Chapter 6: Block distractions

(Source: Photo by Oscar Keys.)

The crippling effects of distraction—and how to prevent them

Note: this chapter is part of a book on how to live your best life. You can view the whole series here.

“[We] seek out distractions in order to stay mentally busy, so we can avoid facing up to the big questions—like whether we’re living genuinely meaningful lives.”

—Nietzsche, German Philosopher

Distractions are leashes. They tell the world you aren’t free, that you’re following someone else’s lead and—worst of all—you’re OK with it.

Sadly, though, we all wear leashes.

Between email, Facebook, phones, and a tangled web of other electronic devilries, leashes lead you to a second-rate, opening-act life.

Even if you have a clearly defined purpose—and religiously stick to your kanban and daily routines—distractions lie around every corner, waiting to pounce.

Get this: the average person consumes up to 15.5 hours of media per day. That’s a lot of distraction. And, as you’ll soon see, even the smallest distraction can cripple your productivity.

In this chapter, you’ll discover:

  • The surprising reason you get distracted (and what to do about it).
  • The devastating effects distractions have on your focus. (It’s much, much worse than you think.)
  • Simple—but often overlooked—things you can do to block distractions.
  • The “magic word” that is scientifically proven to reduce distractions by at least 64%.
  • A short list of tools to block distractions—and why I don’t use them.

Why are we so distracted?

Distraction: a thing that prevents someone from giving full attention to something else.

When we don’t achieve our goals, it’s easy to blame external distractions. Especially when we’re bombarded with emails, chores, social obligations, job requirements—and a gaggleplex of other distractions.

But the cold, hard truth is: you subconsciously give into distraction because you want to feel in control of your life.

It’s true. By giving in to distraction, we—in the parlance of psychologists—subconsciously assert our autonomy. Autonomy, as defined in self-determination theory, is “the universal urge to be causal agents of one’s own life and act in harmony with one’s integrated self.

Think about that for a second.

Let’s say your taxes are due. Tomorrow. You know—deep in your bones—how important this is; however, you find yourself constantly distracted by Facebook, making coffee, and wandering around the house in your underwear. This, in its purest form, is your subconscious asserting your autonomy. In essence, you’re saying to yourself, “Hey, I don’t need to pay my taxes; I’m clipping my toenails because that’s what I want to do.”


And it gets worse. We even assert our autonomy on tasks we’ve assigned ourselves, which is about as strange—and effective—as flipping yourself off. But we do it anyway.

But what’s a little distraction? It can’t hurt that much, right?

To find out, let’s take a look at…

The crippling effects of distraction

Does distraction affect performance? And if so, how long does the distraction have to be?

A study published in Journal of Experimental Psychology investigated this question—and its findings were shocking.

In the study, subjects were asked to complete simple tasks on a computer. While they worked, an interruption would appear on their screen, and researchers logged how many mistakes people made once they returned to the task.

The results were astonishing. Researchers found that interruptions averaging 2.8 seconds doubled the number of mistakes; interruptions averaging 4.4 seconds tripled them.

That’s incredible. Even a simple distraction—lasting less than 5 seconds—can triple the amount of errors you make. So it pays to block distractions at every turn.

In the next section, we’ll look at the three types of distraction:

  • tactical distraction,
  • strategic distraction, and
  • procrastination.

Tactical distractions

Tactical distraction: an interruption that shifts your focus away from your work.

Tactical distractions are what we usually think of as distractions. It’s when you’re working on the right thing, but get distracted by checking Facebook or email. Or when a coworker barges in and starts running their mouth about… whatever.

There are two main ways to overcome tactical distractions. Your first option is to use tools that block distractions (like a browser extension that blocks social media sites). Your second option is to avoid getting distracted in the first place. Naturally, the latter is more important because it is internal and something that you can carry with you for the rest of your life. It becomes a habit, and, as we’ve seen, habits are what define you. We’ll cover how to overcome tactical distractions later in this chapter.

Strategic distraction—the most dangerous form of distraction

Strategic distraction: working on tasks that aren’t in-line with your goals, preventing you from giving your full attention to achieving your goals.

Strategic distractions are more subtle—and dangerous—than tactical distractions.

A tactical distraction is when you’re working on the right thing, but get distracted by something else.

A strategic distraction is when you’re working on the wrong thing. The work itself is a distraction.

If I may leverage a few well-worn phrases, strategic distractions are when you can’t:

  • see the big picture,
  • see the forest for the trees, or
  • get your head out of your ass.

Has this happened to you? You grind away, throughout the day, and feel great. The day goes by and—looking back—the cold, hard truth hits you between the eyes: it was all just busy work.

Busy work! We’re a culture of busy work. A culture who celebrates multitasking and so-called productivity at the expense of contemplation, reflection, and living with a greater sense of purpose.

