Focus On This Podcast

109. Defeat Productivity Enemies with This Two-Pronged Attack



You get to the end of the day, only to realize it wasn’t nearly as productive as you wanted it to be. You got caught responding to urgent requests from others. You spent too long responding to emails. You jumped from task to task as each one entered your mind. How do you defeat these daily interruptions and distractions? What can you do to get on track for a productive last quarter?

In this episode, Courtney, Verbs, and Blake walk you through a series of strategies to get the interruptions and distractions under control. You don’t have to let your time get hijacked. You can design your days rather than drifting through them and, in turn, make greater gains toward your goals.

In this episode, you’ll discover—

  • The difference between interruptions and distractions
  • How to head off others’ interruptions by signaling your unavailability
  • Why you should make an actual list of what distracts you
  • The value of building regular breaks into your schedule


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Episode Transcript

Verbs: There’s this feeling I’m sure we have all experienced at one point in our many weeks of the year. You get to the end of the day only to realize it wasn’t nearly as productive as you wanted it to be or that you actually needed it to be. Have you felt this?

Blake: I thought you were going to say, “Indigestion,” and I was like, “Yeah.” Uh, yeah, I’ve been there. What about it, Verbs? Are you trying to shame me?

Verbs: I’m just saying we can all get caught up in responding to urgent requests from others and get carried away.

Courtney: I’ve said this before, but I think a lot of people, when they do get time to do some deep work or actual work, they squander it via responding to whatever is in their email inbox, because that’s just easier. It’s downhill work. It’s a lot easier to do that monotonous, “Okay, let me just reply to this email. Let me just do this next email,” than to actually do work that’s important, that’s really moving the needle forward. That’s hard. That takes a lot of effort.

Blake: It takes forethought. The way Michael Hyatt… Some of you might have heard of him. Michael would say it’s easier to drift than it is to design, but it’s hard to get to where you want to go if you’re just drifting. What that looks like when we’re working every day is two areas: interruptions and distractions. Like what Courtney said. It’s easier to allow interruptions to rule your day. It’s easier to avoid design, and that’s where distractions can crop up. But those are the two beasts we need to slay today. I don’t know why… There’s just a lot of graphic imagery from me today.

Courtney: Let me give you a definition of what we mean by interruptions and distractions, because I think this is really helpful. It’s simple but helpful, because I don’t think we actually think about this. Obviously, interruptions are external. Usually those are other people. Their actions are causing us to not be able to focus on what we need to.

Then on the other side is distractions, and those come from inside us. Nobody else is to blame. They’re just the result of our own impulses. Over the course of the last few episodes we’ve been talking about how to be successful in this last quarter. Both of those can be extreme hindrances on being productive in this last quarter.

Verbs: Today, we’re going to walk through a series of strategies that you can try to get the interruptions and distractions under control going forward.

Welcome to another episode of Focus on This, the most productive podcast on the Internet, so you can banish distractions, get the right stuff done, and finally start loving Mondays. I’m Verbs, here with Courtney Baker and Blake Stratton. Happy Monday to you both.

Courtney: Hey, happy Monday.

Blake: Happy Monday unto you.

Courtney: Sorry, Blake. I just got a little distracted because there were literal chips all over my floor. I think this is what living with a 5-year-old… Those interruptions from external forces.

Blake: Blaming your daughter. I get it. I get it. We saw you snacking. We know. We can see through the veil. Okay. So, we have a lot of awesome strategies to help you not get caught in the web of interruptions and distractions that take you away from the important stuff that, in your heart of hearts, you really want to get done. Even if you don’t always feel like it, it’s the stuff you know is going to move you closer to the life, to the goals you’re trying to achieve. We do have a lot of ground to cover, so I say we just dive in.

Courtney: Let’s do it.

Blake: We’re talking interruptions and distractions. Where do we want to start?

Verbs: Let’s go with the interruptions. Let’s start there. How can we defeat these interruptions?

Blake: Yeah, I think we should go with interruptions too. See what I did there, Verbs? No one? Only Nick. Come on, Courtney.

Courtney: I totally missed it.

Blake: Moo! Interrupting cow.

Courtney: Oh yeah, yeah.

Blake: Okay. Strategy the first, Courtney. What do we have?

