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There are a few apps (like Rescuetime) that track what you're doing with your computer. And there are some tools that can help you when you decide you want to eliminate distrcations (StayFocused Chrome plugin), Selfcontrol. And approaches that can help too (e.g. Pomodoro, full-screen emacs).

What I'd like help with more specifically is fragmentation. Too often I find that when I am performing a difficult task (writing, coding), my brain wants to switch off by moving to other tasks (eg email/internet/etc - which sometimes are legit, but often are unnecessary).

I would like to be constrained so that I keep my focus on my app, but when I try to switch apps (using command-tab), this starts a 5 minute timer & returns me to my document. At the end of the 5 minute timer a popup asks me if I still want to switch apps (if I still feel the need to).

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Thanks - all the suggestions are interesting. I'm aware that mental training & being strict with yourself can help things. I'm explicitly looking for software to help this (similarly to the wakenshakeapp.com alarm clock creating a situation where you have no other choice but to wake up). –  Yannick Wurm Jul 4 '13 at 16:00
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5 Answers

This reminds me the Penn&Teller episode on 12 step programs. And the same solution apply: use the 1-step program to do that task. Just exit your mail, skype, FB, turn off your phone. And don't turn them back on until done. Or the sun set.

Yes, it harsh. But if you leave the distraction-generators around you just invite opportunities to do something else.

Just like I'm typing here instead of doing what is rolling ahead of me for a week...

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If you use Pomodoro correctly, interruptions should be irrelevant: you will not be doing anything else until the period ends, so any interruptions should be ignored.

If you are easily distracted, turn off notifications as @Balog says.

At the end of the day this is a behaviour you need to learn, but until then, make it easier by just removing the extraneous noise.

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When you find yourself being distracted by another task, make a note of that task, drop it in your inbox, and continue with what you were doing. When you are ready to switch tasks by intention, rather than by interruption, process that note and add it to your task list(s) in the appropriate place. With a little practice, you'll find that the interruptions become less, and you'll trust that your task list really has the actions you need to take more.

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For me, it also works to start with easy to achieve goals, like: focus on specific task for 10 minutes. If you can manage this, make sure to reward yourself by doing something you like (read a blog, take a look at the weather, whatever). After this, try to stretch the time to focus. Record your successes. You'll discover what duration works best for you. This is different for everyone and longer is not always better. Remember that the ability to focus is comparable to a muscle: you have to train and take care of it!

So:

  • Set easy to achieve goals
  • Create a built in reward system for your goals
  • Record your successes, so you'll discover your most optimal time of focus

Good luck!

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We may tackle the problem by using techniques that help us monitor or enforce focusing on one application when working on the computer. Most answers were about that. But there is a complementary solution, and for me, the most effective and sustainable solution to the distractions problem, especially on the long term.

Human beings have the tendency to resist doing the top priority and most helpful activities and go instead to something else, no matter how good that is. Stephen Covey says "the enemy of the best is the good".

As this is a big topic to tackle it fully here, I recommend to read books and articles about this topic such as Steven Pressfield's book The War of Art describes at length the force of resistance that humans have toward the top priority tasks.

In summary, it is important to see the problem of distraction as a fundamental human challenge, not a side problem that some happen to be inflicted by it. All people has the resistance force toward their top priority tasks. And they might be spending all their times doing really good things.

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