Each of us at one stage or another have succumbed to a distraction or two.

Let’s face it. We all do it. Personally, when I’m at home, I find I would make excuses not to sit at my desk. I’ll be flicking through some catalogue, turning on the tv or playing on the Xbox. When I’m in the office, I’ll gravitate towards social bookmarking sites like Digg, Delicious and Reddit. Unfortunately, some of us tend to be weaker than others and indulge in our desires more often than we really should!

Distractions as a whole are a huge drain on every aspect of who we are. It takes our focus away from what we should be doing – our tasks, goals and purpose. This is why we have to eliminate them from our lives if possible! Personally, I find if I was to indulge in a distraction, a hour could go by and before I know it, I’d blow away an entire time box. Generally, this makes me feel drained and disappointed, not just in myself for having been weak but also about the lost opportunities and productive time I could have spent working on an article or researching a business venture.

So what can we do about it? If you haven’t done so yet, take a look at two articles I wrote about how to stay focused – 18 ways to stay focused at work and the more generic 11 ways to staying focused. These tips are great, but inevitably distractions will happen. When they do, how can we reduce our urge and tendency to indulge in them?

Here’s something very simple I do in my head whenever I feel the urge to indulge in a distraction. I don’t know who came up with it originally or even if it is unique to me, so for now, I call this technique Diminishing Distractions. This is how it works.

Essentially, a distraction is attactive because of two reasons:

  1. It gives us pleasure.
  2. It takes pain away.

When we indulge in a distraction, we focus our time and energy on something that is inherently more pleasurable than what we are currently doing. Solving that problem is hard, so I’ll just surf on Digg instead. Finishing this document is going to take some time, so let me squeeze in 30mins on the Xbox. Making that call to the customer will be challenging, so let me read the news first. Now, tell me if you’ve never felt this way before. The reason these things are attactive is because they either give us pleasure or take some pain away.

So in order for us to minimise the time we indulge in our distractions, what we need to do is either decrease the pleasure we get or the pain they take away. The trick to doing this is by quantifying our experiences. That is, measure how much enjoyment we hope to get by indulging in our distraction and then diminish that enjoyment in our minds to a level low enough that it is no longer appealing.

To do this:

1. Rate the experience on a scale of -10 to +10. What the scale means: -10 being something I really hate doing and there’s nothing in the world to make me like it and +10 being something that gives me ultimate pleasure and utter enjoyment. For example, at any given moment, playing on the Xbox may rate +6 on my scale (I have fun and it gives me pleasure but it’s not the best thing since slice bread).

2. Think of things to lower the rating by one or two points. Once you have the rating, try to think of things to make the experience less enjoyable. This doesn’t mean a massive jump from +6 to a -10. It means lowering the enjoyment in a small way. For example, I might associate the discomfort of sitting on the floor with playing on the Xbox. After 30mins in this posture, it’s going to hurt. This will lower the experience for me to a +4 on my scale (It’s still fun, but less so now than before).

3. Repeat until the experience is neutral (ie a rating of 0). Keep thinking of things to diminish the experience (either the pleasure or pain) until you don’t really care either way whether you do it or not. Once you are indifferent, you stand a better chance of resisting the distraction. Here are some of the things I think will make the Xbox experience less enjoyable – lengthy wait times when saving, small tv with bad colours, tired shoulders and a sore neck.

4. Consider what you should be doing instead. At this point, look at what you’re currently doing or plan to do. Ask yourself would you rather be doing this or indulge in your distraction? For me, I ask myself “Would I rather finish this document I am in the middle of or play on the Xbox?”. I find most of the time, because the distraction’s experience is neutral, I’d rather continue what I’m doing. If this isn’t the case, move on to the next step.

5. Make the experience unappealing and undesirable. If you still rather indulge in the distraction, then repeat Step 2 and make the experience unappealing and undesirable. The trick to this is you don’t have to come up with completely realistic things. All you need to do is convince your mind about what you want it to feel regarding the distraction. For example, what would make the Xbox unappealing for me are – melting ice cream on the controller (I hate getting my hands dirty), not wearing my glasses (what’s the point of playing when I can’t see what’s going on), ear plugs (I can’t hear a thing) etc. Keep doing this until you take the experience to a -10.

