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I spend most of my working day on a computer and know that when I am "in the zone" I am extremely productive. Getting to "the zone" is very dependent upon the task itself and environmental distraction in the office (open plan, meetings etc.).

But I also suffer from "tools" like Gmail, Outlook and instant messaging - which are required for my work - but can also get in the way.

I know of suggested techniques like only doing email in the morning but they're mostly not directly applicable as I do need to respond to/process email more frequently than that.

What methods or tools can be used to limit the time on these tools and become more productive?

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I have started using rescuetime.com to identify where my time goes... Useful data, but another distraction. –  itj Jun 23 '11 at 7:08
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Well, get off stackexchange, to start. –  Brian Carlton Jun 24 '11 at 4:27
    
I just install rescuetime and Manictime on the same day and have used it for 3-4 days. I am absolutely in love with manictime, it shows you exactly to the second where your time went. Its pretty cool –  DMin Aug 2 '11 at 18:53
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@BrianCarlton It's not my fault! They gamified StackExchange. Curse Atwood and Spolsky. –  muntoo Dec 17 '11 at 20:39
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If your on a mac enviroment, maybe this site can give you some useful pointers : trentwalton.com/2011/09/20/unitasking –  Nils Munch Jan 26 '12 at 8:38
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17 Answers

up vote 48 down vote accepted
  • Email is very distracting if you are reactive to it. Set a schedule and stick to it: e.g. check emails not more than once an hour; determine the priority of replies/actions to be taken based on new email and only perform the critical ones right away, otherwise "park" them and get back to the task you were doing.
  • Make sure you have filters set up in your email to ensure that anything not so important does not get in the way, e.g. use Priority Inbox in Gmail and set filters for newsletters etc so these messages skip the Inbox. Then only check the rest of the email (which has been filtered) at set times (like start and/or end of the day).
  • Use Busy and/or Invisible in your IM. Only reply to important messages and again "park" not so important ones (this is easy with Google Talk/Gmail because you can come back to the chat later).
  • Separate work and personal IM to eliminate friendly distraction.
  • RescueTime is great but don't get obsessed with it. Again, check it only on a regular schedule, i.e. at the start/end of the day/week.

Overall, the best thing you can do is stop being reactive to distractions. Acknowledge, park and come back later when you have time (alloted for this kind of catch up work).

Bonus: If you really want to make your Gmail inbox to be as un-interruptive as possible then set all labels (expect for vitally urgent) to be hidden so you are not bothered by unread counts of other less important labels.

P.S.: I think it's almost a must that you clear out the Inbox to begin with and don't have any unread email in it so you are not tempted to read unread emails from the past. Once you have filters, etc then unread email of lesser importance will be safely hidden from you until the time you can get to it.

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I agree with these suggestions, but wanted to comment that you may find telling someone about being distracted helpful. I find that when I'm in a distraction-riddled rut, just making a comment to a co-worker like, "Geez. It's sooo hard to work right now -- I can't believe it!," can be a huge help. Otherwise, I can enter a "death spiral" and waste more time because I'm upset that I already wasted so much time to begin with... –  Hendy Jun 24 '11 at 5:22
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In e-mail-addicted environments that use Outlook, I turn off all the "new mail" indicators: the sound, the toast notification, the little notification area envelope. The only way I know I've got a new e-mail is to open Outlook now and then. This gets rid of the "Something shiny!" aspect of the notifications. –  Kyralessa Mar 11 at 15:11
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SelfControl on a Mac provides quite a robust way to avoid distracting websites for a given period of time.

http://selfcontrolapp.com/

Its a little bit harder to circumvent than a browser extension, which can be easily disabled. Have used it and would highly recommend it.

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There has been some research done that says that getting to 20 minutes focused on a single task/job is about the amount of time you need to really get focused and effective. So going between tasks every few minutes is super non-productive. Ever since I read that I've been very aware of the "20 minute rule" when starting a project and once I get going it's very easy to stay focused, knowing I have at least 20 minutes committed to whatever I'm doing. And of course, going longer becomes much easier once you put in 20.

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That seems similar in style to pomodoro. Needs that initial focus ! –  itj Jul 18 '13 at 13:01
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Here's a technique I've developed without being aware of it:

Multiple Browsers.

Not browser windows or tabs but actual different browsers, such as Chrome, Firefox, Opera, IE, etc.

I use Opera for personal stuff, personal gemail, bookmarks, logins, etc.

I use Firefox for work, work gmail, work bookmarks, work logins, etc.

This one simple thing makes my online life a TON easier especially as I am usually in a shared office.

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First of all: clean up. I clean my desk, desktop and web-browser as well (I close facebook, email, twitter and other distracting tabs). The pomodoro technique and a paper to-do list are very helpful. Additionally, I convince myself that the work I am doing is valuable and interesting as well as I set myself a reward for completed job/working day. I believe that the right motivation is our immunization against distractions and helps us to achieve higher productivity.

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If you're using a Mac, there are many apps out there which I find extremely helpful for productivity, and to stop the computer from wasting your time.

