Reducing distractions

I have been very conscious about reducing distractions in the past seven months or so. This is a follow up to my previous entry on opportunity costs. With so many things clamouring for our attention nowadays, it is important that you focus on things that matter, especially if you have many areas of interest like me.

When you start thinking about opportunity costs, not just in terms of money spent but also how you spend your time and energy, you will realise the limits of the resources available to you. You might have a whole list of things you want to do in a day, but you find that you can only finish a handful. This is often because you either do not have enough time to do so, or you are physically or mentally drained.

Creating task lists

The first step to gaining focus is to know what you need to do. Keep a list of things you want to do in the time you have in a day. It is a simple concept most of us are familiar with, but many people do not practice it even if they know that it helps.

I used task lists diligently to organise my studying schedules, but I stopped relying on lists when I started working. I gave myself many reasons for not keeping a list, yet I know deep down that they are nothing more than excuses. I decided to force myself to work with a daily task list to see how it would help me. Within the first few days, I already noticed how significant it was in boosting my productivity tremendously.

“To enjoy life, you don’t need fancy nonsense, but you do need to control your time and realize that most things just aren’t as serious as you make them out to be.”

Tim Ferriss

Daily task lists give better clarity of my progress. I get an overview of my tasks over several days. For example, I have a task that I want to complete within a week. From my daily lists, I can see whether I managed to stick within the allocated time. This is very helpful when I repeat the task in the future as I would be able to better estimate the time required to clear the task.

The daily lists also enable me to keep track of whether I kept up with repeated tasks such as writing a journal entry. It is easy to spot the day you missed doing a repeated task when you do a review of the past week.

Aside from daily lists, I create lists to map out the tasks needed to complete a project. These project lists help to track progress in the projects and function as an achievement ladder for self-encouragement.

List-making apps

I use a combination of task lists apps and handwritten lists to stay organised. I use a pocket-sized notebook to draw up my handwritten lists. This allows me to check my tasks without pulling out my phone, which eliminates the likelihood of being distracted by messages or other notifications. And in the rare instances when I run out of battery on my devices, I can still refer to the lists.

My favourite list-making apps are Clear and Wunderlist. Clear is the critically-acclaimed, award-wining iOS app. I love the minimalist design and intuitive user interface that makes creating and complete tasks such a joy.

Although Clear comes with a Mac app, Wunderlist is my preferred cross-platform to-do list service simply because I have been using it for years. One of the advantages of Wunderlist back then was the ability to access my least via its web service. However, I find myself not needing a web service nowadays, preferring to just use the iOS list.

I will use both Clear and Wunderlist side by side for a few more months before choosing which service to keep. My goal is to work with just one app to simplify my workflow. Matt has recently adopted Things into his workflow. I gave it a spin but it didn’t stick and has been dropped.

Matt and I prefer Asana for team task lists and project management. Asana does not have a native Mac app, so we use Fluid to run Asana’s web app as a desktop app. Slack is our primary mode of communication and it comes with a Asana integration to help us track tasks from within Slack.

Levels of communications

People often arrange face-to-face meetings or talk on the phone simply out of habit. Most of such correspondence can be achieved through text messages or email, and you get to track the course of the conversation. The only practical way to recall what was said during the call is based on what you remember, and our memory is not exactly the most reliable.

You might suggest recording the calls. Come back to me after you have sat down and scrubbed through an audio track to find the part of the conversation you want.

You have probably experienced such time-wasting disruptions. You get a call to inform you that an email has been sent to you. If you send someone an email, you would expect them to reply when they see the email or when it is convenient. Or someone has a discussion with you over the phone and then asks you to send an email of what you just discussed. If you wanted an email in the first place, why not just say so in the first place instead of spending the time talking about something that would need to be sent via email anyway.

“Focus on being productive instead of busy.”

Tim Ferriss

I work with a set of rules to handle incoming communications. I cascade correspondence from emails to text messages to calls, in order of increasing urgency. Face-to-face appointments are reserved for times when I need to be next to the person to hammer out certain details, or for issues that might be impractical to resolve via other forms of communication.

For least urgent discussions, try to direct them to emails. Topics that require faster responses get escalated to text messages. And pressing issues are solved through phone calls. If someone emails about an urgent matter and does not get a reply, their response would be to text or call. Likewise, if an urgent text is not answered, the sender would logically call.

Now that your incoming communications are channelled to different media, the next step to take is to minimise the time spent checking your inboxes or answer calls.

Minimising such interruptions is important for me because I often find myself distracted after responding to an email, a text message, or answering a call. The topic that was discussed often stay in my thoughts or make me think about something else. There have been several occasions where I ended up being completely distracted from what I was supposed to do.

Check emails once a day

Many of us spend hours checking our emails. I actually tracked the time I spent on checking emails and discovered that I was using up two to three hours per day. It did not help that my Gmail inbox was constantly open and I diligently checked emails almost as soon as they came in. Once I realised how much time I wasted with emails, I started to restrict the time spent on emails. Now, I use less than hour a day to go through my email. I accomplished this by checking my emails only once a day.

I was a little apprehensive about opening my email only once daily. My main concern was missing important emails. After a one week trial, I discovered that my fears were unfounded. While a few I did end up missing a few emails, it was due to overzealous filtering by Gmail.

I use Gmail filters to automatically sieve unimportant emails out of my inbox and label them based on the type of content, so only the important emails will show up in my inbox and all other emails skip the inbox. This is one key workflow that helps me to achieve inbox zero every day.

Of course, there are exceptions to the once daily rule when I’m expecting emails. In those instances, I would have notifications turned on to inform me when new emails arrive in my inbox.