Courtney: The first strategy is to signal your unavailability. Now, like we said, interruptions come from outside of us, and often, they come from other people. These people aren’t intentionally thinking, “Okay. Let’s go crush Verbs’ productivity for Q4. Let’s just see how terrible we can make the next day for him,” but they are probably trying to pursue their own productivity. It just means they are going to interrupt yours in pursuit of their own.

With this strategy, the best way to eliminate those interruptions from people is just to signal you’re not available to chat or to help them with whatever they’re needing. That’s as easy as closing your office door, putting on the giant noise canceling headphones that I have on right now, updating your Slack status… In our company, we use a little black dot to say, “Hey, I’m in black mode. I’m not here.”

Verbs: Is that what that means? Sorry. I’m interrupting you right now. You said it, and it just connected, because I’ve seen those black dots, and I was like… Thank you. Thank you for that revelation.

Courtney: Yes. That’s exactly what that means. It’s trying to say, “Hey, I am not available right now.” I will also just add for me, personally, if you have kids in your home, if you’re working from home right now… I like to do a “Mom is going to work…” I do a little hug, kiss, “Goodbye. See you for the day,” even though I probably will see them. It’s like a real handoff to try to signal “I am not going to be available for a while.”

Blake: I don’t know if you use an iPhone, but if not, you can call Verbs with the helpline. Verbs, did I take this from you?

Verbs: No. I’m glad you’re going there. Go with it. I was just going to say that as well.

Blake: If you don’t use an iPhone, you can call Verbs, and he’ll help bring you to the light. There’s a great feature on iOS 15, the latest update, that I’ve been using for a while because I’m a nerd and have been in the beta program for the last few months.

Verbs: Flex. It’s a flex. Tech flex.

Blake: It has been awesome. They call it Focus mode. It’s like “Do not disturb” but with a lot more customization. For example, I have a Focus mode called Work that’s triggered automatically when I get to the location of my office. When the “Work” Focus mode is on, I can select which people… Because, for me, one of the biggest distractions is not other people knocking on my door. It’s just this phone with notifications that may not be appropriate for the context I’m in.

Like, I’ll get notifications about my Fantasy Football team. I don’t need to know about that… Well, that I actually do need to know even if I’m at work, but, you know, something like the Weather app notifying me something or somebody texting me who’s not my family or a coworker. It basically silences everything except what you want to get through, including apps that may notify you or people who may try to call you.

You can set up as many Focus modes as you want, from personal, work…all that stuff. So, that’s a great way as well. There’s a feature as well… When someone texts you, if you want, you can send an auto reply saying, “Hey, I’m working, but I’ll get to this later” kind of thing. So, a little pro nerd tip for you from an Apple devotee.

Courtney: Thank you for that. I just set my phone to update to 15, so I should be good to go. That’s a great tip.

Verbs: Let’s move to the second strategy, which is schedule high-leverage work. Once again, guys, I will continue to preach from the mountaintops this Weekly Preview and how well that sets you up to be able to do this for your week. Again, it’s always going to be something you’ll have to go back and revisit throughout your week, just to make sure you are staying focused and staying on task, but if you put those top tasks on your calendar…

When you do this, it’s going to help you stay focused on what you’re supposed to be working on and leave less room for those distractions to creep in, and your calendar will communicate your unavailability. Let’s say you’re doing that Weekly Preview, and you know Monday through Friday, “Hey, this is what it’s going to look like. Here’s my Weekly Big 3, and this is what I have time for. This is what I’m not going to have time for this week.”

Even in that same session, just go ahead and communicate that unavailability to those who may need to know about it or those normal avenues where potential interruptions can come in, just so people know, “Hey, these chunks of time or these couple of days, don’t even reach out to Courtney or Verbs or Blake, because they’re just unavailable.” That helps reduce the anxiety and mitigate those interruptions for your week.

Blake: Absolutely. Put it on the calendar, especially if you’re like me and you have a calendar where other people can schedule stuff. I over-calendar my life for that very reason. Otherwise, it’s like, “Oh, wait. It’s all meetings today.”

Courtney: Okay. The third strategy is to nail your rituals. Your workday startup and shutdown should include zeroing your inboxes. I feel the temptation to get on my soapbox about people who have thousands of emails in their inbox, but I am going to not go down that distraction and just talk about… What’s really important here is that you’re trying to get this low-leverage work done at the beginning of the day and the end of the day so it’s not there interrupting your important work.

