Designing Your Distraction-free Environment

There’s this quote I absolutely love about internet - “Internet is as much a genius’s laboratory as it is a fool’s playground.”

And rightly so!

If you see the two extremes of internet, on one side you can today get higher education degrees and run multi-million dollar businesses online, while on the other side, you can be a total porn addict (before you roll your eyes, I’m not saying anything against it) or be part of illegal activities on the dark web.

It entirely boils down to how “you” want to use the internet & what “you” intend to achieve from it.

Changing gears a little,

There have not been many things in my life that I’ve been proud of. But one thing in particular which I’ve been extremely proud of, in the last few years, is of the way I’ve built my “distraction-free environment” (trust me, it isn’t as fancy as it sounds).

Image: believeandcreate.com

If you’re someone,

  • Trying to make a more productive use of your time, or
  • Really passionate about your professional as well as personal growth, or
  • Have high overarching ambitions for yourself, or
  • Want to have a productive lifestyle, or
  • Really struggling to shut off all the noise around you

Then you need to have a distraction free world to help you achieve the above-stated aspirations. And you actually need to design it yourself.

To give you some context,

Let me try to explain,

There might have been times when you open your social app for just 5–10 mins of casual browsing. You come across this small funny video with a lot of engagement and thought to yourself, “I’ll just watch this one video and then get out”.

But you get entangled in the platform’s beautifully crafted recommendation engine and the next time you look at your watch, a couple of hours have already flown by, from which you gained practically nothing. (This happens to a lot of people who are social media addicts)

Something similar happens when you want to,

  • Watch just one episode of your favourite web series. And not more.
  • Play just half an hour of games. And not more.
  • Initiate casual talks for just 15 minutes. And not more.

But what if I tell you that you, as a consumer, are not entirely at fault? Especially when we talk about the online distractions.

We’ve regularly understated the distraction capabilities of all the content that’s floating around us and blamed ourselves for not taking stock of how we spend time. It’s not always about your determination / grit / or whatever other fancy synonyms are, to help you not get indulged into them. What’s also at fault is all the content lying around you, sprinkled very thoughtfully.

I’ll take Netflix as an example, in my case here.

Image: Tfipost.com

Until a few months back, I was scared to take Netflix subscription. Not because I thought I couldn’t control my binge-watching urges (that’s a first-world problem which I totally get). But because I knew & perfectly understood the power of distraction capabilities of all the content in there. And when you practically have everyone around you talking about how this series is killing it or how that episode was totally unanticipated, it can indeed get difficult.

When these kinds of deathly manipulative systems are always running in the background, the one extremely naive mistake we can do is undermine their capabilities. The kind of grip they can exert on our minds. And the many ways they can influence our actions. Even the subconscious ones.

And actually a lot of subconscious ones. As that’s how we make 95% of our decisions.

Try recollecting when you’re doing a certain activity, say, reading a book or brushing your teeth. The moment you get engrossed in it, you forget about the activity and your mind takes you off to a faraway fantasy land or a future event, and you start building it up, without the slightest of need to do so.

And this is where your “distraction free world” can help you.

By following certain guidelines and building a mindset, you can not only easily restrict the entry of the new, attractive and potentially non-worthy content get inside your ecosystem but also concentrate better on the stuff you’re doing now.

Remember, it doesn’t take our monkey mind even seconds to take us to the faraway fantasy lands. The challenge comes when we want to stay attentive to our present scenario, concentrating fully on the task at hand.

But don’t expect it to be an easy ride. As it’s about un-doing things that although you’re well aware that they don’t contribute to your productivity, you’ve profoundly enjoyed indulging with them till date.

And it’s an important insight actually.

So, the big question is — How do you design your distraction-free world?

There are 4 things that you can do — the 4 pillars (sounds fancy, isn’t it!!) of a distraction-free world.

  1. Follow a Schedule
  2. Reward Checkpoints
  3. Less Decision Making
  4. Everything is Noise

So let’s go about them.

  • Follow a Schedule

Following a schedule will help you stick to your everyday plans and not pay any heed to the obtrusive intrusions out there. Distractions only thrive when they have your attention. And when you follow a schedule, because you’ve pre-defined activities that will demand your attention, you end up rejecting the external forces or the ones that do not fit in this schedule.

To tell you how this works, I’ll have to talk about how my weekday schedule looks like.

I wake up at 6 in the morning, freshen up and do an hour of book reading from 6:30–7:30. From 7:30–9:30, I either write something, work on some personal projects, read some of the previously bookmarked articles or try to research / learn about a particular topic.

I get up at 9:30 and leave for work by 10–10:15 max. On my way to office, I skim through some news bytes and on the way back from work, I listen to podcasts.

I reach home after work by 8:15–30 and after freshening up, read books for another 40–45 mins till 9:30. I then take a half an hour dinner till 10 pm, during which time, I watch a YouTube video - mostly interviews / talks given by business leaders. From 10 pm to 11:45 again I do some reading, writing, working or learning and go to bed by 12:00.

Now, this might look extremely stringent. And let me tell you, it’s not that I manage to keep up with this schedule of mine always. I, in fact, fail many times.

Particularly during late-night football matches. Or say, on weekends when I’m out with friends / colleagues drinking. Or maybe if I’m feeling too tired someday. Or if my mom calls me up. Or if there’s a friend in distress who needs to talk. Or if there’s some ad-hoc task to be completed. Or when I just want to say f*** this shit!

There are and can be many reasons. Even logical ones. But what I ensure is not to give myself silly reasons to not follow this. And always have an explanation.

The reason being, and as I mentioned earlier, this only applies to you if you’re a highly ambitious person. As then you’ll go the extra mile to achieve things which are harder, because if can indeed get very hard. And you’ll take extra efforts to cut-out the mundane & non-productive stuff out of your lifestyle.

