Towards Reducing Distractions while Working

Staying focused while working in front of a computer and within reach of a smartphone is hard.

In 2017, teaching people to focus is becoming a industry.

I’ve been trying to rethink distractions in my own life, particularly in my work environment. Here are some things that have helped:

Working from Home

Working in an office, especially an open-floor plan office, is disastrous for staying focused. DeMarco and Lister wrote about this in Peopleware 30 years ago, and yet open offices are the norm for startups today.

I’m much more productive by working from home in my quiet office or on my back patio. I’m finally able to spend my time thinking about hard problems rather than ways of silencing Constant Throat Clearer or Perpetual Annoying Laugher.


Every app and website these days wants to send you notifications. I’m aggressive about reducing notifications down to those that I need see, and I let almost nothing notify me with sound. I use Do Not Disturb mode on my phone and Mac whenever I need to stop notifications altogether.


Slack has become the new normal for company communication. Some would say Slack itself is ruining our focus, but having it regularly available has been essential for my own work.

I’ve come up with a few ways to take control of Slack:

  1. Only show “My unread, along with everything I’ve starred” in the sidebar. See Michael Lopp’s excellent post on Slack for more here.
  2. Enable notifications selectively.
  3. Sign out of distracting avocational Slacks.

Social Media

I’ve started using an app called Focus to block distracting websites (including Facebook and and apps on my work computer from 9 AM to 5:30 PM. I use Focus’s scheduling feature so blocking isn’t optional for me.

I’ve decided not to block Tweetbot. Though it can be distracting, Twitter is an invaluable way for me to learn from my professional colleagues, bounce ideas off of them, and have a good laugh.

On my iPhone, iPad, and personal Laptop, I’ve started using Freedom to block all social media during the day. This has stopped me from instinctively checking Instagram every time I walk to the bathroom or get suck on a hard problem. I highly recommend it.1

I also use Freedom to block social media for the first hour I’m up in the morning and before I go to bed.


I have two main tactics to keep email from being distracting.

  • I aggressively unsubscribe from mailing lists and ads.
  • I use Sanebox to filter low priority messages out of my inbox.

When emails only need a brief reply, I tend to write responses as soon as possible. At the moment, I’m trying to break people of the expectation that I’ll respond quickly. Using services like Boomerang which lets me write emails now and have them sent later helps here.


Long-form reading at the computer is terrible for comprehension. As Doug Lemov has argued, you have to get away from your computer and other devices to read deeply. I do this by printing articles or reading on my iPad with Freedom blocking enabled. I take my printouts or iPad and walk away from my desk to read.

Todo Items

I’m a firm believer in the Getting Things Done principle of reducing the cognitive overhead of tracking to-do items in my head. I use Omnifocus for task management. Mail Drop and this Alfred workflow help me to quickly add tasks to my Omnifocus inbox. When I think of something I need to take care of outside of work, I drop that thought into Omnifocus; this keeps those personal to-do items from distracting me while I’m working.

Staying focused is hard. I’m still learning how to do it well, and I’m sure I’m not the only one struggling to improve here. If you have any tips to share, I’d love to hear them!

  1. I can’t use Freedom on my work computer, because it acts as a VPN which conflicts with my work VPN. ↩︎

Last updated on Feb 13, 2024 10:42 -0500