3 Ways to Avoid Distractions and Be More Productive

Even the briefest distraction can throw us off, a new study finds. Here are a few ways to get yourself back on track and in the 'zone.'

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By Laura Entis

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You're at work, in the middle of tackling a project that requires intense focus. You're on a roll. You're in the zone. And then your phone rings, snapping you out of your flow. It's just a telemarketer, so the call takes less than a minute. But then you check your email, your Facebook, look at your Twitter feed and decide you must text your friend.

When you finally get back to work – two, five, maybe 10 minutes after the initial interruption – it's harder to focus. You pause to check your email again, peruse news sites and look at cute kitten pictures on Instagram. Consequently, you find yourself making more mistakes.

If that sounds familiar, you're far from alone. Unfortunately, our brains are finely attuned to distraction and even the briefest ones have the power to decrease our productivity, a recent study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology suggests. Indeed, the research found that a mere 2.8 second interruption more than doubled the number of errors study participants -- 300 undergraduate students -- made when asked to recall precisely where they were in a sequence of tasks.

"This contextual jitter— being taken out of the moment and landed back in a slightly different place may be why even momentary interruptions can seem jarring when they occur during a cognitively engaging activity," the authors speculate.

It's no wonder focused productivity is hard to achieve. We are constantly interrupted multiple times a day by a ringing phone, a Twitter update, an incoming email and a chatty colleague…the list goes on and on.

That said, it's not impossible to focus. Before chalking up a flow state as something that happens to other people, try these three strategies.

1. Block off "distraction free" chunks of time in your schedule. Be it 20 minutes or an hour, be rigorous. Hide your phone, email and Twitter feed. In fact, eliminate temptation by blocking out the Internet altogether.

There is a bevy of application out there including that help with distractions, including Anti-Social, SelfControl and Freedom. (Read more about Freedom: The Surprising Strategy One Man Used to Eliminate Procrastination)

2. Identify where and when you're most naturally productive. The majority of us can only truly focus for an average of six hours a week, says David Rock, co-founder of the NeuroLeadership Institute and author of Your Brain at Work (HarperCollins, 2009), so it's crucial that we use the time wisely.

Most people focus best in the morning or late at night, which means we generally aren't at our the most productive during the typical 9-to-5 work schedule. Rock recommends identifying where and when you focus best, then allocate your toughest tasks for those moments -- even if that means getting some work done outside of normal office hours. Read more: How to Train Your Brain to Stay Focused

3. Quash your inner child. Distraction and procrastination are intertwined. It's rare to find one without some trace of the other.

When we procrastinate, we're often simply succumbing to the distractions around us, putting off work in order to feel good now. The quickest way to break the habit? Realizing that for many, if not most, getting started on important tasks, has nothing to do with how we feel, says Tim Pychyl, a psychology professor at Carleton University in Ontario, Canada, and the author of Solving the Procrastination Puzzle

"I don't know where we learn this, but somehow we internalize the notion that our motivational state has to match the task at hand," he says. "We don't feel like doing something, and we think that's a reason."

He calls this six-year-old logic, and if we just grow up and realize that an unpleasant or difficult task will not be rendered magically more pleasant tomorrow, it will motivate us to concentrate now. Read more: Procrastinators: How to Fight Your Genes and Get Stuff Done Now

Laura Entis
Laura Entis is a reporter for Fortune.com's Venture section.

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