Because as someone has rightly said,

By waking up early and keeping stock of my schedule, I handsomely gain around 6 hours of time everyday and spend it doing productive things. I can also choose to play games, watch Netflix or aimlessly scroll through social media, but let’s just say, I’m really scared of not being able to do things I aspire to do in my life.

I know that these things are going to be hugely beneficial for me in the future, so I take efforts to maintain them.

When you make a schedule of the things you generally like doing, it leaves little scope of unvalidated and unnecessary content to interrupt with your schedule. And you can see yourself taking efforts to negate these intrusions once you get habituated about your schedule.

But even with all the arguments, it might still look like a pretty daunting schedule to maintain, right? And I totally agree to that. Which brings me to my next point.

  • Reward Checkpoints

Remember, I mentioned “weekday” while beginning to describe my schedule? So what about the weekends then?

The fact that you’re taking such pains to maintain a productive lifestyle and foregoing all the flashy stuff around you, might put you in doldrums.

Because let’s face it, as humans, we’re always more concerned about “instant gratification” and not so much about “what we might have in the future” (the precise reason why people still don’t invest in mutual funds even though it’s the safest investment vehicle out there).

And this is where Reward Checkpoints come to rescue, which, in my case, are how I let myself enjoy my weekends.

After my productive week, I give myself a “no guilt” freedom weekend where I can pretty much do anything that I want and not feel guilty about not making a productive use of that time. Because it’s just not possible to be on the “productive” spectrum always.

My weekends are “as I please” days for me.

I allow myself to sleep for as long as I feel like. Watch Netflix for as many hours as I like. Play games as much as I like and even just blankly sit, if that’s what I like. During my weekends, I usually go out with friends. Get drunk at times. Watch my football. Spend some “me” time. Take casual walks. Talk to friends & family. Basically, anything that I please.

The other benefit of it is that due to this reward that you know you’ll get at the end of your hard work, you’re often more dedicated to follow your to-do.

For example, most of the people face difficulties following up on their gyms everyday (if you’re not a fitness aficionado & most people aren’t). I was in the same boat too. But to fight it, I added a few rewards around it. Even with slim money, I promised myself a chocolate shake and 4 eggs, everyday, on my return from gym. Seems silly right??

But it worked. These turned out to be perfect motivators as I love devouring on both chocolates and eggs.

  • Less Decision Making

Sticking to what not to consume will free your mind of any additional decision-making, which can be extremely beneficial to maintain focus and improve your decision making abilities. Don’t believe me? There’s an actual term for it — Decision Fatigue!

A research by Cornell University estimates that, on average, humans make about 35,000 remotely conscious decisions every day. Which can be very tiring for the efficacy of your brains.

Image Credits: CGMA

Hence, we should always try to lessen this number to as great an extent as possible.

And how do we do that?

You’ve probably heard of how legendary people like Steve Jobs, Barack Obama & Mark Zuckerberg wear the same kind of clothes every day. Which is owing to the same reason — to prevent decision fatigue and be able to put more deliberation into the important ones.

Now, the jury is still out there around the pros of wearing same types of clothes everyday and I’m neither telling you to do it. I’m just using this example to drive home my point of enabling yourself to make lesser decisions as much as possible, through the means that suit you.

It often happens that the thumbnail of a video or the accompanying description tries its utmost to get my attention, but they rarely succeed. Trust me it gets difficult. But that’s how you need to train yourself to not indulge in things you’ve at least not a very good idea of what you’re gonna get.

And less decision making actually links back to the point about maintaining a schedule.

If I know I’ve to read till 9:30 pm, and get dinner after that, I don’t really have to decide everyday at 9:30, whether I should get up now, or after 10 more mins, even though I’d love to deliberate on the possibility of going through a few more pages.

  • Everything is Just Noise

You need to remember that anything you didn’t sign up for, is pure noise and isn’t worthy of your attention. And this time I’m not talking about the online world, but offline.

There are always situations or talks going around you that you’d be better off being a part of. Because indulging in these uncalled for talks / situations can not only be very discouraging but can also zap your mind to focus on the more important things.

But wasn’t a curious mind or newer foods for thought good for us?

Well, not always!

Suppose, you’re a developer and there’s news that Facebook is introducing a new kind of targeting mechanism to help marketers generate more leads out of their Facebook ad campaigns. While this news could be really helpful for your marketing friends, you, as a developer, have got nothing to do with this new “food for thought”.

And by paying any kind of heed to this piece of news, you’ll not only be squandering your time but also occupying your brains with maybe temporary, but useless stuff.

Yes, being in the know of things can be handy. But always ask yourself, do you really need this piece of information? By making your consumptions relevant to your areas of interest / work, you can free up your mind to focus on the more important things.

Try to keep out of arguments that, if you lose, won’t hurt your self-respect. News that, if you didn’t pay attention to, won’t make you a noob. Situations that, if you don’t indulge in, won’t give you a sense of FOMO. And people, with whom if you don’t interact, won’t make you feel you’re being arrogant.

Final thoughts.

I really wish I could tell you that even getting one of them right will suffice. But the sad part of the story is I can’t.

The reason being your “reward checkpoints” will be of no use if you first don’t “maintain a schedule” to follow your daily tasks. Similarly, “less decision making” needs to be supplanted with “maintaining a schedule”, as if you don’t practice the latter, it could be very difficult to accomplish the former. Don’t think even if it’s possible that way.

So, all the very best to you. And in case, you’ve any questions around designing your distraction-free world, feel free to comment and I’d definitely try to help.

Product Marketing @ WebEngage || Disciple of Human Psychology & a lifelong Chelsea fan.