In the now-classic software management book, Peopleware, there is a lot of documented evidence that knowledge workers do their best work while they are in “The Zone” or as it’s also known Flow.  Knowledge workers include programmers, writers, web designers, scientists, athletes, etc.

What is “The Zone”? It’s a place where people are fully concentrated on the task at hand, losing track of time and completely tuning out the outside environment. This is when they are most productive and produce their best work. What might have taken them hours outside of The Zone is reduced to tens of minutes.

This is the place you want to be.

The problem is – it’s really hard to get into The Zone and really easy to get knocked out of it. With instant messaging, Blackberries, email, noisy dogs, and more, there is a constant deluge of distractions. Any one of those things can knock you out of the zone and hamper your productivity. Would you like to work 4 hours a day or 8? If you are allowing yourself to be distracted by minutia that could be put off, then you are forcing yourself to work 8 instead of 4.

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Here are some ideas to keep yourself in “The Zone”:

  • Check email at most 2 times a day. Set up fixed times when you will check your Inbox and enforce it. Do not make email one of the first things that you do during the day. If you need to write and send an email, develop it in Notepad and wait until the alloted time to send it. Shutdown automatic remiders – “You’ve Got Mail” and close your email program or log out of your accounts.
  • Close any instant messaging programs you have: Slack, Teams, WhatsApp, and so on. An easy way to be distracted, people don’t even have to leave their desk!
  • Set your phones to go directly to voice mail. Allot a time to check your voice mail. There are very few things that need to be answered immediately, in fact, most people will sort out their problems while waiting for you to get back to them. For real emergencies, have a separate line only a few people know about. Of course, this doesn’t apply if you offer 24 hour support. If you do, then you need to outsource your support while you do your creative work.
  • Turn off notifications on your phone. With constant reminders about email you’ve received AND being a phone, you might as well just piss away any hope at productivity.
  • Unhook from the internet. Download all the materials you may need for your work (Google ‘download website’) and then completely disconnect. If you have anything that ‘needs’ to be done online, connect for a few seconds while it is submitted and then disconnect immediately. Write articles, blog posts, long comments locally and then copy and paste them into the appropriate forms when you are done. It’s way too easy to say, I’ll just check on this one thing and get sucked into studying that other thing for hours. Even if it’s only a few minutes, you’re knocked out of ‘The Zone’.
  • Post a note on your door or cube that says “Urgent Deadline, Please Do Not Disturb” or something similar.
  • Wear headphones to discourage people from stopping by for a chat. You don’t even have to play music in them, having them on seems to dissuade people from interrupting. If you play classical music or have the noice cancelling kind you will eliminate or cover up more distractions, increasing your productivity. Pop, rock and country music have been shown to distract more than help, so avoid them.
  • Keep business and your personal life separate. This means having separate phones, separate email accounts (and have them delivered to separate inboxes), separate IM accounts. I do this so that when I’m working, I’m only working and when I’m checking personal messages, I only check personal messages and do not get distracted by any work related messages that may have come in or vice versa. Read my post on eliminating negative people in your life.
  • Do 1 thing at a time. If you are going to write a blog post – do that and that only. Do not write a paragraph and then check your traffic stats or researching another article or comment on a blog post. Do one thing and one thing only at a time.

Those are the things that I do to eliminate most of the distractions from my day and have my most productive. I prefer 4 hours days to 8 hours ones. When you’re working, work. If you’re playing, play. Do not combine the two. One thing at a time. How do you eliminate distractions and increase your productivity? Leave me some ideas in the comments!