As great as technology is, when it comes to finding the time to completely immerse yourself in your work, let’s face it – the same technology we depend on can just as quickly turn into a major hindrance. Being a web designer, the very nature of my job requires that I spend the majority of my workday online – which makes it that much more important that I take extra care not to get easily sidetracked.
While the suggestions below are mostly common sense, and quite frankly nothing you probably haven’t already heard, sometimes you need a bit of a reminder – myself included! These are all tried and true tricks that work, as long as you commit yourself to sticking to them.
First Things First: Limit Your (Online) Social Activities
Yes, I admit it – Twitter, Facebook and Google+ are among my guilty social pleasures. And while it can be difficult, sometimes you just need to set aside a certain amount of time to commit to NOT logging back in. Whether you decide to stay away for X number hours, or until you complete a certain project or task – sometimes you just have to say “No!” Or at least, “not right now.”
There’s certainly nothing wrong with taking a break with some social networking. In fact, if done correctly your networking efforts can lead to new business! But it’s just as important to know when it’s time to lay low for a while, until after you’ve put in a decent amount of time and effort on your current projects.
That Goes Double For Those Third-Party Social Apps
Although I used to rely on third party apps, such as TweetDeck, I’ve recently streamlined my workflow, and primarily just stick to visiting the social media sites directly in my browser. It’s just one less open application pulling resources from my computer. However, if you are using a third party app, whatever your weapon of choice happens to be, simply minimizing the application doesn’t usually cut it. That goes for the notification center for those of us on a Mac, too!
At the very least, be sure to disable any notifications the program might have, as this is often the most distracting part. But even without frequent pop-ups when new messages are posted, just seeing the icon as an open application makes it all too easy to click on it for “just one quick minute.”
We all know how most social networking sites work – “just one quick minute” quickly turns into 5 updates, 20 responses, 7 direct messages and 10 new articles to read (and share) from various blogs…
An hour later, you’re now that much closer to potentially missing a deadline. So when you have work that has to get done, the best thing to do is just shut it down!
Close Your Web Browser… Or At Least Hide the Bookmark Toolbar
If I’m on the design phase of a web site, I can easily close down my web browser and stay focused in Photoshop. But when I move onto the development stage, I need to have at least one (if not multiple) web browsers open for testing purposes.
My biggest downfall with this is that handy-dandy bookmark toolbar with links to Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and the like. With so many of my favorite sites not more than a single click away, it’s all but impossible to not take another “quick” look for “just one minute.”
The simple act of hiding this particular toolbar makes it more difficult than simply clicking a favicon to access these sites.
And While You’re At It – Hide the Address Bar, Too
If you really want to get down to business, consider hiding the address bar, as well. Because let’s face it – without the single click of the facebook favicon calling your name, how difficult is it to type “facebook.com” into the address bar and hit enter? Exactly! lol
What has helped me tremendously is to first open up windows or tabs with the sites I’m currently working on – for example the WordPress admin area of this very post I’m writing in one tab, and the preview version of the post in another. Once these are open, I hide the address bar. This makes it that much more difficult for me to stray off to another web site (or ten), and makes focusing much easier.
A helpful hint… just hit “Ctr” + “R” to refresh or reload the browser window to view new changes.
Don’t Live In Your Inbox
Many people (myself included) keep their email inbox open in the background as they work. It often serves as a reference point, for example to view a list of updates a client needs to make to their web site – something I need to have readily available when working on that particular project. I’m not one for paper clutter, so I prefer to keep this open on the screen, rather than printing it out.
Depending on the available settings on your email client, one simple trick to keep this from becoming a distraction is to increase the amount of time between automatic email checks. Or better yet, change it to manual checking only.
As for the email client, I used to have it automatically download messages every 15 minutes. Even if I only sit down and respond to emails at set times (once, sometimes twice a day) I like being in the loop and seeing what is in store for me. But let’s be honest – seeing that popup with a new message every few minutes is a BIG distraction, one that’s almost impossible not to click on.
Instead, I’ve recently changed my settings to only download mail once every 2 hours. I might get brave and up this to once every 3-4 hours. Maybe… lol. This change alone can be a tough pill to swallow! But after a week or two it will feel like second nature, and you’ll be amazed at how much more productive it can make you.
