Focus is a precious resource. There is only so much of it to go around, it can be elusive and difficult to maintain, and yet it is vital in getting things done. Many people struggle to hold it, me being one of them.
I frequently get sidetracked when I’m working on projects that need deep focus. But while doing some productivity research, I came across a YouTube video from the Financial Diet about something called a distraction journal that sounded like it could help me fix this.
So, I decided to try it.
The Distraction Journal Method
A distraction journal is a table or a journal used to record and be accountable for the distractions you experience while you are trying to get work done. The purpose is to help you acknowledge and dismiss distractions as they come to you, as well as make you more aware of what you do when you are becoming distracted.
One way you can keep a distraction journal is by listing out the activities you find yourself most frequently distracted by and putting them at the head of columns on a piece of paper or a notebook. In my case, I get distracted by scrolling social media, checking my phone, fidgeting, or staring into outer space.
Then, the idea is to get to work, and as soon as a distraction comes across your radar, you identify it and put a tally mark beneath the column for that distraction. If the distraction is a thought, reminder, or to-do, then you write it at the bottom of the sheet so that you don’t forget it by the time you finish your heads down work.
What I Learned From Keeping a Distraction Journal
I found out some pretty intriguing things about the nature of my distractions when I tried this for myself. The first thing I noticed was that most of my tallies fit underneath my “fidgeting” category. I was always messing around with something, whether it be opening my phone for no reason, pulling at hangnails or nail polish, or playing with my hair. These were distractions I was creating for myself subliminally and not influenced by external factors at all.
The second thing I noticed was that most of my distractions surface when I’m just starting a project. They fly in thick and fast, fracturing my focus and preventing me from getting into the flow. But once I get going and have been working for about 10 or 20 minutes, the distractions abate. I also noticed that the distractions that pulled me from work after I got into the flow state were external distractions, like the ding of a notification or someone coming to talk to me. I thought this was really weird, because it was almost like my distractions had compartmentalized themselves.
Then later, I had an interesting conversation with another writer on Instagram that gave me insight on this phenomena. They had just finished reading a book called Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life by Nir Eyal, and brought up that Eyal says distraction is often a way for your brain to escape feeling uncomfortable.
On his website, Eyal states:
The root cause of human behavior is the desire to escape discomfort. Even when we think we are seeking pleasure, we’re actually driven by the desire to free ourselves from the pain of wanting…
Distraction, then, is an unhealthy escape from bad feelings. Once you can recognize the role internal triggers like boredom, loneliness, insecurity, fatigue, and uncertainty play in your life, you can decide how to respond in a healthier manner.
That was it.
Part of the reason why my self-created distractions fly in thick and fast when I’m first getting started on a project is because my brain is looking for a way out of doing work, which can be very uncomfortable when I’m feeling unmotivated. But once I got my brain out of my way and slipped into flow, self-created distractions disappeared because my brain was engaged.
The final thing I noticed was that once I started acknowledging distractions as they came, I was able to see exactly how often I had the urge to engage with them and began to be able to control them. They also came less and less frequently. It was embarrassing to see how many tallies were in each distraction column when I started, and it made me want to be better at being less distractable. Once I made this connection, it was much easier to be productive and maintain focus while working on my projects.
Give the distraction journal a try for yourself.
The next time you sit down to do a project, keep a running list of the things you find yourself distracted by. Create your own table with your most common distractions and start tracking. What patterns do you notice within yourself? What is your top distraction? Is there anything you can do to head off or prevent these distractions? What are you able to get done as a result of keeping a distraction journal?
Let me know in the comments below! I would love to hear how it works for you.
Bui, Kimberly. How My “Distraction Journal” Doubled My Productivity, The Financial Diet, YouTube, 2 Jan. 2020, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A3qk1SMTTg4.
Eyal, N. (2020, January 09). The Most Important Skill of the Future is Being ‘Indistractable’. Retrieved August 19, 2020, from https://www.nirandfar.com/skill-of-the-future/