Distracted? Unfocused? Use this method to fight the worst workplace distractions

If you feel like your attention is being pulled in a million directions each day, you’re not alone. In fact, our research found that only 10% of people say they feel in control of how they spend their days. From emails to chat, notifications and all the other workplace distractions, it’s surprising we have any time for focused work.

Yet, while it’s easy to place the blame on the pings and dings of apps and tool, they’re only part of the problem. According to technologist Alexandra Samuel, our tools aren’t the most destructive workplace distractions. It’s our ever-increasing need to “keep up.”

There are plenty of solutions to calm the influx of notifications from tools and apps. But how do we turn off that constant nagging feeling to check in, be available, and keep up?

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Workplace Distractions 101: Why you’re just as likely to interrupt yourself as to get interrupted by a tool

Workplace distractions

It’s easy to blame our tools as the source of all our workplace distractions. However, it’s easier to deal with pings and dings than internal interruptions.

According to Gloria Mark of UC Irvine, we’re just as likely to interrupt ourselves as to be interrupted by an external source.

Here’s what she’s talking about:

  • You’re bad at keeping track of tasks — so you constantly check in on project management tools.
  • You’re scared of “missing out” — so you get involved in every email and chat conversation.
  • You want to look good in front of your boss — so you feel compelled to respond quickly to messages.
Workplace distractions aren’t just the tools you use sending you pings and dings. They’re the notifications you get from your own mind telling you to constantly check in, follow up, and keep up. Click To Tweet

The more we fall victim to this mentality, the more our productivity suffers. Instead, as Samuel explains, we need to exploit the tools we have to keep us focused, productive, and in control of how we spend our time.

We need to fight fire with fire.

A system designed to squash the need to “keep up”

Most of us feel the need to “keep up” because we think our jobs depend on it. And just like turning off your tech isn’t the right way to deal with having too many notifications you can’t just “turn off” the need to be engaged and responsive.

Instead, you need a system to handle all the things you feel compelled to “keep up” with—one that collects, organizes, and categorizes your responsibilities so you can feel confident that nothing will slip through the cracks.

While there are lots of productivity systems that can help you with this, one of the most time-tested techniques is David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD).

Based on the book of the same name, GTD is all about dealing with the “stuff” that needs to be kept up with. “Stuff” isn’t the most scientific term, but Allen describes it as:

“Anything you have allowed into your psychological or physical world that doesn’t belong where it is, but for which you haven’t yet determined the desired outcome and the next action step.”

In this way, “stuff” sounds a lot like the things we think of as workplace distractions:

  • Tasks we’re unsure of how to tackle
  • Emails and Slack channels we feel we need to be a part of
  • Projects that feel unwieldy and ambiguous

If you’re not careful, all that “stuff” can quickly take over your day and distract you from being able to do meaningful work. Which is why GTD is such a powerful system.

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Getting Things Done: The Basics

Getting things done

At its core, GTD is a system for capturing the work you need to do, organizing it, and choosing what deserves your attention. It’s not simply a way to handle your inbox or to-do list, but an overarching way to deal with all the things you feel you need to keep up with.

In practice, GTD comes down to a 5-step process:

  1. Capture all the things you need to “keep up with” in one place. Create a central repository for all your to-dos, ideas, emails, and anything else that needs your attention. You can use whatever tool you want (Allen uses a basic notebook). Just pick something that works with your current workflow and is easy enough to fill in on the fly.
  2. Clarify the things you have to do. Break down each item you’ve captured into the easiest next step. For example, instead of “write a blog post” you would include “write an outline.” If you can do something in under 2 minutes or delegate it, do that instead.
  3. Organize your actionable items by category and priority. Give each task a due date (where applicable), priority, and category. You’ll also want to organize different lists for different priority tasks, such as:
    1. Action: Tasks you need, want, or have to do. Give these a hard deadline and put them on your calendar.
    2. Waiting for: Anything you’ve delegated or are waiting on.
    3. Projects: Larger tasks broken down into the next actionable steps.
    4. Someday/Maybe: Anything you’re putting on the back-burner for now but don’t want to forget.
  4. Reflect on your to-do list. Give your to-do list an in-depth review periodically (weekly is good) and clean it up. If you’ve spent time clarifying properly, you should know what can be done in the time and energy you currently have.
  5. Engage (aka, get to work). Choose your next action from your list and get to it. At this point, you’ve broken your system down by priority, category, and due dates. And each new thing that comes your way goes onto the list and out of your head.

GTD frees your mind up to do focused work and to put your attention where you want it to go. Not in keeping up.

How to keep your GTD system up-to-date and stress-free

Reading this, you might think GTD is too complicated for everyday use. However, with a bit of upfront investment, you get a powerful system and workflow for dealing with all your tasks, to-dos, and messages. 

Once you do the initial setup, you should be in a good position to keep your list up-to-date with a small bit of daily maintenance and a weekly review.

A good rule of thumb is to set aside 30 minutes once a week to go over each of your lists and see if they still make sense.

  • Action: Is this up-to-date? Do you need to add to it or break some of the items down into even more actionable next steps?
  • Waiting For: Do you need to follow-up with anyone? Or check in on tasks you delegated?
  • Projects: What’s the next actionable step for each project? Write them out and move to your Action list.
  • Someday/Maybe: Has anything changed here? Priorities? Viability? Move anything you want to start working on to your Projects list.

“Keeping up” makes us vulnerable to the worst workplace distractions

It’s impossible for us to get meaningful work done when we constantly feel like we need to “keep up”. Yet with GTD, you free up mental space to focus on what matters.

As Nicole Dieker writes in The Billfold:

“There’s a weird brain-thing that happens when you put all of your open mental loops onto a single list. You literally stop thinking about them until it’s time to go to the grocery store and you open the list to see all of the groceries you need in a single place.”

Workplace distractions aren’t just external. And unfortunately, it’s the internal ones that are hardest to deal with. By using a system like GTD, you can move from “keeping up” to getting ahead.

Have you found a good system that stops you from feeling the need to “keep up?” Let us know on Twitter

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Jory MacKay

Jory MacKay is a writer, content marketer, and editor of the RescueTime blog.


  1. Hi Jory

    Great post! I totally agree. Sometimes it seems people are more interested in checking their to do list or inbox than actually working on the items in it.

    I think that people need to shift their mindset from managing what they have to do, to doing what they have to do. If you find yourself distracted by things in the workplace then eliminate them from your work environment as much as possible.


    1. Thanks Paul! They say the easiest way to write is to write what you know and I am definitely guilty of this mentality. Glad you found it helpful.

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