Allocate time for text messages

Likewise, I have trained myself to avoid constantly checking my phone for unread text messages, unless I am engaged in an ongoing conversation. This is something that I found harder than to do than I thought it would be. I believe this is because we have become so accustomed to instant gratification that we feel compelled to reply a message as soon as possible. By being aware of your subconscious desire to jump on an incoming message, you are halfway to quitting your messaging addiction.

The next time a text message comes in, ask yourself must you reply immediately, or should you be focussed on a more pressing task on hand. After the initial phase of active filtering, I eventually became so used to not jumping on text messages that I actually end up not replying some friends for the whole day, and in some cases even a few days. I did not even realise that until some of them pointed out that I had ignored them. So if you are one of them and are reading this, know that you are not the only one and no, I’m not avoiding you.

“Being overwhelmed is often as unproductive as doing nothing, and is far more unpleasant. Being selective—doing less—is the path of the productive.”

Tim Ferriss

You might ask why do this? Instant messaging has revolutionised the way we communicate. Even back when it was all done on a desktop, it allowed us to be able to converse faster and more casually than through an email. Yet we also do not have to be constantly present as we would have to in a voice call. There was SMS messaging but the cost attached to each message we sent out acted as a limiting factor to the number of messages we sent. With text messaging via internet services, we are able to send messages without worrying about the cost and it is done via devices that we carry everywhere in our pockets.

Through the transition, we have become slaves to our mobile devices. Text messaging started to feel more like actual conversations except it is in text. Many of today’s messaging apps you even get to send voice or video clips, so you can see and hear what the other person experiences. I still remember the days when we had to tell our friends that we need to go offline because someone else needs to use the computer, or we were going out. Nowadays we tell our friends that we will be reply in a bit because we are eating, or that we are typing slow or with typos because we are eating and have to type with one hand.

By taking a step back and altering your perspective of text messaging, you can reduce the time spent checking your phone for new messages. Instead of being constantly present, think of messaging as a way for others to leave a message and do likewise. Get to the point and provide them with ample information so they can reply you with the answers you were looking for.

“Doing less is not being lazy. Don’t give in to a culture that values personal sacrifice over personal productivity.”

Tim Ferriss

I have come across situations where I would get people messaging me, “Hey, I have something to tell you.” And then they wait for me to reply along the lines of, “Sure, go ahead.” So if I only check my phone every few hours, they would have wasted a lot of time because they had to wait for two replies from me.

If they had simply dived into what they wanted to tell me, they would only have to wait for my first reply. This might come across as obnoxious to some people. But this is how I manage my time and minimise distractions. Of course, there are times when I have no tasks on hand, so I would allow myself to indulge in instant messaging and use text messaging to engage in a flowing conversation.

Screening calls

Phone calls are the most distracting among the three methods of communications mentioned here. You have to stop whatever you are doing to answer the call, and you have to be engaged in the conversation. This is unlike with text messaging and emails, where you can choose to reply at a convenient time. However, you can choose not to answer the call.

Just to be clear, this is not about checking who is calling and then choosing to ignore the person. When I’m busy all phone calls would be silenced. The only exceptions are my girlfriend and my family. These contacts are assigned to a group with special ring tones and vibration so that I would know immediately that it is a call I want to answer. This VIP group is allowed to ring the phone even when my phone is in Do Not Disturb mode.

I have certain time slots in the day when I allow myself to take calls. These are usually times when I know I would not be busy, such as during meal breaks or while commuting. So if someone needs to arrange for a call, I would assign them to these time slots and I would make sure I would be able to give the call my full attention.

Of course, this is not an absolute rule. There are situations where I expect calls or when I know a call is about an urgent matter. Those calls are picked up immediately. What if the call is urgent but I didn’t answer it? Well, if it is really urgent, the caller would try calling again.

Limit appointment slots

I avoid having too many appointment slots. By allocating certain days or times of the day for appointments, you are able to minimise distraction. I can work knowing that I can stay in the intense work mode through the day. And on days that I have appointments, I give myself a break from the tasks or assign less taxing ones instead.

Meeting someone face-to-face requires you to be physically present. To me, it is the most taxing form of communicating and I would prefer to minimise that as much as possible. This should not eat into the time slots set aside for socialising with friends.

Read it later

I used to find myself losing time to random articles that pop up along the way. Be it from my Facebook news feed, sent from a friend, links from an email, or even something you decided to search about. Once you start reading, it is easy to go down the rabbit hole and click through to an endless string of articles. Before you know it, you would have spent hours reading. The same could apply to watching videos too.

This is where Pocket has become such a vital part of my daily workflow. Former aptly named Read It Later, the premise behind Pocket is to simply pocket whatever you come across. Instead of reading the links or watching the videos you come across immediately, Pocket them for a later time that is allocated for consuming content.

Sharing to Pocket on iOS and OS X is easily accomplished through the system sharing function. Many apps have built-in support for Pocket. For example, I have customised Reeder to save to Pocket with a gesture on iOS and a shortcut on OS X. This helps me to blaze through my unread feeds in Reeder within an hour.

If you haven’t tried Pocket, give it a spin and it might revolutionise the way you consume content. Pocket has recorded one billion saves so sure it is doing something right.


These are some ways that help me minimise my distractions. They might not work for everyone but they have done wonders to free up my time and allow me to focus on things that matter.

Do you work similarly? Or do you have even better ideas to take things to another level? Let me know in the comments or contact me! I would love to learn and refine my workflows.

I started all these habits by asking myself two questions. Do I need to deal with this now? If the answer is no, then what is the best way to hold it off till I can get back to it?

Now that we are at the end of the article, let me ask you if there was something else that you should have been doing but ended up being distracted by this article. ;)

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  1. Matthew Avatar

    Excellent article! Task lists FTW.

    1. Jenxi Seow Avatar

      Can’t wait to share about the best way to do a handwritten task list. ;)

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