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Managing distractions and getting the big stuff done

This blog is one in a series designed to help you get better at time management and be more productive. It's based on my own experience and what's worked for many of my coaching clients.

If you think your main problem is that you are easily distracted and find it difficult to make progress on the big, important or more challenging tasks on your list, then that's what this blog is about.

How can you manage distractions and make some serious progress in the areas that are important to you?

The first thing to realise is that big, important or challenging tasks are probably the ones where we'll get distracted the most!

Because of the labels we give them in our minds, they're likely to be the ones where procrastination is virtually guaranteed to show up. Doing ANYTHING else will be more appealing than tackling these!

So here are a few top tips

  • Block out time in your diary

  • Minimise possible distractions

  • Plan first

  • Work in sprints

  • Change how you think to make what you have to do seem as simple, manageable and comfortable as possible!

Block out time in your diary

If you really want to make progress on your big, challenging or important tasks, you need to

  • block out time in your diary to work on them, and

  • guard that time!

Treat it with the same respect as you would an emergency dental appointment or a meeting with your boss or an important client.

Choose a time when you have the right sort of energy for the task.

For example, I'm a typical 'morning' person, so I block out time at the start of each day to tackle the big things I know I need to really think about.

Begin to notice how your energy changes through the day and which time of day would work best for you and the big things you need to think about and do.

Minimise possible distractions

If you do a quick scan of the internet, you'll see references to a number of studies that show that,

  • Multi-tasking isn't good for our brains and it impacts our ability to do any of those multiple tasks very well...which supports how frazzled most of us feel when we try.

  • It takes over 20 minutes to refocus after a distraction...which means the thing you've been distracted from is just going to take longer if you give in to distraction!

So we need to focus on one thing at a time and minimise all possible distractions.

Here are a few ideas on how you might do that

  • Consciously commit to choosing a task and giving it 100% of your attention as this will mean you'll do it better and quicker.

    • Remind yourself of this if your attention starts to wander to other things you need to do. Everything else should be on your to-do list and will get its opportunity for your attention, so just let it go for now.

    • If you've thought of something new, make a quick note of it just so you don't forget it and then bring your focus back to the task you've chosen to do right now.

  • Let people know that you're not available

    • Decide how you'll do this. For example, let everyone know that when you close your office door that means 'do not disturb', put something on your desk that means the same thing, register yourself as 'out of office' in the applications you use, make sure the time in your diary shows you as 'busy' etc.

    • Make sure you're happy with your reason for doing this. For example, "There's something important I need to focus on".

  • Make it easier to avoid the seductive distractions

    • Turn everything you don't need off, including your phone and other applications. You wouldn’t answer your phone if you were in an important meeting, so don’t do it when you’re focusing on something that needs to get done.

    • Turn off notifcations and any application badges/counters that indicate there's something to look at.

Plan first

The trouble with big, important or challenging tasks is that it's easy for them to feel overwhelming

So the first thing to work on is your plan.

Break down the tasks into small chunks of a) task and b) time. You don't have to do it all at once. By breaking it down into manageable chunks, it'll feel easier and you're more likely to get it all done - even if it takes a few goes.

It's a bit like wanting a great body. Even though you might not see a massive amount of progress each time you go to the gym, over time, all your little efforts will add up and give you the result you want.

So park any impatience and remember that baby steps add up!

Work in sprints

  • Put a timer on for a chunk of time where you will focus on just this one thing

  • Reward yourself with a timed break

  • Repeat - one or more times, depending on the amount of time you have set aside to work on this task.

To go back to my gym analogy, it's a bit like doing a HIIT workout (High Intensity Interval Training) where you work intensely for a short period of time, then rest and repeat...and there are interval training apps available that you could use as your timer.

These shorter HIIT workouts have proven to be a more efficient way to get fitness results than long periods of moderate exercise.

And the same could be said for working in sprints like this too.

How many times have you sat for too long staring at the thing you need to do, telling yourself that you need to keep going until it's done, even though you stopped being able to think straight some time ago?

Yet more commonly referenced studies show that people can't actually concentrate for hours at a time, so why do we assume that doesn't apply to us?

