How to Dial Down the Digital Distraction When You Work

Freelancers spend a lot of time online. We search, surf, and even add our own marks to the vast World Wide Web by generating content of our own.

I remember in college how the library was the fountainhead of information. I scoured stacks of books to get a snippet or quote to use in a paper. Now I can do the same search in under five minutes online. A few hyperlinks later, I’ve found what I’m looking for.

As a medium for getting information, the Net is mostly a boon to freelancers. We have immediate access to an array of content. Ideas and information that were once scattered broadly in different places are now available through select portals. It’s a godsend, right?

Then, slowly it happens. You start to succumb to digital distraction. Freelancers all know the feeling. We’re reading an article on the Web. Embedded in the text are links to other related and referenced works. We click around, following a trail that loops, wanders, and leads to increasingly wide-reaching and scattered topics. I thought I was reading about freelance editing, and now I’m on a site plastered with goofy-looking cats. How did that happen?

Before we know it, we’ve spent hours staring at the screen and have gleaned nothing.

Famous psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi pioneered the word “flow” to describe a state in which we are no longer mindful of anything else except the moment and the actions we’re engaged in. When it comes to surfing the web, this idea of flow takes on a disturbing meaning. We get lost in the layers of information, jumping around from page to page. Before we know it, we’ve spent hours staring at the screen and have gleaned nothing.

Hmm. Maybe we should be worried. But becoming a Luddite freelancer and living off the grid isn’t an option. If the Internet is a ubiquitous part of how we live and work, then how do we shore up our defenses and prevent our brains from being overwhelmed by the medium?

Here are several ways to keep internet-induced distraction and digital disturbances at bay, and stay focused and productive as a freelancer.

Take Control of Your E-mail

I’ve often spent an entire day just responding to e-mails. Something pops up in my inbox and my immediate reaction is to click the message and crank out a response. This Pavlovian response to e-mail accumulates over time, until we can’t concentrate on anything else but checking the avalanche of messages.

To prevent e-mail from taking over your day, do the following:

  • Designate set times to check your e-mail. Do an inbox sweep at specific times of the day. I do a check in the morning, when I first sit down at my desk, at lunch, and right before I stop working for the day. During these periods, parse out the important messages and set aside 30 minutes to respond to those messages.
  • Write e-mails during down times. Find out when your productivity drops, and use these “low productivity” slots during the day to respond to messages. Don’t let writing e-mails interfere with the periods when you are deep into a project. Save that fuel and productivity for creative work that demands your full attention. Some e-mails are going to be longer than just a few lines. If I can’t cobble together a response in less than 5 minutes, I put that e-mail in my broader to-do list.
  • Shut off all automatic alerts. Nothing is more disruptive than those blinking lights, beeps, or pop-ups that tell you when new mail has arrived in your inbox. If anything is urgent, people will call you.

Tame the Web to be More Focused

If you’re online browsing for information or conducting research, it can easily turn into a mind trap, zapping your productivity as a freelancer.

Here are several tips to take control of your web surfing:

  • Avoid keeping news and social media sites open. News sites, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr– they all compete for our attention. Try limiting your visits to specific times of the day. I like to read the news while I’m taking a coffee break. If I decide to have lunch at my desk, I’ll hop on Facebook. Another helpful tip is to create an aggregated feed of all your favorite news sites. This helps you avoid wasting time “wandering” the net for headlines and updates.
  • Close your internet browser when you’re working. Circumvent this digital trap by keeping your browser offline. The precious seconds it takes to load the browser when you feel tempted to go online may just be the moment to make you conscious of the time you’re wasting. If your work requires you to be connected to the net on a continual basis (e.g. you’re a web developer testing real-time changes), try restricting yourself to three or four browser tabs for sites related to work. Close everything else.
  • Try online quarantine. For extreme measures, install Freedom, Anti-Social, or RescueTime, which puts a temporary barrier on your access to certain websites on the net. Add all your social media sites to the blacklist. If all else fails, simply switch off your modem and routers and throw them in the closet.
  • Use psychological tricks. Reward a long stretch of productivity with a visit to your favorite websites. Browsing the internet for short bursts as a reward for good work behavior can train you to be more disciplined in how you work. To the freelance writer who can’t get offline: “Write 2,000 words by lunch, and earn your Internet fix.”

Change Your Work Environment to Shore Up Productivity

In addition to the vortex of the Internet, we also get distracted by our work environment. If you work from home, household chores, snacks in the kitchen, and the talk shows on TV may be tempting you away from the desk. If you’re at the coffee shop, you may be feeling the urge to climb the walls because unruly patrons won’t stop talking on their mobiles.

  • Play a little music. Sometimes the emptiness of a hushed room can be distracting. Your thoughts buzz louder in the void and it can be disconcerting for many. Listen to music on your headphones or plug into a white noise machine to improve your concentration. Simply Noise, for example, offers a selection of tracks to drown out the oppressive silence or chatter of others in the room.
  • Split your work between two machines (this unusual tip comes from an article by Phil Graham). Do your work on one computer and save the causal web browsing and online access for a second computer. Splitting your set-up in this way makes you more conscious of what you do with your time online.

    According to Phil: “My rule is that I can spend as much time online as I want, as long as I do it on that computer. When I have to sit on the other side of the room to check email or browse the Web, I become much more aware of it. Sufficiently aware, in my case at least, that it’s hard to spend more than about an hour a day online.” When you’re at your unplugged “work” computer, it may feel strange to be disconnected, but it makes you realize how much time you waste when you’re on the net.

  • Ditch the home office and coffee shop and visit a local coworking space. Coworking provides independent workers, freelancers, and small startups a shared workspace with all the trappings of an office without the mind-numbing cubicle walls.

    Free Wi-Fi, coffee, and access to a community of fellow independents makes coworking spaces excellent places to work, but how does it stifle distraction? At a coworking space, there’s something about the vibe of other workers clacking away on their computers or talking about work with colleagues in muted tones that gets my energy levels up. I can’t be slacking off on Facebook when my neighbors are working so hard on their respective projects. I focus better just to look respectable. We all don’t want to look bad. Use this “peer pressure” to your advantage.

Photo credit: Some rights reserved by pricelessphotos.

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