are options to have specific contacts and apps bypass DND mode so that if a family member needs to get a hold of you, they still can. Play with your settings and see what options you have available. Here are some good articles on how to configure DND modes on Windows and Mac.
Sometimes turning off notifications isn't enough. It takes a lot of self-control to stop yourself from checking your email or looking at Facebook for "just one minute." It's hard. Sometimes we are the cause of our distractions because we seek them out. If you've ever needed to set aside a few hours to write or grade papers but been too distracted, you may want to consider a content blocker.
My favorite content blocker is a service called Freedom. It will block access to anything on the internet from your computer and phone, for as long as you want. Freedom works so well that the first time I tried it I accidentally locked my laptop and phone out of all internet access for an hour and all I could do was contact customer support to turn it off. This optional layer of distraction-proofing is called "Locked Mode" and makes it impossible to quit or edit a session once Freedom is active.
Efficient use of Freedom looks more like this: You set up a blocklist of websites you don't want access to, you set an amount of time for the block, and you get to work. Freedom offers suggestions so you can add sites to a blocklist quickly, but you can add your own. Some of the suggestions, such as Twitter, will block all information coming from Twitter, including within the Twitter app on your phone.
By keeping an updated list of the sites you visit most frequently when you shouldn't, you can focus on what you need. Make sure not to block sites you need like your university portal or research database. Unless you read research articles for fun then, by all means, add a database or two to your blocklist.
Once a session is active, if you visit any website on the blocklist you'll be met with a butterfly on a green background. It's Freedom's nice way of saying that you do not have access.
Putting it All Together
Turning off most notifications permanently may change your life and learning to use Do Not Disturb modes efficiently can be very beneficial. Services like Freedom are not free but they are effective at helping us exert some control when we need it most. Unfortunately, it may be impossible to block all distractions but some are within our control. Using a combination of all of these options to block the worst offenders will go a long way toward helping you be more productive.
Let us know if you use any of these tools regularly or how you'd like to implement them and when.