The road to productivity is paved with distractions. Work smarter by learning how to navigate around them.

By Tiffany Dufu
Illustration by José Luis Merino

Tip #1: Start Big

I attended a training program where the instructor filled a glass jar with big rocks and asked if it was full. After we answered yes, he poured in pebbles, followed by sand, then water. He pointed out that had he begun with the water or sand, there wouldn’t have been room for the rocks. Moral of the exercise: Ensure productivity by tackling the big task first. 

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Tip #2: Kill the Negative Self-Talk

I once sat down to write something that I’d been procrastinating on. For 30 minutes I stared at the screen, telling myself I was irresponsible. In that time I could have produced a page! According to personal coach and author Tara Mohr, we often self-sabotage our productivity out of fear, allowing our inner critic to distract us from accomplishing anything that feels scary. In these moments we should ask ourselves, “What am I afraid of right now?” Here’s how I handle negative thoughts: I scribble an affirmation on a Post-it note that counters them, like “I’ve got this.” 

Tip #3: Fake the Pressure 

Many of us are more productive under pressure. When a deadline is looming, somehow we pull off what we couldn’t when we had all the time in the world. The solve is to simulate your own pressure so it works for you. For example, if your boss gives you a deadline, enter it in your calendar for two days in advance (the trick is not to do this so frequently that you assume your calendar deadlines are padded). If you have a task you could have completed within an hour if you hadn’t gotten up every 10 minutes, set a timer. Or enlist a friend or family member to hold you accountable by calling or texting you at a scheduled timed to ask, “Is it done?” Eventually you should implement practices that develop your own internal discipline instead of relying on external consequences as a motivating factor. 

Tip #4: Shoot for an MVP 

Perfection is the enemy of completion. Often the expectation that our work should reflect extraordinarily high quality the first time we create it impacts productivity. Years ago, when I was at a tech start-up, I was introduced to a revolutionary concept: the minimum viable product.

MVP is a common product development practice that involves building a product with the least amount of features needed to get feedback for future development. It’s sort of like your blueprint. If you have a proposal to write, start by drafting your top five points and a few bullets. If you have a complicated new job order to fill, sketch out your plan on paper first. Show your MVP to your boss to make sure the two of your are aligned on expectations and to solicit feedback—also a brilliant way to manage up. Whatever you’re trying to achieve, begin by asking yourself, “What is the MVP version of  X?” Then push it out.

Tip #5: Minimize Distraction—You May Have Heard That One

You may have heard that one of the worst ways to negatively impact your productivity is to check your email or social media first thing in the morning. According to time management expert Julie Morgenstern, this triggers the reactive part of your brain. We feel like we’re accomplishing something but it’s hard to regain focus once we start replying, liking and retweeting. Same goes for taking that “quick” phone call or, if you work from home, putting in that load of laundry.

Create non-distraction zones—scheduled periods of time when you set your cell phone in another room, close the door or, if you work in an office with open seating, use a headset. There are also great apps like Forest and FocusList that help you concentrate on tasks and be more productive. And don’t forget to signal to the outside world that you’re on a major roll. Creating an email auto reply or putting a sign on your door that communicates “I’m being productive” will usually inspire the people around you to get more done too.

About our expert

Tiffany Dufu is the author of 'Drop the Ball: Achieving More by Doing Less.'