6 Areas Where You Can Eliminate Distractions


In that post-New Year's resolution malaise that sets in at the end of January, I'm noticing an obvious thing I didn't think of before — distractions can break the best intentions. Coupling my distractions with an addictive personality, and I find myself on the brink of task-mastering disaster.

Thirty days after my resolution to be more productive and somehow exercise myself down a few sizes at the same time, I'm beginning to notice an awful pattern. Left to my own devices of sloth, it takes me too long to do simple things. Productivity-wise, I'm really no better than a 14-year-old boy staring at a screen of video games for 10 hours who then sits at his school desk Monday morning completely ill-prepared for the week. (See also: 5 Efficient Ways to Boost Productivity)

If admitting you have a problem is the first step to recovery, then I'm ready to take the first steps. Some people like to start out the year by uncluttering their living spaces or cleaning out their cars. For others, what we really need to do is to make some space in our bodies and minds. What is it we want to do with this year? What would we like to see by the end? What can we cut? 

1. Volunteering

Perhaps it's my Catholic upbringing or my overarching sense that when something needs to be done, I'm just the person to do it, but I tend to over-volunteer. Do this with me: Pick one or two things a year you are going to volunteer for. Have strict control over yourself to make sure you don't overextend your time, and for goodness sake, don't volunteer to be in charge. Volunteer for something that has a beginning and an end, but nothing that's not fully defined. A good friend of mine has this nasty habit of thinking that the world will end for our children if we don't volunteer to be coaches, room mothers, advocates, and the like. While yes, we are providing cool things for the kiddies, we're also teaching them that moms should sacrifice themselves on the altars of their kids' childhoods. That's not a good lesson.

2. Social Networking

On my honor, I will try to stay off Facebook and Twitter; how about you? Talk about time wasters! Go delete all those game applications right now. Don't even finish reading this sentence. Stick your mother's voice in your head for a moment: "No, you may not have dessert until you've finished everything that's piled on your desk." If you can't break the online social networking habit, then at least establish a LinkedIn account instead and be more professional about your online time.

If you work from home, the social networking distractions are often traded for in-the-flesh ones. Develop a loner mentality. Writer Ariel Gore talks about this in her great writing manual How to be a Famous Writer Before You're Dead. The writer at home is an easy target for lonely friends and neighbors. Don't fall into the trap that friends set for you. Remind them nicely that just because you're home, it does not mean you can walk their dogs or pick up something from the pharmacy!

3. Dieting and Exercising

I envy thin people; I really do. But those not thin by genetics have to work at it. They have to spend all sorts of time and energy thinking about it. Having spent January dieting, I can tell you that all I did was think about food, which left very little time to think about anything else. And don't get me started on all those fiberous trips to the bathroom.

Don't give up on diet and exercise, but be smarter about it. I'm following writer Michael Ventura's advice when he said only do exercise that takes you somewhere. I'm cutting out all non-walking, martial arts, and dance-related exercise (physical activities that require no expensive equipment to pull off). Water doesn't cost any time or money if you have a tap and a thermos. The dieting is perplexing, but I'm starting to think that instead of following diet book makers' 101 tantalizing recipes, we who need time might better opt for fewer choices in food options — wasn't there that guy that ate two Subway sandwiches a day and nothing else? Former California governor Gray Davis was said to eat the same tuna sandwich every day. I had an aunt who made fixings for tacos on Sundays, rice, and beans, and then that was it for the week. Everything was ready-to-go in the fridge in Ziploc bags. There were no surprises, and she expended minimal energy during the week.

4. Working

I teach community college. This semester I've taken advantage of the Internet like never before. Why was I still grading longhand when I could set up quizzes online to grade automatically? Now my students have their results back faster, and I'm not spending Sunday night bleary-eyed. My breaks between classes (I have two hours between) have now become appointment time — be it student-related or a trip to the doctor.

But saving time at work isn't limited to teachers taking advantage of technology — although there is a big lesson here. Go online and seek out things you normally create for work. Why reinvent the wheel when you don't have to? Teachers can take great advantage of swapping lesson plans and quizzes. When my husband has to implement something at work, he always researches online beforehand to see who is dong something similar to find out what the results are. He also answers all emails at home and on the way to work (he takes the bus), so that when he's there he's not bogged down in communication and is ready to work instead.

5. Communicating

Unless it's your grandmother or for your livelihood, do you really need to talk to the person on the phone? Do you need your phone to be set so you can hear every time someone has left you a message? Probably not. Email the person back instead, and that saves you from long, drawn-out conversations you don't have time for. Turn your email program off when you are working, or turn down the sound so you don't hear the ding of receiving mail. However many times a day you check your mail, cut it in half. I'm down to morning and night. Twice!

6. Running Around

Perhaps my maternal grandmother was actually right about something. For 80 years, that woman could not be reached on a Friday morning because she did all of her errands (banking, post office, grocery shopping, etc.) on Fridays between 9 a.m. and 1 p.m. That's it for the entire week. By dedicating only those hours of time and having everyone in the family know that that's what she'd be doing on Fridays, we've all known not to call. She taught herself to stretch food to the end of the week and plan ahead so nothing runs out. I, of course, do errands whenever I'm in the car. I wonder how much more would be accomplished if I stuck to four hours a week instead of anytime I need something.

Join me on these time experiments for March. Let's see if we aren't more productive.

What are you doing to be smarter about your time?

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Andrea Karim's picture

You know, I have to say that I actually eliminated my worst time-killer completely on accident. I used to spend too much time on Gawker - I was a regular commenter with several hundred followers. And then they did a redesign and ruined the whole thing.

Now, I get SO much more done, and I'm not busy trying to think of horrible things to say about, for instance, Glee. Well, OK, Glee deserves it, and I do miss the rewards of having other Gawkerites think that I am funny. But it really wasn't productive in any way, and only served a very negative part of my ego.

I can't say that I did anything right in the situation - Gawker did the work for me by making it impossible to find anything.

Meg Favreau's picture

I'll admit to checking my email more often than I should, but my biggest communication success was to stop logging into AIM and Google Chat. I know too many people who don't understand that an away message that says "Working" means I am actually working.

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