Two incredibly simple tools to manage distractions and increase your focus

Note: This article was originally published on April 22, 2014

Within Startup Village team, we did an exercise to list out and understand some of the distractions that we face that gets in the way of us being productive and thereby hampering execution. The list had the usual suspects like noise in office, phone calls, interruptions from others, unscheduled meetings, air conditioning not to comfortable levels etc. In this post, I wanted to bring your attention to two distractions that showed up in almost every list. Our constant struggle to keep in check social media and other online distractions.

Let me provide a bit more perspective so that there is more context for a healthy discussion. Some people and organizations view social media as sort of a bad thing; going so far as to ban social media and video sites from networks. Let me go to make it clear upfront that I do not hold any such views. On the contrary, I believe that social media is a very valuable tool and that too from a professional perspective. First and foremost, it satisfies the basic human need to connect. For me personally, it now serves as my prime method of how I discover relevant information, content & connections. Most importantly, it also provides us with the much needed relaxation and enjoyment which is essential to us being more productive overall. The role of rest, relaxation and enjoyment to overall productivity and satisfaction levels deserves way more attention that it is presently accorded in our professional settings.

So at Startup Village, we do not have any policy restricting social media access or provide usage guidelines as to how they need to be using social media. We in turn have decided to trust our people and adopt the stance that it’s a matter of choice of the individual to decide how he or she wishes to use social media. More choice and power to the individual.

My point of discussion of this blog is to one of the suggestions that came up during the course of the discussion of how best we can manage the aspect of social media and other online activities being a distraction (whether it was considered a distraction or not was purely based on self-reported data). I’d also like to bring to attention how some solutions get more general consensus only because its aligned to conventionally held thoughts and beliefs. Such over simplified understanding of the problem need not necessarily capture the actual nature of the problem even. The solution that I am referring to here also has the same nature that I just alluded to here. And the solution is perspective that came up to the problem by the group was self-control.

In some sense it’s a correct usage as well. It does boil down to self control after all. The problem is in that self control is a tad overrated. Tim Ferris uses the exact words in his blog and there are enough literature on the science behind will power that would be useful to understanding the context of these statements. Social media impulses are akin to an addiction (there is enough literature to substantiate this) and the solution lies in effecting a behavioural change. And while driving behavioural change by yourself is not impossible, it is only pragmatic (and easier as well) to consider that you will need help, from other people and / or tools and methods, to effectively drive a behaviour change. Reading up literature on science of habit formation will be really helpful to understanding this better.

The way to go about it is to have a plan. It boils down to consciously deciding when and how you engage in social media. The key is in you actively deciding your schedule or not the other way round where the social media sites or your own fleeting impulses end up doing that for you.

In this context, Im proceeding to talk about two Chrome add ons that could be particularly helpful. One is this addon named “Strict Workflow” and the other is this addon named “StayFocusd”. Both these tools can assist you in sticking to the plan that you have charted out for yourself.

1. Strict Workflow

Strict Workflow adopts the “Pomodoro” approach. This approach is based on the fact that we do our best work in short bursts followed by a scheduled break. Strict workflow provides you a countdown to this effect and alerts you that its time for your break when the block of allotted time is over. This tool is particularly helpful when you are trying to focus and is working towards making progress on a bigger or more complex problem. The tool becomes all the more effective given its feature that it wont let you access preselected sites during the course of those work periods. The only way to kill it before it hits it time limit is to uninstall the plug in apparently. And hence the name “Strict” Workflow as well!

2. Stay Focused

This tools lets you select websites and allot how much time you want to use it on a day. Say you can select FB and allot it 10 mins a day. What then happens is that once your cumulative usage in a day crossed 10 mins, it will block that site for the remaining part of the day. A complement or an alternative to this is the “RescueTime” application which will provide you with data on the amount of time you spend on various activities and reports based on that. It is a desktop application and hence tracks usage of desktop based applications as well if I recall well. I believe a premium subscription will also provide you with the options to block sites also. Tim Ferris, the author of Four Hour work week and sort of the posterboy for productivity hacks, speaks very highly about this application in his books and various other blogs articles by the way.