Developing the 7 digital habits: Habit 4 – Don’t get distracted


Distractions, they are all around. Perhaps even reading this blog is a distraction?

Back in 2009 I wrote a blog post with the title, “I could spend hours doing this…”, in which I went through all the distractions that were available then — and there were a lot. I revisited that post in 2017 and the list was even longer, so perhaps I am due a 2018 version. In the older posts, the list of things that I could be doing included: checking emails, scanning Flipboard, browsing LinkedIn, etc.  Each of them has some value, but these are not the things that will make a difference to my day, month or year.

The word most often associated with getting things done is productivity, which is defined as “the effectiveness of productive effort, as measured in terms of the rate of output per unit of input,” hence it’s often defined as a percentage. In certain spheres, productivity is relatively easy to understand: If I used to produce 10 loaves of bread in an hour and now produce 20 for the same effort, I’ve increased my productivity by 100%. In an increasing number of modern workplaces, the definition of productivity is more complex, because we are not producing a box full of widgets or baking bread, but we are producing — and being better at producing what we produce should be our aim for this digital habit. Distractions take us away from that producing.

In Habit 1 we thought about how we seek first to understand by finding and filtering information. This is an important and productive venture, but not if it’s just a set of distractions. In Habit 2 we thought about managing our brand, another productive activity, but not if we do it all day.

Turning down the noise to turn up productivity

So how do we avoid distractions and put first things first?

The way I like to think about this digital habit is that it’s about turning down the noise. Sometimes it’s actual auditory noise that needs turning down, sometimes it’s digital noise. There’s no point in trying to get focused in a world that is full of noise.

You have a choice about how much digital noise you let into your life, but it takes effort to manage it out. Most apps will install in a way that makes them noisy. That’s their job after all — to grab your attention. Your job is to make sure that you only give an app the attention it deserves, and I’m including email in that. All of the notifications that these apps use are deliberately designed to grab our attention, and once they have done that, they have distracted us away from our first thing. Coming back from a distraction takes time, so it’s better to avoid it in the first place. Don’t fool yourself that looking down at your smartphone for two seconds isn’t a distraction. It is.

All of the major operating systems have some kind of notification center, and that’s a great place to start. As an example, on my iPhone I try to go into Settings and Notifications on a regular basis to see what everything is set to. Doing this is always an eye-opener. The list of applications that are wanting to distract me and the ways in which they are wanting to do it, is always much bigger than I expect. Tuning this list is proactive noise reduction with huge value: Do you really want to get distracted by all of those news apps? What piece of news could be more valuable that achieving your first thing today? Is it really valuable to get alerts about incoming emails? What email is that urgent? Do you really want those alerts on all of your devices, at the same time?

How to motivate yourself to put first things first

There is also a motivational side to this digital habit of putting the first things first. Personally, I’ve tried all sorts of different regimes to organize my schedule and to get some of that focus. I’ve tried the Time Management Institute (TMI) approach, I’ve tried the Getting Things Done (GTD) approach, I’ve tried The 4 Disciplines of Execution (4DX) and I’m currently trying something that’s not any of these involving a productivity planner. Each of these approaches has stuck for a time, but eventually become redundant. Some of this has to do with my personality, but some of it is due to more fundamental issues of motivation. I don’t regret trying each of these schemes because I think I’ve learned something from each one.

One of the core lessons is that there is no point in trying to think about all the things that need to be done, because that’s just wasting valuable energy managing that list. Instead, it’s important to focus on one to five things for a particular day and to make progress on those. Even then it’s important to focus on one at a time. Don’t try to convince yourself that you can multi-task, because you can’t. Sometimes switching between things is unavoidable, but the aim is to keep this to a minimum.

I’m easily distracted so, despite this being a blog about digital habits, I feel like I should confess that my current productivity management process uses a pencil and a piece of paper. Using paper is the ultimate way of avoiding distractions in our digitally noisy world and my way of focusing in on my first things.


Graham Chastney is a senior principal technologist in DXC. He has worked in the arena of workplace technology for nearly 30 years, starting as a sysprog supporting IBM DISOSS and DEC All-in-1. Latterly Graham has been working with DXC’s customers to help them understand how they exploit the changing world of workplace technology. Graham lives with his family in the United Kingdom.

Twitter: @grahamchastney

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