To avoid strategic distraction, you need to clearly define your most important goals. Fortunately, we’ve already accomplished this with your Board Game of Life. (You have completed your Board Game of Life, right? If not, please do so now. See Chapter 2 for instructions.)

Your Board Game of Life will provide the answers you need—and inoculate you from strategic distractions. The next time you feel uncertain about the importance of your work, just go back to your Board Game and see if it ties into your main goals. If it does, great; if not, select an item from your Board Game and get to work.

Procrastination—a sneaky form of distraction

Procrastination: delaying or postponing something.

Unlike strategic and tactical distractions, procrastination is a form of distraction that prevents you from even getting started.

Procrastination is shockingly common. In a recent study, 20% of people identify themselves as chronic procrastinators. And that number soars to 70% for college students.

Why do we procrastinate? Psychologists cite many possible explanations: a defense mechanism against overbearing parents, a desire to avoid responsibility, a compensation for fear of failure (or success), or even a thrill-seeking desire to work under pressure.

Regardless of the reason, the effects of procrastination are devastating. According to a study at the University of Windsor, chronic procrastinators—again, that’s 20% of the general population—suffer more health issues due mainly to higher levels of stress.

One such health issue is cardiovascular disease. Psychologist Fuschia Sirois of Bishop’s University found a significant association between procrastination and hypertension and cardiovascular disease, even when controlling for age, ethnicity, and personality traits.

It’s not just the procrastinator that suffers. As Dr. Timothy A. Pychyl puts it in Psychology Today, “In the name of ‘working better under pressure,’ too often social engagements are canceled, promises are broken, and favors called in to have others problem solve last-minute catastrophes (a jammed printer becomes a national emergency). Anyone within the vicinity suffers the intense pressure of the looming deadline. Procrastination harms relationships at home and at work.

Let’s face it: procrastination sucks, right? It stops you cold from accomplishing your goals, and—no matter how much you may want that new job, new car, or published book—it ain’t gonna happen if you don’t get started.

Lao-tzu, the badass Chinese philosopher, said: “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”

Actually, he didn’t say that. Not exactly.

It turns out that—according to Chinese scholar Michael Moncur—a more accurate translation would be “The journey of a thousand miles begins beneath one’s feet.”

The difference is subtle, but important. Rather than focus on the importance of a single step, Lao-tzu emphasized that action came from stillness. In other words, you already have everything you need to get started.

Procrastination can often feel like that. You’re standing there, aware of what needs to be done—but you just can’t do it.

OK, enough talk. Distractions—whether tactical, strategic, or procrastination—aren’t helping anyone.

So let’s block some distractions, shall we? And the best place to start is to use…

The “magic word” scientifically proven to reduce distractions by 64%—and up to 700%

What if I told that a single “magic word” could instantly reduce your distractions—and help you follow through on your convictions—by at least 64%? That just a single word could do this for you—and that several scientific studies proved it worked? Do you think this would make an instant and dramatic change in your life?

I believe it would. Take a look at the proof below and see for yourself.

In a study for the Journal of Consumer Research, Vanessa Patrick and Henrik Hagtvedt measured the power of self-talk and how it affected distractions and follow-through.

Let’s review two of their experiments, and see how changing a single word produced tremendous results.

In the first experiment, 30 women attended a seminar on long-term health goals. After the seminar, researchers asked the women to join a program that helped them adopt a new health strategy (e.g. stop eating 12 cupcakes in a single sitting) by changing their self-talk—and then report how well that strategy worked for them.

The 30 women were divided into 3 separate groups:

  • Group A (“I can’t”): would say something like, “I can’t eat cupcakes because I’m on a diet.”
  • Group B (“I don’t”): would say something like, “I don’t eat cupcakes because I’m on a diet.”
  • Group C (“No”): adopted a “Just Say No” strategy.

The results? Before I reveal the answer, who do you think was most effective, and why?

(Take a moment, please.)

<Insert Jeopardy! music>

OK, time for the results.

8 out of 10 women in Group B (“I don’t”) stuck with the program for the full ten days.

Of the women in Group C (“No”), only 3 completed the program.

And of those in Group A (“I can’t”), only one person completed the program.

Let that sink in. By substituting a single word—don’t for can’tpeople were eight times more likely to succeed.

(Note: If you’re into statistics, the p-value in the above experiment was < .001, which means there is only a 1 in 1,000 likelihood the improvement was due to chance. I’ll take those odds any day.)

Let’s look at another experiment. 120 undergraduates were asked to use either an “I can’t” or “I don’t” framework when faced with temptation.

Shortly after, the subjects were offered a granola bar versus a chocolate candy bar.

