To-do lists are supposed to keep us on task. It turns out they do the opposite. I’ve written about the many reasons why.
To regain focus and be more productive, it’s far better to create a weekly schedule using a technique called “timeboxing“. You can’t say you got distracted unless you know what you got distracted from. That is, without knowing how you want to spend your time, there’s no way you’ll spend it intentionally.
However, there’s a common question I get about timeboxing that seems to trip people up: “What should I do if I get off track?”
Everyone gets distracted from time to time. The difference between a distractible person and an indistractable person is that the indistractable person takes steps to make sure they don’t get distracted by the same thing in the future. As Brazilian author Paulo Coelho said, “A mistake repeated more than once is a decision.” If you keep getting distracted again and again by the same thing without taking action to prevent it, you’ve made a decision to be distractible.
Next time you find yourself slipping off track from what you planned to do, take these two steps to get back on schedule:
Step 1. Stick with the day’s schedule
Whenever something gets in the way of one of your time blocks, it’s imperative that you get back onto your schedule with the next time block.
Many people instead try to rejigger their entire day right away, shifting everything else around to try to make up for the time lost. This is a problem for two reasons. First, it takes time to reconfigure your schedule, which itself can be a time-wasting distraction. Optimizing your calendar falls awfully close to the kind of pseudo-work people do to try and get out of doing real work. Second, if you rejigger your schedule on the fly, you risk training yourself to think of your timeboxed schedule as something that can be changed. Convincing yourself it’s perfectly fine to adjust your schedule makes it easier to not stick to it in the future, defeating the purpose of timeboxing.M
The most important thing is to get back to doing what you said you were going to do according to your timeboxed schedule you made in advance. Just pick up with the next thing you planned to spend your time on. Don’t worry about not fully working on the last block. For now, just remember that what you planned to do with your time is traction, while everything else is a distraction, and that includes changing your schedule on the fly.
Step 2. Get to the source of the distraction
After your day is done, you’ll want to: 1) find a way to make up for the time you lost and 2) make sure you don’t let the same distraction happen again.
When first building your timeboxed schedule, you’ll want to make sure you’ve reserved “buffer time.” Buffer time builds a bit of slack in your day, and it’s important for two reasons:
For one, it’s time to reflect on how your day went. Did you spend enough time doing what you said you’d do? Did you focus effectively on the task at hand, whether that was working on a big project or being fully present with important people in your life like friends and family?
Make sure to look at your schedule like a scientist, not like a drill sergeant. A scientist makes hypotheses, runs experiments, looks at the results, and, based on the results, runs more experiments. Your schedule is a hypothesis you test every day, and, over time, you’ll get better at making it fit your needs.
One of the misconceptions about timeboxing is once you set a schedule, you have to stick with it forever. That’s not how it works. You need to stick with it, but not forever. While it’s imperative that you follow through on how you planned your day during that day, you absolutely need to make adjustments, just not at that moment.
When you first start timeboxing, you’ll want to reserve time to think about your schedule for the day ahead. As you gain experience, you’ll be able to spend less time adjusting your plan. For instance, I went from revising my schedule for the day ahead at the end of each day to working on it once a week.
Second, buffer time helps you plan for seemingly unpredictable distractions. Remember, if you get distracted more than once by the same thing, it’s on you. Buffer time gives you a chance to consider the real reason you got distracted and take action today to prevent getting distracted tomorrow.
Use your buffer time to consider that distractions only have three potential causes:
1. Internal triggers
An internal trigger is an uncomfortable emotional state you seek to escape. If you found yourself slipping off track because you were feeling bored, lonely, stressed, or anxious, you succumbed to an internal trigger.
I did this all the time when I found writing too difficult and instead checked email. Writing is hard work–it’s often boring, tedious, and lonely. I’d find escape by checking email or doing some other kind of pseudo-work to free my mind from the discomfort I felt.
The next time you get distracted, ask yourself, “what emotion was I trying to escape?” In Indistractable, I write about dozens of techniques you can use to deal with your internal triggers so that they lead you to traction.
2. External triggers
External triggers are all the things in our outside environment that can lead us off track. They are all the pings, dings, and rings that can derail a well-planned day.
There are many ways to hack back all the external triggers that lead to distraction but doing so requires us to first ask a critical question: Is this trigger serving me or am I serving it?
If an external trigger, such as a notification on your phone, is set as a reminder that you have an appointment you planned for or it’s time to hit the gym, then great! It’s serving you.
But if that external trigger interferes with your plan, such as a notification from your phone while you’re trying to concentrate, then turn it off. Studies find two-thirds of people with a smartphone never adjust their notification settings. Come on!
Take a minute to make sure you don’t get interrupted by another external trigger during your scheduled focused work time.
Hacking back your phone to fight distraction takes just a few minutes and will save you countless hours. Learn to use the “do not disturb while driving” feature on your phone (even when you’re not driving). Use a distraction-blocking screen sign at your desk to keep colleagues from interrupting you.
3. A planning problem
The last potential source of distraction is a “planning problem.” This happens when we simply didn’t allocate enough time for a task or we didn’t allocate enough buffer time for a task that takes an unpredictable amount of time.
For example, sometimes people will argue, “What about traffic? How do I know how long I’ll spend trying to get to work?” That’s an easy one, since traffic is a potential concern every single day, it shouldn’t be a surprise. If you had a super important meeting you just couldn’t afford to miss, you’d leave home early and plan for extra time. The same goes with any block of time; if you’re not quite sure how long you’ll need, just build in a bit extra.
“But what about my kids?” people might ask. “What if they need me to pick them up from school if they get sick?” Well, that’s to be expected, too. Kids getting common illnesses shouldn’t be a surprise. The answer, of course, is not to give up on planning your day, but to have a contingency plan in place so you know what you’ll do in the future.
Maybe you’ll have a friend or family member ready to help? Or perhaps you’ll reserve extra time once every few weeks to make up for the time you may have missed to deal with rare, but predictable emergencies. Does a brain surgeon stop in the middle of doing brain surgery because their kid needs to be picked up from school? No—they have a plan, and so should you.
In the words of Voltaire, don’t let “perfect be the enemy of the good.” Stuff happens, but don’t sabotage yourself by finding excuses for not planning ahead. Sticking to your schedule ensures your physical and mental health by keeping you healthier and happier. You’ll excel at your job when you follow through on your commitments, just as you said you would. You’ll have closer, more fulfilling relationships when you are fully present in body and mind.
Being indistractable means living with personal integrity. It’s about keeping your word to others and, most importantly, to yourself.
Top Time Management Articles
- How to Stay on Schedule Even When You Go Off Track
- Free Schedule Maker Template — Use This Sleek Google Doc
- Timeboxing: The Most Powerful Time Management Technique You’re Probably Not Using
- Be a Schedule Builder, Not a To-Do List Maker
- Indistractable Schedule Maker Tool
- How to Get the Most Out of Your Calendar
- How to Be Indistractable: Video by Nir Eyal
- How to Regain Focus at Work by Slaying the Messaging Monster
- Technology Is Not Hijacking Your Brain (video)
- Technology is Distracting and Addictive. Here’s How to Fix It. (Video)
- How to Stay Informed Without Losing Your Mind
- How to Clear Your Computer of Focus-Draining Distraction
- Un-Hooked: Increasing Focus in the Age of Distraction
- Email Habits: How to Use Psychology to Regain Control
- The Psychology Behind Why We Can’t Stop Messaging
- Escape From Message Hell