Generally speaking, I find this Mac.Appstorm list pretty helpful: 15 Mac Apps to Help You Focus and Work Productively

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Turn off automatic email notifications so that you never are distracted by incoming email. Since you are required to check email regularly, set an alarm at say, four times each day.

Then perhaps you shouldn't feel so guilty about doing other things at work: check out the article Web Surfing Helps at Work, Study Says.

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  1. Analyze what waste your time
  2. Keep disconnecting from Internet. Whether you are reading online journals, news, study materials, or anything else, download their offline copy. And read from them.
  3. Make a rule to be away from social sites like facebook, google+, twitter. Access them once in a week or on weekend only.
  4. Use Google calendar like utility which can remind you for an event. It can be synced with facebook events and can update you by sending SMS. No need to check facebook daily yo know about any event.
  5. Filter mails in gmail. I heard that you can set SMS reminder for mails. Set it for important mails. So you'll not have to sign in.

Out of computer: 1. Keep your mobile away. Or keep it on silent (excludes important number like your boss, or parents)

Remember: working longer on computer affect your eyes, health, and your productivity as well. So take rest of 10-15 mins after every 1-2 hours.

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I'm surprised nobody has mentioned simplynoise.com.

The oscillating brown noise, which sounds like sea waves, blocks everything out and helps me to relax and focus. It's even better than music--but only if you have good headphones.

It also works wonders to help babies sleep. ;)

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On a Mac or unix system you can block time-sucking websites at the system level by adding

127.0.0.1 www.nytimes.com
127.0.0.1 www.reddit.com
127.0.0.1 www.otherdistractingsites.com

to your /etc/hosts file. This tells your computer that the website is located on your computer. Since it's not, your browser will fail to load anything if you try to navigate to that page. A few sites are more complicated to block using this method. For instance, to effectively block facebook I had to add this to my /etc/hosts:

127.0.0.1 www.facebook.com
127.0.0.1 static.ak.fbcdn.net
127.0.0.1 www.static.ak.fbcdn.net
127.0.0.1 login.facebook.com
127.0.0.1 www.login.facebook.com
127.0.0.1 fbcdn.net
127.0.0.1 www.fbcdn.net
127.0.0.1 fbcdn.com
127.0.0.1 www.fbcdn.com
127.0.0.1 static.ak.connect.facebook.com
127.0.0.1 www.static.ak.connect.facebook.com

To unblock any of these urls, you have to reopen the file and comment them out with a # character. I prefer this method to browser plugins because it is so easy to circumvent a plug-in by simply opening up a different browser.

For writing or coding, do all your main editing and composing in a full screen text editor. Even if your final formatting will be done in a WYSIWYG editor like Word or an email client, this spartan computing environment is all you really need for most tasks. I spend ~70% of my tube-time with just TextMate and Terminal because they are all I need to get things done.

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I agree with others that tracking your time is fundamental to the solution. Here's a really crazy time-tracker (it works by randomly sampling you, so it's sort of passive like RescueTime in that you don't have to remember to log your time, but also doesn't try to automatically infer what you're doing based on what windows are in the foreground, since that's wrought with problems) that you might like, called TagTime: http://messymatters.com/tagtime

[disclosure: TagTime was my and Bethany Soule's idea]

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This is a major issue for me as well. I'm still trying to improve my concentration because I will get distracted by anything, but here's what I do so far:

Music - I find when I'm listening to music I'm much more productive. It helps that it blocks out coworkers and background noise, but just in general I'm more likely to focus on my work rather than goof off. I think I'm different in that I can listen to almost any music and still concentrate so if this is hard for you, try classical or other instrumental music.

Leechblock - This is the only "internet blocker" program that I've found that works for me. Nothing for Chrome works, unfortunately, because it's too easy to hit shift-esc, bring up the (Chrome) task manager, and kill them. So I have to use Firefox, and Leechblock is just hard enough to get around that it usually works for me.

Pomodoro - I use a simple variant of the Pomodoro method - 50 minutes on, 10 minutes off, and that's it. Basically Leechblock only allows me to access anything non-work related for the first 10 minutes of every hour. I find this is better than 25 minutes on, 5 minutes off, because say I need to write a personal email - I may not be able to finish that in 5 minutes.

More details on my Firefox setup: I have two profiles - one personal one, one work one. The bookmarks on the personal profile are synced with those at home with xmarks. Leechblock on this profile is what I described above - everything is blocked (with very few non-distracting exceptions, like Pandora for example) at all times except the first 10 minutes of each our. The work profile only has work-related bookmarks. Leechblock on this profile blocks everything not work-related at all times.

So when I want to go to facebook, gmail, etc. - I have to use the personal profile, and it has to be in the first 10 minutes of an hour. Yes, I can open Firefox's profile manager, create a new profile, and use that, but doing that, combined with the fact that I have to log into all of these sites (e.g. gmail) over again make it just cumbersome enough that it usually stops me from doing it. But if I really need to quickly send a personal email, then I can do it.

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Try the following:

  1. Virtual Desktops - like Deskspace that comes from Otaku Software. Allows you to get what Linux always had - multiple desktops.

