do_not_disturb1In my last blog I discussed some ways to stay sane and productive while working at home. One of the fundamental principles of productivity is that to get things done, you need to be able to focus. Focus requires elimination of distractions which is not as easy as it seems.

First, let me tell you some truths about multitasking and how your brain processes information. Get this – your brain really doesn’t multitask! David Meyer, a cognitive scientist at the University of Michigan, serves as the director of the Brain, Cognition and Action Laboratory. He’s one of the country’s leading experts on multitasking and he tells us that counter to common belief, you can’t do two cognitively complicated tasks at once.

When you’re on the phone and writing an e-mail at the same time, you’re actually switching back and forth between them. This is because there’s only one mental and neural channel through which language flows. “If you have a complicated task, it requires all your attention, and if you’re trying to spread your attention over multiple tasks, it’s not going to work,” he says. Since it’s literally impossible to do two thought-intensive asks at once, you can see why distractions keep you from being productive.

Here are some strategies on how to focus your attention (and stop multitasking) and eliminate distractions when you’re trying to get a project done:

1. Turn off email notifications.
This includes IM and Twitter. Instant communication can be beneficial, but when you’re trying to be productive they are truly just interruptions. Shut these “tools” down or move to a space where you’re communication-free. Try setting calendar time to “productivity time” or “project X only” time so you can focus just on that task at hand. I do this at home as well as work because it’s just too tempting to take a “quick” peek.

2. Turn off the Internet.If you don’t need the internet to do the project at hand, literally unplug it. The Internet is simultaneously the greatest inventions and the biggest time waster ever invented (one of the reasons I love and hate it). Don’t let it be the barrier between you and your productivity.

3. Make a DND Sign.
Make your own “Do Not Disturb Sign” and set it out when you need to concentrate. Let your coworkers/family know that this is your productivity time and you can’t afford to let your brain be interrupted.

If the kids are home at night and I’m trying to get work done (or school work, grading student papers) I place on sign on the back of my chair. Instead of “do not disturb” it says “MommyTime” and put headphones on (even if nothing is actually playing in them so as to avoid distractions). This signals them that they need to wait until I’m on a break or finished with my work.

4. Take a break every 90 minutes.
Studies have found that the most elite violinists in the world generally follow a 90-minute work regime, with a 15- to 20-minute break afterwards. Although you’re probably not one of these musicians, use a similar approach to your own work.

Instead of trying to use all of your energy all day, allow your brain to have breaks. This will allow your brain to focus more when you need to, and you’ll likely be better about eliminating distractions during your more intense work times. This strategy works especially well at home. Grab even 20 minutes and really try to focus on a job you’ve needed to get done rather than picking away at it in a distracted way.

5. Create a work space
And, I know I talked about this last week in my work-at-home blog, but having a defined work space applies here too. On days that I need to work at home my kids are at daycare, but often my husband is still around. One of the ways that we eliminate distractions is by ensuring that we each have our own work space. I set up shop with my mobile laptop in the formal dining room as I enjoy the open windows and natural light. He tends to like the actual office space which is home to his Mac computer. While separate rooms might not always be possible, I’d encourage you to find a separate space—even if it’s just a small table or niche.

What are your tips and tricks for eliminating distractions?

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