How to block out digital distractions and get work done

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How to block out digital distractions and get work done

Working from home is a blessing and a curse—you get the freedom to work how you want, but the temptation to slack off is strong. It’s easy to stick to your job when your boss is breathing down your neck, but at home, even the best noise-canceling headphones won’t keep you from doomscrolling through news 15 times an hour. If you need to buckle down, you need a digital workspace that’s conducive to focus.

Start fresh with a new user profile

Our personal computers have more shortcuts and automations than ever. What once took a few clicks and keystrokes now takes a single gesture, making it far too easy to check Facebook as soon as your attention starts to falter. So if you want to truly block out distractions, start with a clean slate—without any of your bookmarks, auto-filling passwords, and other automations.

The easiest thing to do is create a new profile in your browser of choice. In Google Chrome, just click your current profile image in the upper right-hand corner, then choose Add. Name your profile “Work” (or something to that effect), and Chrome will present you with a fresh browser window, ripe for customization with only the tools you need for your job. (If there’s a lot of crossover between your work and personal tools, you may want to split those up as well—for example, make a separate LastPass account with only your work-related passwords.)

I’d start with the clean Chrome profile and work with that for a while—it may be all you need. If you do a lot of work outside the browser, you can take the slightly more drastic measure of creating a new user account for the entire computer. In Windows, just head to Settings > Accounts > Family & Other Users and choose Add Someone Else to This PC. In macOS, navigate to System Preferences > Users & Groups, click the lock to make changes, and click the plus sign to add a new user.

I’ve heard of people going even further by using an entirely separate PC for work—in some cases resorting to an old PC that can’t run modern apps, or a dedicated writing tool like Freewrite. Installing a minimal Linux distribution would work well, too, though again, start small and work your way up if you need it.

Go totally full-screen

Even if you have a desktop dedicated entirely to work, other work apps can still distract you. Plenty of research shows that multitasking isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, and if you’re constantly switching between writing and email—even if it’s work-related email—you’ll experience diminished cognitive performance. So when you need to plough through something, you need to block everything else out.

We writers tend to be a scatterbrained bunch, which has created a market for full-screen, distraction-free writing tools like FocusWriter, Q10, and many others. They fill the entire screen with nothing but a plain text box (often with soothing sound effects or calming backgrounds), so you can focus on the one thing in front of you. You don’t need to be a writer to adopt this sort of workspace, though. Both Windows and macOS have full-screen modes that allow you to cover your entire monitor with a single application. So whether you’re trudging through spreadsheets or binge-writing code, you can cover up your taskbar, other windows, and notifications with an edge-to-edge window.

On Windows, this varies a bit from app to app. Many “Universal Windows Platform” apps that you get from the Microsoft Store will go full-screen when you press Win+Shift+Enter, while other desktop apps might have their own full-screen modes (Chrome can go full-screen with F11, for example). Not every app has this ability, though you can always approximate something similar by hiding the taskbar (right-click on the taskbar, then hit Taskbar Settings and Automatically Hide the Taskbar in Desktop Mode) and turning on Focus Assist (Settings > System > Focus Assist) to block notifications.

Apple has built a full-screen mode into macOS as well, and it works with plenty of apps—just click the green full-screen button in the upper left corner of a given window. Some apps may have their own full-screen shortcuts, too.

Tune in to focus-enhancing music

It’s hard to force that “flow state” that gets you into a steady groove at work, but music can help—at least, certain kinds of music. As we’ve discussed in the past, research points to lyric-free, somewhat fast-paced music as ideal for productivity, making video game soundtracks a surprisingly good choice. (I’m listening to the heavy metal grind of Doom’s soundtrack as I write this.) Spotify has a whole set of focus-oriented playlists in different genres as well, so it shouldn’t be too hard to find something that suits your fancy. There are apps and services completely geared around productivity-focused music too, like Brain.fm and Focus@Will, though they come with separate monthly subscription fees.

Block distracting sites from tempting you away

If you need an extra layer of accountability, there are plenty of tools that will block time-wasting sites like Facebook, Twitter, and Tetris so you can stick to the task at hand.

Chrome extension StayFocusd is one of the most popular options. You can add any domain you want to a list of blocked sites, and set a window of time during the day—like 9 to 5—that StayFocusd blocks you from visiting those pages. If you need something stronger, StayFocusd’s “nuclear option” allows you to restrict all sites except those you specify. You can even force a “challenge” that requires you to type a block of text, without typos, before you can continue—making it more difficult to change StayFocusd’s settings and work around the blocks you’ve set. It’s pretty powerful, provided all your distractions are on the web.

If you need something system-wide, Freedom is another feature-rich option that can block desktop apps, set the days and times you want those apps blocked, and track your time to see your biggest distractions. Freedom costs just under $30 per year, though, so you’ll need to pay for that extra power.

It’s okay to take breaks: just schedule them first

None of these tools are panaceas—they’ll just help you along the way. But if you aren’t committed to trying, you probably won’t get anywhere. You’ll still need to take an active role in focusing on work.

Part of that active role, though, means knowing when to give yourself some leeway. Taking regular breaks can aid in productivity when done properly, not to mention prevent eye strain and other tension in your body. The key is scheduling those breaks ahead of time, rather than continually giving in to distractions whenever you feel the slightest tug. So set a timer and make yourself work for 30 minutes (read up on the Pomodoro Technique for more), or set alarms in an app like Google Calendar to schedule your day. If you can look forward to that break, maybe you can stay focused long enough to finish the task at hand without temptation.

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