Turn Off the Ringer and Schedule All Calls
The phone can be another BIG distraction. Calls can easily last close to an hour (even “quick” calls are usually a minimum of 20-30 minutes long). That’s precious time when you are trying to reach a deadline by the end of the day, and didn’t account for phone calls eating into your already tight schedule.
I’m a bit of a stickler for this one (some might use the term obsessive / compulsive) but I schedule 99% of my phone calls, whether they be from prospects or active clients. If you are like me, and lucky enough to have the majority of your work come from non-local clients, it’s not unheard of to consider phone calls to be the equivalent of in-person meetings. For most professional service providers, you have to make an appointment to meet with them. Since none of my clients are local, I follow this general rule for phone calls, as well.
Scheduling your phone calls makes a tremendous difference in being able to keep on track when working on a deadline. Think about it… if in a given day, 3 clients call about revisions to their sites, and a potential new client wants to pick your brain about their best options, you could easily spend a quarter of that day on the phone. Spur of the moment calls usually mean that my mind is half watching the clock, because I know I need to hurry up and get back to work, so as not to get behind on my schedule.
But consider the alternative… if it is a scheduled phone call instead, I’ll have an hour blocked out for the call; I’ll be well prepared for it; and will know that I’m devoting 100% of my attention to that client (or potential client) while we are on the phone. And I won’t risk missing a deadline, and therefore angering a client. That’s a win-win, in my book.
The simplest way to go about this, is to simply turn off your ringer, and let all calls go to voicemail. You will still get the message, and if it’s urgent, you can call back ASAP. Otherwise, try to schedule a time convenient to both parties, where you know the other person will get your full and undivided attention.
Smartphones: The Ultimate Godsend… er Distraction
I think it’s safe to say that if you are reading this, you own a smartphone – in fact, there’s a good chance you are reading this on a smartphone. But while smartphones are a Godsend that keep us constantly connected to email, instant messaging, social media, etc – it is also just another vehicle for distraction.
So when working, set your phone to “Phone Only”, “Do Not Disturb”, “Airplane Mode” or equivalent so you don’t get sidetracked with every message that comes in. And if you are truly serious about staying focused, turn it off entirely so you can adhere to the same phone rules above (especially when working on a deadline).
There’s no point to increasing the amount of time between automatic checks of the email client on your computer, if your phone is going to alert you every single time a new message comes in. Yes, push notification is a wonderful thing, but it can really hinder productivity, as well. By keeping your phone silent, you’ll help curb any additional distractions.
(Not So) Instant Messaging
Whether you use Gtalk, Skype, Yahoo or a multi-IM client like Pidgin – instant messaging is yet another distraction that can hinder productivity.
This one is actually no longer an issue for me. I used to use multiple IM services, but over time I reduced the number of services, and eventually dropped them altogether. Unless I have a specific conversation going, I really don’t need to receive any messages *that* instantaneously. Email works just fine for me.
If you do still use IM however, when hard at work on a particular project, you should at a minimum, set your status to “Busy.” Some IM clients, like Skype, will hold back on alerting you to new messages if your status is set to busy – it will just update the icon in the status bar, rather than actually opening up the chat window on your behalf. A nice touch, if you ask me! This way you know the message is there, but you don’t feel obligated to answer right this second.
While most people respect the “Busy” icon – especially if you update your status message with something referencing “deadlines” – not everyone will hold your same sense of urgency. For this reason alone, the ideal situation is to close out of the program entirely.
Like social networking, choose your times wisely – log back in when it’s time for a break and some chit-chat. But when deadlines are looming, you’re better off laying low…
How Do YOU Disconnect?
In my never-ending quest to make the most of my time, I’ve been implementing more and more of these suggestions on a regular basis, and definitely see a peak in my performance when I do so. Of course, I am always looking for even better ways to maximize productivity, so I would love to hear your best tips and tricks to disconnect!
What do you do to ensure that you stay focused on the task at hand? Please share in the comments below!
Oh, and yes, as a matter of fact I did follow EVERY single item on this page in order to finish writing this post. 😉
Editor’s Note: This post was last modified on February 12, 2014 to update some of my current methods that have changed since this article was originally posted.