I use it to move mail clients, messengers, browsers etc. to different virtual windows. If you don't see it, you don't get interrupted

  1. Use full-screen editors like OMMWriter. Comes with its own "easy listening" sound bytes and essentially removes distractions. LifeHacker has carried many software examples that let you get a full screen editor
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+1 for virtual desktops. It's been very effective for me to keep a 'personal/distractions' desktop and a 'focus on work' desktop. –  DuckMaestro Aug 27 '13 at 20:08
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Those are things that very helpful for me:
1.pomodoro technique and pomodoro timer
2."cans" (big headphones) and music
3.planning

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What works well for me is the Pomodoro method, which forces you to focus for 25 mins, see: http://www.pomodorotechnique.com/

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Thanks for the answer. Wasn't conscious of having heard about this before. –  itj Aug 17 '11 at 6:10
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I like using the Chrome extension called StayFocusd. You can add your time-waster websites to a list, and any time you spend on those websites comes from a shared pool of minutes. Once you've hit your limit for the day, it blocks access to those sites.

https://chrome.google.com/webstore/detail/laankejkbhbdhmipfmgcngdelahlfoji

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StayFocusd is about the best thing that's ever happened to me. LeechBlock is the analog for any Firefox users. –  Hendy Jun 24 '11 at 5:20
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There is also Chrome Nanny, which is much more flexible and LeechBlock-like. Unfortunately though, all Chrome extensions are worthless to me because it's just too easy to hit shift-esc to bring up the Chrome task manager, and kill the processes for the extensions. There is probably some way to disable the task manager though... –  Jer Aug 16 '11 at 21:42
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I am trying this out... +1 in the mean time. –  muntoo Dec 17 '11 at 20:45
    
pomodoro is the best chrome plugin which helps you –  srk Jan 22 '13 at 14:03
    
Thanks, I have downloaded and turned it on. I have added this site in the block list, but it seems to be not working. As you can see I still can access th –  Farticle Pilter Oct 1 '13 at 8:16
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This is a topic relevant to me too. For me I indeed think there are also technical tools lacking. Because I want to block internet access "smartly" - or at all for the first part. I didn't find a reliable, cross-computer solution that didn't slow down my network speed (like inbuilt router features seem to do).

For IM, I don't use it anymore, I only use skype and mostly am in "busy" mode, even if the "jumping" unread msg/calls counter also makes you crazy. But in this case just remove it from the visible tray part for the time being. Also, ask your coworkers/company to use a dedicated work IM client, like Microsoft Lync! If they don't want Lync (I can understand), just say "x will be our work IM", e.g. Meebo or Pidgin or whatever. Instead of RescueTime I prefer "ManicTime" by the way. Even though I rarely review my times (it's too confusing in ManicTime) and they have some basic issues with logging multiple actions/categories after one another (it's basically impossible, you only log "tags").

How does Outlook get in your way in comparison to GMail? This all depends on your (company and personal) setup! As long as Outlook doesn't crash (it does for me all the time), aren't both similarly distracting? The answer to the question how to limit the time: Decide to limit the time and execute ruthless discipline! It's all a mind game, so sadly you'll have to fix your mind first. ;)

And concerning the e-mails maybe a golden tip: Separate external and internal e-mails! Maybe additionally separate "boss" and "infantry" e-mail. Thus if you get kinda unimportant (or CC:) stuff, mostly all the internal chatter that is distracting and sadly still distributed by e-mail, it will end up getting filtered into a folder you could clean out / process daily after your regular work hours! Thus you still can get "push e-mail" from all external parties (which you can't filter effectively anyways), while keeping yourself afloat the internal company chatter! Of course it would help if your superiors would also ask for and implement stricter e-mail and IM rules! Because otherwise people won't change their behavior. As IM is mostly unmonitored, this is a special risk. Here you should just try to be as professional as possible and act accordingly (make this clear) towards your IM chat partner.

Except for that, you could set your smartphone to "flight mode"...while I'm missing a "flight mode" button for my PC ;) as I won't unplug my LAN cable all the time or mess around in the network settings. (And because I'd need a flight mode that allows internet radio, which helps me concentrate on my work!)

So as a last tip, maybe think about which music would make you most concentrated, gather a few internet radio stations with such music, buy yourself a proper noise-isolating (bluetooth) on/over-ear headset and you'll be immediatly much more concentrated. (Assuming you're not a call-center agent. :P)

Also an open-door policy and maximum meeting time rules (esp. for such "open-door meetings"!) might help reduce the stupid e-mail ping pong, as people will just show by.

Last but not least: http://sentenc.es/, e.g.: http://five.sentenc.es/

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+1 for having to fix the mind. I found this answer is helpful, however it needs better formatting and organisation (like divide the tips per list, not a bunch of paragraphs) so that it'll be clearer/easier to read. Just my $0.02. –  Arie Jun 24 '11 at 6:42
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Hi Arie! Wow I wrote this answer over 11 months ago and I think it was one of my first SE posts ever. I will improve on it soon, in the hopes it will be useful for someone. –  grunwald2.0 May 8 '12 at 19:57
    
You're right. There's nothing special about outlook as a distraction compared to gmail... but it is a work tool so harder not to check at least a few times a day. –  itj Jul 18 '13 at 13:04
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