How to work mindfully and beat distractions

I’ve spent long swathes of time being “too busy” with an inability to beat distractions. In fact, I’d go as far as to say I enjoyed it. In my head there was a certain authority that came with over-stretching myself. This, I thought, must be what “making it” feels like. That, coupled with the celebrity preoccupation with telling the world of their 4am workouts made me feel inferior.

If these people were successful, then I should listen to them, all of them. 

Being self-employed comes with its challenges. One that I’ve had to personally overcome is the freelancer guilt associated with refusing to work at every minute of the day and night. For self-employed people, work equals money.

This extended into my personal life, too. When you’re over-stretched at work, seemingly effortless jobs become problematic. Where do I find time to hoover the house? Make the dinner? Get to bed at a reasonable hour? Go to the gym?

This, in my opinion, is a slippery slope into discontentment.

The route out for me was to beat distractions, which is a battle I know many of us are facing at the moment with the unexpected period of home working. I wanted to keep this simple because as far as I’m concerned it is simple.

 I’ve come up with five ways to beat this feeling and work more strategically so you don’t have to work every hour of every minute. Because of this, I’ve been able to (mostly) work four days a week instead of the six I was working earlier in the year.

Sit with the discomfort

The initial hour of working on any job is a slog. There’s so far to go and you’re just at the very beginning. When I felt like this, I used to stop what I was doing and choose to spend my time on something else. I’d then return to it when I absolutely had to (because the deadline was looming).

Every time you start a task and then proceed to stop the task, you’re wasting precious time. The worst bit is always right at the beginning, get that over with as quickly as you can and see if you can get into a flow.

NB: You might find that you can’t get into the flow after you’ve started, but you only ever have to start once and coming back to it later or tomorrow will be ten times easier.

Think about the end result

I talk about the end result in my work a lot. In fact, if I’m writing content guidelines for a company, the “end result” is something I always ask employees to focus on. It’s easy to lose focus on that when you’re in the middle of a big project. The beginning is a mere dot and the end is not in sight. It’s time to re-frame it.

It works well in life, too. If you’re finding something particularly difficult (you’re having a bad day or you’ve had an argument with a friend or family member) think about the end result. This is about the resolution.

I’ve spent far too long sitting with bad moods (some days you just wake up to them, right?) and they can curtail everything you’re doing. Dip into another emotion and see how it works for you.

How to achieve this

You might wonder how you can dip into another emotion when you wake up feeling like a sack of rubbish. I’ve tried a few ways because I’ve woken up this way fairly often (particularly throughout lockdown). Here are my tried and tested ways:

  • Follow step one “sit with the discomfort” and the bad mood always (for me, at least) wears off as the day goes on. It’s short-term pain for long-term gain.
  • Factor in treats. Yes, I know you’re not a dog but allowing yourself a fancier lunch than usual or a relaxing hour spent reading later on in the day usually gives me a feeling of relaxation that gets me through.
  • Do nothing. I don’t really recommend this one on a regular basis but there are some extreme circumstances when it’s really the only way. If you’re ill, for example, I’m certainly not somebody who thinks that pushing yourself to your limit is ever an effective use of time.

Don’t expect instant results

This rule applies to everything you ever do. In fact, I think it’s one of the most important things you can take away from this blog post. If you think your idea is going to make you rich overnight or your podcast is going to get 1000 listens in the first 10 minutes, you’re wrong.

Start and nurture things because you love and feel passionate about the idea. I’ve witnessed so many people give up on things because they didn’t get the results they hoped for within the first week. I’ve done it in the past as well.

Working mindfully is about a slow, steady, and consistent approach to work and life. If you’re distracted by an unrealistic (or at least distant) hope of money or fame or recognition, you’re never going to place emphasis on the here and now.

Don’t assume you’ll feel motivated tomorrow

I’m not good with this one, let me tell you. I’ll get to the end of the day and feel a bit sluggish before making the decision that the last job on my list can be pushed back. Tomorrow, I think, I’ll feel much more awake and in the mood to do this than I do now.

There’s no guarantee that this is the case. You might be left with yesterday’s dregs as well as today’s list of tasks. There’s no way to anticipate your feelings tomorrow, so if possible, I’d always recommend trying to squeeze that one last task in. Your future self will thank you.

A note on this point: Something I’ve noticed about a successful vs. unsuccessful mindset is that successful (or at least happier) people tend to do things with their future selves in mind, whereas unsuccessful, unhappy people focus on the here and now. Don’t shoot your future self in the foot.

Cut out the distractions

This might be a fairly obvious one, yet it’s something we’re all guilty of. I’ll be right in the flow of working on something and then the group chat will go off and next minute I’ve lost my rhythm completely.

My brain works best when it’s focussing on one task and I imagine yours probably does as well.

According to research, nearly a third of our thoughts in the day are unrelated to the task at hand. It’s addictive, too, the more you derail the easier it becomes to derail again and again.

Our phones are the major catalyst to this. If you have a task to do, put your phone on do not disturb and don’t let yourself get disturbed.

Read more: How to remove ‘presenteeism’ from your office

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