To conquer workplace distractions, stop trying to “keep up”

The modern office is filled with workplace distractions. And it’s only getting noisier. From emails to IM, calls, and notifications, it’s surprising we have any time at all to do focused work.

Unfortunately, the external pings, dings, and requests are only part of what’s truly taking our focus away during the day. According to technologist Alexandra Samuel, it’s not the tools we use that are 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 when we’re supposed to be doing focused work?

Workplace Interruptions 101:

Researchers say you’re just as likely to interrupt yourself as be interrupted by a tool or notification

It’s easy to blame our tools as the source of all our workplace distractions. Yet, dealing with notifications and messages is simple compared to our need to respond to them right away. In fact, Gloria Mark of UC Irvine found we’re just as likely to interrupt ourselves as to be interrupted by an external source.

Which makes sense when you think about it:

We’re bad at keeping track of tasks — so we constantly check in on project management tools.

We’re scared of “missing out” — so we get involved in every conversation across emails and IM.

We want to look good in front of our bosses — so we 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.

But the more we fall victim to this mentality, the more distracted we become. And 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.

To squash the need to “keep up”, you need a system to deal with all the stuff that wants your attention

It’s no small task to change the way you think about communication at work.

For most of us, we “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 deal with all the things you feel compelled to “keep up” with. One that gives you a repeatable process for collecting, organizing, and acting on communications, so you know everything is being handled and in its right place.

There are lots of productivity systems that can help you with this. But 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 clogs up your day and 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 distract ourselves with. The tasks we’re unsure of how to tackle. The emails and Slack channels we feel we need to be a part of. The projects that feel unwieldy and ambiguous.

“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.

The basics of Getting Things Done

Getting things done

At it’s 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.

Here’s how GTD looks in practice:

  1. Capture all the things you need to “keep up” with in one place: Your first step with GTD is to create a central repository for all your to-dos, ideas, emails, and anything else that needs to be dealt with. You can use whatever tool you want for this (Allen uses a basic notebook). Just pick something that works with your current workflow and is easy enough to fill out on the fly.
  2. Clarify the things you have to do: Once you’ve captured an item, the next step is to break it down into the easiest next step. So, instead of “write blog post” you might say “write outline.” If you can do something quickly (under 2 minutes) do it right away. If you can delegate the task, do that as well.
  3. Organize your actionable items by category and priority: Each task should also have a due date (where applicable), priority, and category. You’re not actually doing any of the items on your list right now, but making sure there’s no friction once you want to start.
  4. Reflect on your to-do list: If you’ve spent time clarifying properly, you should know what can be done in the time and energy you currently have. Give your to-do list an in-depth review periodically to see where you’re making progress and where you need to adjust it.
  5. Engage (aka, get to work): Choose your next action from your list and get to it. At this point, your system should be broken down by priority, category, and due dates. And each new “thing” that comes your way goes onto the list and out of your head. Meaning no more “keeping up.”

This might sound complicated to get set up. But it’s simply a repository for everything you feel the need to “keep up” with. 

Rather than being constantly distracted by forgotten to-dos or stressful emails, breaking everything up into a single list lets you quickly see what’s on your plate. GTD frees your mind up to do focused work and to put your attention where you want it to go. Not in keeping up.

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.

“Keeping up” makes us vulnerable to workplace distractions

It’s impossible for us to get meaningful work done when we constantly feel like we need to “keep up”. And while GTD is just one of many productivity systems, it does a great job at reducing the stress of trying to remember every task, action item, and conversation you need to respond to.

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. However, by using a system like GTD to keep track of and organize all our tasks, we 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 in the comments below or 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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