How long to work and rest?

Well that's a very individual thing and may vary from hour to hour, so you need to tap into your intuition and bargain with yourself until you find something that feels right.

Most of the time, 50 minutes on and 10 off works for me but some days that feels like a lot and my internal chat tends to change to something like....

"Just do it for 20 mins. Anyone can do anything for 20 mins! And then you can have a 10-minute break"

...and so it's surprising how often I'll do that and without even noticing, I've got right into the task at hand and not moved for over an hour!

What's the maximum amount of time that you won't object to committing to any task and how long a break would feel reasonable? Experiment until you find something that works for you.

What will you do in your break time?

I would suggest you get up, move around, get your blood circulating and go and look at something different. Look to the horizon or up at the sky. Go for a short walk, a quick run, lift a few weights or put the washing on if you're working at home. Whatever you fancy.

Make a list of the things you could do in your breaks and then experiment to see what works best for you. Experiment with planning them up front to see if knowing what you have to look forward to increases your motivation in your working time.

Change how you think to make what you have to do seem as simple, manageable and comfortable as possible!

The way we think determines

  • what we say to ourselves about what's going on,

  • how we feel, and

  • what we do.

So if you're struggling with these challenging tasks, play with what's going on in your head until you find a way to think that makes the tasks feel simple, manageable and as comfortable as possible!

How? Here are a few ideas

Work on your motivation

Motivation is that thing that helps us overcome our inner resistance to taking action. It provides the reason why we'll bother making an effort at all.

If you wait for motivation to show up, you're likely to be waiting a long time, so how can you generate it? By changing how you think and what you say to yourself as a result!

My blog on motivation includes some ideas on how you can do that and how tapping into your values is a great way to motivate yourself to get things done.

You can also...

Tap into your strengths, interests and preferences

I'm not a natural writer, so writing blogs falls into the big, challenging but important task category for me. So to publish anything, I have to tap into my strengths, interests and preferences.

  • Strengths - I'm good at and enjoy solving problems and puzzles, so I approach each blog as a problem or puzzle. What solution would I come up with for the topic of my blog? And that's what I write down.

  • Interests - I like figuring out how to do things better so I link everything I write to that so it's something that interests me.

  • Preferences - I prefer to work without a deadline so I block out days and weeks in the year where I can write my blogs way before I want to publish them.

A few other examples from working with some clients

  • How can you make what you have to do feel like a game?

  • What can you do to introduce an element of competition?

  • Who could you collaborate with to make the task feel more enjoyable?

  • How can you break it down so that you generate lots of opportunities to feel achievement?


What are your strengths, interests and natural preferences and how can you link them mentally to the things you need to get done?

Reframe other underlying reasons for procrastination

Why else don't you want to jump in and get on with these tasks?

Perhaps it's because

  • You're actually afraid that you won't do it well and you'll be judged badly as a result.

  • You're unsure how to proceed but you don't want to ask for help for some reason like wanting to look competent or not wanting to admit you can't do it.

  • You think it's really boring or just too hard, so you're linking hardship or pain to doing it!

Whatever you find, there'll be a 'good reason' behind why you procrastinate. Even judgements like "I think I'm just lazy"are simply masks for your 'good reasons' which you can do something about if you delve a bit deeper and figure out what's really going on.

So you need to ask yourself what those reasons are and challenge them if you want to get on and succeed.

For example

  • Convince yourself you'll do OK by looking for the times in your past when you've successfully done something else like this.

  • How likely is it really that you'll be judged badly and even if you are, how much will that matter a few years from now?

  • Tell yourself it's better to ask, learn and complete the task than it is to not do it at all.

Work with a coach

And...I would say this wouldn't I...the quickest and easiest way to uncover what's going on and then change how you think to get the results you want, is to work with a coach.

Coaching helps you

  • avoid getting stuck in your own head,

  • uncover your current thinking and the impact it's having,

  • challenge that thinking by introducing an objective view and different perspectives

  • explore potential options

  • develop strategies for experimenting with those options and embedding new ways of thinking.

So what will you experiment with to

Manage distractions and make some serious progress in the areas that are important to you?

If you'd like to


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