How smart people stay focused in the age of screen time and news feeds

Just like January, back-to-school season feels like a fresh start. From my research on how professional women use their time, I’ve found it’s a great time to double down on achieving your professional and personal goals.

Of course in a world where your inbox is constantly filling up, colleagues and friends are texting, and every major headline sets your phone buzzing, this is easier said than done. You probably can’t completely unplug, so here are seven strategies smart women use to put first things first and keep the distractions in check.

01. They know their goals.

It’s easy to get distracted if you don’t know for sure what you want to accomplish. Think about what you’d like to talk about in your end-of-year performance review in a few months. Think about visiting friends and family over the holidays and what you’d like to tell them you’ve done this year. Choose a few priorities to focus on, and then break these down into doable steps. So, for instance, if you’d like to write a white paper about an area of expertise, you might read several other white papers so you know the style, make an outline, figure out what additional research you need, and plot out how much you can write per week.

02. They put priorities on the calendar in their peak slots.

Once you’ve got these steps, put them on your schedule as if they were meetings with a very important person (because, in a sense, they are!). Aim to do your important work during the time you have the most energy and discipline. For most people this is morning, before all the distractions have started adding up, but if night works for you, that’s fine. Katie Ross, a self-improvement blogger, says, “I have an alarm set for 8 p.m., and I’ve designated 8 to 9 p.m. as crafting hour. . . . If I’m out or busy doing something else enjoyable, that’s OK, but if I’m just mindlessly flicking through Facebook or crushing candies, then it reminds me to move on and do something else that I enjoy more.”

03. They keep parts of life on paper.

Meghan Brawley, a professional indexer and podcast host, says, “I go analog for as much as possible. I keep to-do lists and notes on paper, [use] a paper calendar and project tracker, and usually draft outlines or just work through initial project ideas in a notebook. That way, I’m not reaching for my phone to be productive and then getting distracted.” Yes, there are lots of productivity apps out there, but broadly, the cause of productivity is not served by spending more time online. Old-fashioned tools might be better options.

04. They put the phone in airplane mode.

As suggested above, much distraction is unconscious. People pick up the phone to check the time and then start cleaning out their inboxes. Putting your phone in airplane mode means you can still see the time, and you can quickly put it out of airplane mode if you need to make a call or check something, but that extra step requires a conscious decision. That little speed bump is often enough to help you reengage.

05. They use distractions as rewards.

Hitha Palepu, an author and entrepreneur, says, “I set a timer to let myself do whatever I want (Twitter, Instagram) three times a day. And only three times a day.” That’s often enough to be responsive if a friend has an important message but keeps these social media checks from bleeding into everything else.

06. They take the decision out of their hands.

One college professor tells me that she uses Leechblock, software that blocks access to sites you deem distracting, during certain times. She gives herself no access in the mornings—her most productive time—and then limited access after lunch. That keeps a morning “I’ll just peek at Twitter” thought from stealing her best hours. RescueTime’s premium software also allows you to block sites.

07. They get accountability partners.

Being online isn’t a bad thing on its own (you may be reading this during a break!). It’s only a problem if it keeps you from building the life you want. Many people feel more motivated to achieve their goals when someone else is holding them accountable. So find a friend or colleague whom you can check in with daily or weekly to list what you’ve accomplished. Ideally, if you know you need to talk to your accountability partner at the end of the day, you’ll spend that time you could have been on Facebook writing that white paper. Once you’ve done it, you can relax and do whatever you’d like with your time.

Photo Credit: Elissa Voss Photography