The results? The “I don’t” group chose the healthy snack 64% more often than the “I can’t” group. (Again, if you’re interested in statistics, the p-value was < .01, meaning there was less than a 1% likelihood this result was due to chance.)

Bottom line: the next time you’re faced with temptation—whether it’s a distraction or otherwise—tell yourself “I don’t X” instead of “I can’t X.”

To get your creative juices bubbling, here are a few suggestions:

  • I don’t eat unhealthy snacks.
  • I don’t work after 5 p.m.
  • I don’t check email more than three times a day.
  • I don’t sniff glue.
  • I don’t sacrifice my dreams for others’ petty requests.
  • I don’t talk about people behind their back.

Good stuff. Now let’s discuss…

Tools to block distractions—and why I don’t use them

This list is short and to the point. I’m overwhelmed by articles that promise “100+ must-have productivity tools.” (Who has time to review 100+ tools, let alone use them?)

Also, I’ve tried tools like StayFocusd to block distracting sites, but I don’t use them.

Why? Because distraction-blocking tools are a crutch. They turn you into a reactive sissy pants, ready to fall—and fail—when someone takes the crutch away.

Earlier in this chapter, we saw how you can improve your commitment by at least 64% just by saying “I don’t” rather than “I can’t.”

Distraction-blockers are technology’s version of “I can’t.” It takes you out of the driver’s seat and lets some silly browser extension dictate what you can and can’t (there’s that word again) do.

Having said that, I know a lot of people get value from these tools, so I’ve included a quick round-up of popular distraction blocking tools below.

  • StayFocusd. A Chrome extension that blocks time-wasting sites.
  • FocusBooster. Focus on single tasks for 25 minutes apiece. (This is based on the Pomodoro technique, which I’ve found useful for writing.)
  • RescueTime. Tracks time spent on applications and websites, giving you an accurate picture of your day.

How to block distractions—by leveraging the greatest productivity hack, ever

Have you seen the movie Yes Man?

It’s hilarious. Jim Carrey wants to live better, so he starts saying “yes” to everything, including travel, rock concerts, and blowjobs from geriatric broads. By the end, the world’s a better place, and he winds up with Zooey Deschanel. (Who, like me, is a Capricorn—and drop-dead gorgeous.)

It’s a great movie, with a feel-good moral: say yes, embrace the unexpected, and live a more exciting, fulfilling life.

Sure, sure. Great morale. Except it ain’t true. Say “no” more often; you’ll love the results.

Do you know this feeling? Where your boss (or mother, or spouse) asks you to do something—and you know they’d be better off doing it themselves?

Or how about this: where you’re stuck between two people—who have just enough brains between them to make an idiot—and it’s frighteningly clear they should be able to solve their problem, without needing your monkey-ass in the middle?

Or my personal favorite: when you’re… wait, what was I saying?

Ugh. Distractions. They’re everywhere. And we must say “no” to them before they waste one more precious minute of our ever-decreasing time.

Look, distractions are not deathbed-worthy. You’ll never lie on your deathbed—eyes reeling back in your skull—and lament, “Why did I only watch each season of Ice Road Truckers twice? Why not thrice, dammit? WHY NOT THRIIIIIIICE!!!.”

Say “no” more often. And here’s how to do it:

Go to your kanban board. There are at least a few items in your backlog that you don’t want to do—and I’m willing to bet you don’t really need to do them.

Pick one item from your backlog and delete it. Gasp! Feels good, doesn’t it? All of a sudden you feel lighter than a feather. You may even feel a bit giddy; if so, do it again! Choose another item and delete it.

Many productive people—including Michael Hyatt and Tim Ferriss—swear by the “Not To-Do List.” That’s cool. I like that idea. Plus, when you write down—and more importantly, internalize—your Not-To-Do List, you’re embracing the powerful phrase “I don’t” instead of “I can’t” that we’ve seen work oh-so-well in this chapter.

8 simple, proven steps to identify—and eradicate—procrastination

In an article in Psychology Today, professor of psychology Dr. Joseph Ferrari recommends these strategies for reducing procrastination:

  1. Make a list of everything you have to do.
  2. Write a statement of intention.
  3. Set realistic goals.
  4. Break it down into specific tasks.
  5. Make your task meaningful.
  6. Promise yourself a reward.
  7. Eliminate tasks you never plan to do. Be honest!
  8. Estimate the amount of time you think it will take you to complete a task. Then increase the amount by 100%.

Let’s see how this connects with what you’ve done so far throughout this book.

  • You’ve created your kanban board that lists everything you need to do. In your kanban, you have a backlog of items that you may or may not do.
  • You’ve gone through your backlog and deleted at least one item so you feel in control. This gives you autonomy.
  • You’ve made sure each task is a SMART goal, and that it is specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and timely.
  • You’ve created your Game Board of Life to help you identify—and visualize—what matters most to you; this ensures each task is meaningful.
  • You’ll enjoy a sense of accomplishment whenever you move a completed task into your “Done” column in your kanban.