Blake: Sometimes people are interrupting you because you were supposed to get back to them about something or they actually need your eyes on something, or whatever. What the rituals do is kind of anchor that key administration, assuming that’s part of your workday startup and shutdown…things like emails or checking Slack. For me, there are three different apps and stuff I have to check at the beginning and end of the day, just so I can catch those little things and they don’t come back at me when I’m trying to do something that’s more high leverage.

Verbs: So, guys, let’s transition a little bit into talking about distractions. How do we defeat our own inclinations to stop working or put a pause on the momentum of the day? What can we do to help avoid that?

Blake: The first strategy we’ll talk about is simply to identify what those common distractions are. List out what distracts you. Make an actual list. It doesn’t have to take a long time, but think through, “What are my most common distractions? What am I actually doing?” If you want to stay honest, you could look at your phone. (Another nerd tip.) See what apps you’re going to and how much time you’re spending on those apps. Be careful, though.

You might get distracted by checking your email, looking at social media, or maybe just “Hey, my thoughts got scattered, and they’re just kind of drifting off,” and whatever. A way I did this in my own life was I would go a little bit further… Using the Full Focus Planner, there’s this section on the daily page where you write your agenda. I started not just writing my meetings, but I started writing exactly how I wanted to spend my time, so, literally, the whole thing was filled up.

Then in the Notes section, as I went through my day, I would write down how I actually spent that time. Sometimes it was like, “Oh, I got interrupted by this” or “I got distracted and started doing X,” when I was reviewing my day, like, “Where did the time actually go?” That was super helpful to help me with the interruption side, but it also was like, “Oh, right. Here’s where I normally get distracted. What strategies could I develop to avoid those distractions?”

Verbs: That’s good.

Courtney: I think another great trigger for doing this is when you end a day that you’re like, “Oh my gosh! I didn’t get anything done today…” You obviously didn’t just sit there doing nothing. You did something, and most likely it was a bunch of distractions. That’s a great trigger point for “Okay. Let me just write down what those things were.”

Again, this is not to punish yourself or guilt yourself into doing better tomorrow. It’s just collecting the data. It’s almost like a food journal. Sometimes just the awareness of it really helps move us forward. So, it’s finding those common culprits and then creating strategies to defeat them. Again, the first strategy is just to list what distracts you.

Verbs: The second strategy is to build in breaks. This is important. I think I’ve talked about this app I use before here on the podcast. Make sure you’re at least stepping away from your computer at certain times of the day. This app I use actually will close out your screen. It’ll cause your screen to fade for whatever time increment you set it. You can work for two hours and then have a 10-minute break or decide you want to push that break off.

The important part is to remember that we need these breaks, because our minds can’t continually work for eight hours at a time. It’s just not sustainable. When you’re able to take scheduled breaks regularly, it’s easier to put those distractions on hold.

Blake: This is a big one for me. Usually, if I’m getting distracted, it’s because I have some kind of need that’s not getting met, like, I’m feeling burned out or my mind needs a break. It’s actually better to stop for 5 or 10 minutes and let yourself off the hook, and just whatever, versus trying to push through, and then you’re less productive the whole rest of the day, because your mind is telling you, “Hey, we need to rest. We need to rest.” So, I love that tip, Verbs: build in breaks.

Let’s shift to the third strategy when we’re talking about dialing down distractions and getting the right stuff done: clean your space. Okay. You guys, this was kind of rude making me read this one, because as I look around…

Verbs: Your space is so clean.

Blake: I can’t help but feel a little shame. Now, I know it looks like…

Verbs: Behind you is clean.

Blake: If you’re listening to the podcast, you can’t see this, but I have this beautiful display of books so that it looks like I’m well-read, but my desk in this little corner over here… It looks a little bit like my dorm room back in the day. Not that pretty. So, this is a good reminder for me. It’s like what they say: “A messy desk, a messy brain.” Sometimes your workspace has things on it that feel out of order, and then it’s this natural tendency where maybe sometimes I get distracted because I have a half-eaten bag of Hippeas chickpea puffs on my desk.

Courtney: Oh, wow. Okay.

Blake: Yeah. I’m bougie. Okay?

Courtney: The healthy brag.

Blake: I’m bougie, and I’m healthy.

Verbs: First, finish the bag so they don’t get stale.