Once you hit -10, this being a level which you associate with things you absolutely hate doing and nothing can make you do it, it becomes really easy to resist the distraction. You don’t even have to put up a fight. As far as your mind is concerned, you don’t want to do it.

Quantify then diminish the pleasure you get from distractions

I call this technique Diminishing Distractions – that is we are diminishing the experience we hope to get by indulging in the distraction. Simple isn’t it? It is. But that’s the beauty of it. When faced with a particular undesirable urge, what we need is a simple technique we can use and rely on to suppress that urge. What we don’t want is a technique that has 50 checklist items for us to go through, because in most cases we either won’t bother or it’ll take too long to work! With some practise, you will find you can associate a 0 or a -10 to any distraction and make them less desirable than what we should be doing.

Here’s the other beautiful part of this technique. Not only can you apply it to the distraction, you can also apply it to the task you should be working on. All you have to do is apply the technique in the steps I’ve outlined above but in a positive way and try to make the experience a +10 instead. By doing this, you will increase the gap between the experience you will get from this task and the distraction. For example, let’s say I really wanted to focus on writing. To make writing a +10 experience, I could visualise myself writing a top notch Diggable article (hint, hint), having lots of positive comments from my readers and earning lots of money from Adsense! If this doesn’t make this a +10 experience, I don’t know what will! ;)

Boost the experience for the task you wish to focus on

I’ve written in the past that we can be happy if we choose to. I just want to take a moment to reiterate a particular point in that article because I think the repetition will help the message sink in. If you rely on external events to determine your happiness, than you relinquish control about when you will be happy. By using the technique I’ve outlined above, you take control of the way you feel about a particular experience. If you apply it to other aspects of your life, you will be able to control whether you have a -10 experience or a +10 experience irrespective of what happens. Sometimes we cannot prevent bad things from happening, but what we can control is how we react and respond to them.

That’s food for thought.

If you choose to employ this technique in your daily lives, drop me a comment or message. I would like to hear whatever feedback you may have on this. Good luck with your battle against distractions!

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43 Responses to “How to Overcome Distractions Anytime”

  1. Ryan Fox says:

    Hey Dave,
    I found this article rather ironic when I first got it, as it was emailed to me on my BlackBerry while I was eating breakfast with others. However, that’s not your fault. ;P

    I’m not sure if I could employ this method. Atleast, not the negative version. I would be too tempted to fix the negative parts. Also, I find it hard to convince myself of obscure excuses, like it would suck more if I were wearing ear plugs, so it must just suck more.

    The positive side is something I do a lot though. Positive reinforcement is usually more effective. For instance, if I work hard at these bug fixes/minor feature additions, I’ll get to work on a big project that’s more interesting!

    Good job,

  2. Dave Cheong says:

    Hi Ryan,

    Great comment. I like to think as human beings we are motivated by both positive and negative things. Sometimes we do things just so we can avoid feeling pain. If you visualise the pain and associate it accordingly, perhaps that’ll be enough to make you avoid doing something.

    Thanks for stopping by and enjoy your breakfast… :)


  3. Aaron Forgue says:

    Dave, great post! I fall victim to several of the situations you described.

    I also really enjoy your illustrations – what software do you use to create them?

  4. Lonon says:

    Hi, Dave.
    Excellent. Really good, and even enjoy read it, wich is a good thing per se.
    Anyway, i was reading something you wrote about making a grocery list and in that post i read somehting incredible: “i could see 6 episodes of StarGate”… ¡that’s my favorite show!

    So, if you wanna talk about the series, just write me an email. Thanks!

  5. THE CAPRANICA - » How to Overcome Distractions Anytime says:

    [...] How to Overcome Distractions Anytime [...]

  6. Dave Cheong says:

    Hi Aaron,


    In this case, I used a combination of Fireworks and Photoshop to do the graphical elements. Seeing as the diagrams are pretty straight forward, Powerpoint would have been just as effective.