Those two lists smell similar, don’t they? Except that the second list is a specific framework you can build on further as needed. Structure for the win!

How to get over procrastination—and a word from Raymond Chandler

Raymond Chandler—one of the best damn writers, ever—used the following habit to crank out four hours of writing every day. (By comparison, I’m lucky to do more than one hour. And I’ll never write good like him.)

When asked how he was able to write four hours a day, Raymond replied, “Two very simple rules, a. you don’t have to write. b. you can’t do anything else. The rest comes of itself.

Other writers refer to this as “butt-in-seat” time. You don’t force yourself to get started, so there’s no pressure. But you also remove your option to do anything else… and pretty soon… you get to work.

Feeling overwhelmed? Try this simple tactic

Break your big goal into several smaller ones.

A study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology found that we procrastinate when faced with large, ill-defined tasks. If you’ve ever sighed, and thought to yourself, “I don’t even know where to start”—then you know the feeling.

However, here’s the good news: The study concluded that our motivation increases when we feel more likely to succeed. I suspect that’s why Bill Gates famously said, “Most people overestimate what they can do in one year and underestimate what they can do in ten.” Ten years is a long time, but since it’s hard to accurately predict what we’ll accomplish over such a long timeframe, we end up selling ourselves short.

Therefore, the trick is to break the big, scary goal into smaller, easier-to-digest goals. Which, as you may recall, is what we’ve done with your project-specific kanbans. (You have created your kanban, right? If not, please do so now.)

As you recall from Chapter 3, I set up a master kanban and a project-specific kanban for writing this book. By creating a separate kanban for this book, I was able to break a big, scary goal into smaller, manageable goals like “write the first draft of Chapter 5.” This helped reduce my sense of feeling overwhelmed, made success seem more likely, and motivated me to keep going.

To avoid procrastinating, make your goals crystal-clear and don’t be too hard on yourself. Because…

Scientists recommend you forgive yourself for procrastinating—but give your spouse hell

You’re going to love this one. Double standards abound in marriages—but now, we finally have one backed by science.

Psychological scientists Gráinne M. Fitzsimons of Duke University and Eli J. Finkel of Northwestern University found that people who think their partner will help them complete a task are more likely to procrastinate about doing it.

I’m guilty as hell here. If I think my wife’s gonna help clean the kitchen, I’m glacier-patient. Seriously, I will calmly wait until the kitchen resembles a slasher-film before cleaning it.

So if you find your spouse slacking off, give ‘em hell. Let the dishes stack up, the lawn grow tall, and the laundry go unwashed—they’ll get the message. Eventually. Do NOT enable them by doing their work for them!

But should you procrastinate, dear reader, don’t beat yourself up. Forgive and forget. I know. Hard to believe, right? But there is strong evidence to support forgiving yourself.

A study published in Personality and Individual Differences polled 119 students and found that students who forgave themselves for not studying on the first exam were less likely to slack off on their second exam.

So next time you slack off, take it easy and forgive yourself.

Now that we’ve discussed how to block distractions, let’s tie everything together and ensure you make your goals happen. In the next chapter, you’ll discover how to dramatically improve your follow-through to ensure you accomplish your goals. 


In this chapter, you discovered that you’re distracted because you want to feel in control of your life. In psychological terms, this is called “asserting our autonomy.”

You also learned the three types of distractions are strategic distractions, tactical distractions, and procrastination. Strategic is when you’re working on the wrong thing; tactical is when you get distracted while working on the right thing; procrastination is not starting at all.

You learned that saying “I don’t” instead of “I can’t” will boost your ability to block distractions and temptations.

You also saw how even a small distraction kills your effectiveness. Interruptions averaging 2.8 seconds doubled the number of errors; interruptions averaging 4.4 seconds tripled them.

You learned to say no—frequently. Saying no is perhaps the greatest productive tactic ever created.

And lastly, you learned to forgive yourself for procrastinating—but to give your spouse hell.

What you need to do next

  • Start every day with your kanban. Empty your mind into the backlog column so you start with a clear head.
  • Select your most important thing to do today. Move this item into your “doing” column in your kanban (if it’s not already there).
  • Break larger tasks into smaller, separate tasks—and place them in your kanban. Doing so will make your work seem more manageable, and you won’t procrastinate.
  • Forgive yourself for procrastinating. But if your partner is procrastinating, don’t do the work for them. Wait them out; otherwise, you’re just enabling them!
  • Optional: try StayFocusd to help you block distractions.

Note: this chapter is part of a book on how to live your best life. You can view the whole series here.