Have you ever noticed when you’re trying to finish a project – whether it’s at work or at home – distractions pop up everywhere? One of them captures your interest and you change your focus. Your productivity goes down the tubes. Then you have to expend a ton of energy getting back on track? This has been happening to me a lot lately, so I decided to write about it.

For example, the other day I was hard at work writing follow up emails to some clients when I saw a notification that I’d received an email. So, I checked the email, then completed a task related to the email and I was off to the races – away from what I needed to do, totally distracted – and even worse, it took me a while to realize I was off track!

So many distractions!

Yes, I know all about to-do lists, calendars, to-do apps, productivity this, and productivity that. But I still fall into the snare of those distractions! It’s so frustrating. It takes so much energy to stay focused, even when I’m working on something I like.

I think staying focused is hard because I keep having to decide to stay focused. It’s not a binary thing: focused vs. not focused. Instead, it’s a recurring refrain in my head – stay focused, don’t stray from what you’re working on. I know that engaging in that mental conversation over and over is draining and causes decision fatigue because I have to decide to stay focused each time I hear that refrain.

Decision Fatigue

Decision fatigue is the result of making too many decisions like what to wear, what to focus on, what to tackle on this project, what to tackle on that project, what to eat, whether or not to check email or social media. When we’re in the grips of decision fatigue we default to making easy decisions like eating fast food, or wearing those comfy pants to work, or doing our favorite work instead of the work that needs to be done. There’s no strategic thinking going on.

Notice I didn’t say having to make too many decisions. It’s choosing to make too many decisions. Constantly thinking “Should I do this thing or that thing?” wears your brain out, saps your physical energy, and gets between you and creativity. And you can imagine what it does to real productivity (as opposed to busy-ness)!

So, how do we avoid distractions and making too many decisions? We build productive habits by setting boundaries, creating strategies ahead of time for handling those distractions, and tracking our progress. By definition, habits are settled practices, things we don’t think about doing, we just do them. In the last couple of years I created a habit of making my bed every day. I realized that I felt better when my bed was made.

1. Boundaries.

First, we create boundaries around what we will and will not do. For example, I set a boundary about answering my phone (I learned this from a friend). I return messages three times a day. I don’t have to decide whether or not to answer the phone because I know I’m going to return messages instead. This boundary lets me ignore the phone. I use the strategy of silencing my phone to help me enforce this particular boundary.

I’ve also set boundaries around checking my email (both business and personal). I check it twice a day. I turn off notifications for incoming emails to enforce this boundary. So, I don’t spend any time thinking about answering email.

Notice that I have to enforce these boundaries so I don’t encroach on them? Other people aren’t my problem; I am! Every time I honor my boundaries, I guard my creativity and I get closer to creating a habit that will ward off decision fatigue.

2. Strategies

Second, we develop strategies for handling distractions. I learned one of my favorite strategies from someone I went to high school with. I decide what to wear the night before. It’s a habit that saves me from going back and forth in the morning about what to wear. The back and forth inevitably leads to too many decisions, which leads to distractions like “Where is that black sweater I always wear with this dress?” and suddenly realizing that I’m running late!!

Another strategy that I’m working on turning into a habit is to not buy in to a false sense of urgency. If there are items I need to deal with in the emails and messages I receive during the day, I don’t automatically address them immediately. Instead, I add them to my to-do list and age them. Of course there are times when I have to respond to something immediately, but they are rare. By aging the tasks instead of reacting to them immediately, I find my responses are more effective.

It’s been really hard to adopt this strategy because I had to overcome an ingrained habit. Throughout my varied careers, I’ve answered a lot of phones. Since this was before answering machines, cell phones, and email I needed to answer the phone on the first ring. So, I find myself fighting the urge to answer the phone on the first ring and email immediately. I think I’m winning on this one – only because I can physically turn them off.

3. Track progress.

Finally, we need to track our progress. There’s an old productivity saying, attributed to Peter Drucker, that we manage what we monitor. So I track how many things get done on my to-do list each day, each week, and each month.

I also put a tick mark and a quick note (max 2 words) at the top of my list every time I catch myself getting distracted. The tick mark  tells me how often I realize I’m distracted and the note helps me identify my most seductive distractions – the ones that I find trapping me over and over.

When we track our progress, we raise our awareness of the number of distractions we face daily. We realize faster that we’re distracted. We also see our wins in black and white. Since we’re tracking the number of times we catch ourselves being distracted, we can watch that number go up. Then, as we continue to raise our awareness, the numbers start going down as we refuse to be distracted.

When we corral distractions using boundaries, strategies, and measurement, we increase our creativity and our energy. And we become more productive. We’re no longer at the mercy of those destructive distractions. We take control of our time and harness our energy to achieve even more amazing things.