Blake: There you go. Everyone listening was like, “Oh my gosh! Stop crinkling.”

Courtney: Oh, ASMR. Well, I will just add to this. I feel like sometimes, especially on Monday mornings, I come up to my office, and it’s a hot mess. I feel the urgency of getting to work immediately, but I’ll stop myself and be like, “If I’ll just take five minutes to straighten this up, I know this week is going to feel a lot better than if I just plow through and immediately get on my computer.” So, I think this is a great one that we overlook.

Verbs: Fourth strategy: block out the world. Usually, there are a couple of things that can help you with this. If you have a white noise machine or noise canceling headphones, these are your friends. Not only will they help you, but they’ll help other people. It’s that signal you can throw that you are occupied and busy and not available.

I know a lot of people use music, if that helps you. I know some people can actually work well to music with lyrics. Some people can’t do that. They have to have instrumental music. I love a good baroque playlist while I’m working, or house. That helps me get stuff done.

Blake: That’s good. I was wondering about that, Verbs. I can’t listen to interesting music, because then…

Courtney: I can’t listen to any music.

Blake: It’s the worst. I do use this app that has these weird, boring, repetitive, sonic type of soundscape things, and that’s about as far as I can go. If you put on some good music…

Courtney: I can just imagine it.

Blake: Talk about distracted. Oh my gosh.

Verbs: You feel like you have to break into the song and drum along. Yeah, for sure.

Courtney: You put on any song from the 90s, Blake is gone. He’s singing. He’s doing his little thing that he does.

Blake: Can’t do it. Can’t do it.

Courtney: Okay. The fifth strategy is get clear on what matters most. These are all really helpful, but the best strategy for staying focused is staying clear on what’s most important. Obviously, that’s what makes the Full Focus System so powerful. Taking time every day to determine what your Daily Big 3 are going to be is incredibly powerful for eliminating distraction.

When you’ve narrowed your focus to those few key tasks, it’s easier to set aside the rest. It’s easier to say, “You know what? I’m not going to let email or Slack run my day, because I know what I need to accomplish to have a sense of fulfillment and to end today feeling like, ‘Wow! I just crushed this.’” I’m dropping crushed, because before this episode aired, we had a long debate about whether crushed was only a term elder Millennials are using.

Blake: I think crush is one of those words that started out, like, “Oh, wow. This is a cool thing to say,” and now it’s sort of like, okay, if you have some fun dad energy, you still say, “Let’s go crush it.”

Courtney: Okay. We’re killing it. We’re never saying crush again. So, this tool, just getting clear, is going to make you be really awesome.

Blake: Really awesome. Yeah. There you go. Now you’re hip.

Courtney: You’re going to be the bomb dot com.

Blake: Oh, wow! Okay. We’re going backward on this. Can we go back to crush? So, a quick rundown. We covered a lot of ground. We talked about interruptions. We gave you a few strategies to conquer interruptions: signal your unavailability, schedule high-leverage work, and dial in those rituals, or maybe even crush those rituals.

Then we talked about distractions. List out the things that are distracting you, and build a strategy to eliminate them once you know what they are. Schedule in some breaks in your day. Clean your workspace up, Blake Stratton, finally. Block out the world. And, finally, get clear on what matters most. Identifying that Daily Big 3 is huge, and making that Daily Big 3 visible throughout your day. Verbs, we delivered some serious value here today. Wouldn’t you say? Let’s just pat ourselves…

Verbs: I concur.

Blake: Go ahead. Let’s just have a hand clap. I have fun dad energy. Let’s give a hand clap.

Verbs: So, the good news is you don’t have to let your day get hijacked by interruptions and distractions. By leveraging the strategies we’ve shared today, you can make greater gains toward your goals. Courtney and Blake, before we wrap up, do you have any final thoughts for our listeners today?

Courtney: I feel like if I’ve said this once on this episode, I’ve said it like 12 times, but, guys, do not let email and Slack run your day. I feel like that’s our invisible enemy here. That is such an easy trap. And I get it. We all do it. The next time you find yourself there, getting on that slippery slope, just stop and be like, “No. I’m not doing it.”

Verbs: Thank you for joining us on Focus on This. This is the most productive podcast on the Internet, so share it with your friends, and don’t forget to join our Full Focus Planner Community right there on Facebook. We’ll be here next week with another great episode. Until then…

All: Stay focused!