  7. Dave Cheong says:

    Hi Lonon,

    Thanks for your encouraging comment.

    Also, I’m glad you like StarGate – it is a pretty cool tv show. I’m a little sad that it is going to end, but I guess there’s always Atlantis.


  8. Vijay says:

    Beautiful Post.

    Two distractions that eat into my study time are “checking e-mails” and “checking latest updates on my RSS feeds”. I must be doing it at least 50 times a day.
    I applied your idea and it actually works. I convinced myself that if I keep checking emails every now and then, it means I won’t have a lot of emails ( something I enjoy )in my inbox later to check for. Same goes for my RSS feeds. That single thought gets me back to my work. I keep visualizing my inbox fill up everytime I feel like checking it and that gives me an incentive to limit checking my emails to just 2 times a day. Far more healthy !!!

    Thanks Dave.

  9. Dave Cheong says:

    Excellent! I’m glad you have found the technique useful. I beginning to use it more consciously as well. I too have found it has been easier to resist temptations.

    Thanks Vijay for the feedback.


  10. Howard says:

    Great article once again. Up until uni, I’ve always used the “work and reward” ssytem; basically giving myself a small treat after every session of study, whether it was a few tracks on the CD player or a nice snack, and maybe a day out at the end of the week if I’ve stuck (mostly on track.

    However, that was before unfettered access to the internet, and the watchful eyes of my parents. For the past year I’ve basically been stagnating in my development, constantly getting bogged down by distractions like news sites, checking email, digg and other seemingly important but on the grand scheme of things, non essential time occupiers. With the new academic year starting and a far less forgiving workload, I’ve decided to limit myself to a handful of RSS feeds (mostly personal dev and time management sites, ironically enough), and 20 mins free browsing every day.

    I’ve even gone so far as to block the more visited sites such as digg and youtube, and even sell my 17″ monitor (I used to run a dual screen setup), all in an effort to force me away from the computer! A bit drastic compared to your post, but I really need to make a U turn on my life. Here’s hoping all goes well…

  11. Dave Cheong says:

    Hi Howard,

    Thank you for your comment and I totally applaud your commitment! Not many people I know would actually go through the effort of blocking sites like Digg, limiting RSS feeds and even selling their monitor!

    Yes, it may be somewhat drastic, but I think you’re taking steps in the right direction. Sometimes, you need to take massive action in order to provide the catalyst for significant change.

    Good luck! I’m sure with your commitment and willingness to see things happen will only result in complete success.


  12. Nardeep says:

    Hi Dave,

    Great article. I tend to get distracted a lot and for a long time I just let my mind be idle. I am going to put this techniue into action. Thanks.


  13. Dave Cheong says:

    Hi Nardeep,

    Good luck! I hope it works for you. Let me know the results either way.



  14. Creating a Better Life » The Personal Development Carnival - September 17, 2006 says:

    [...] Dave Cheong presents How to Overcome Distractions Anytime posted at Dave Cheong | Engineer to Entrepreneur. [...]

  15. kahfei says:

    Hey Dave, a really useful tips there. Really, it is all a matter of your mind. And like you, I have just been a new dad not too long ago, so time management is really critical for me to juggle between works, family and hobbies.

    (And here go my little contribution toward making your visualization of “having lots of positive comments from my readers and earning lots of money from Adsense!”a reality, :-) )

  16. Dave Cheong says:

    Hi Kahfei,

    First off, congratulations to you for being a dad! Yes, as I’ve learnt time management is now more important than ever and I’m slowly refining my working habits to accommodate my little girl.

    Thank you for reading and contributing to my cause. I hope these tips will be useful in your own life.


  17. links for 2006-09-19 « Ashish Kulkarni’s Journal says:

    [...] How to Overcome Distractions Anytime The trick to doing this is by quantifying our experiences ie. measure how much enjoyment we hope to get by indulging in our distraction and then diminish that enjoyment in our minds to a level low enough that it is no longer appealing. (tags: gtd procrastination self_improvement) [...]

  18. Bryan C Fleming says:

    Personal Growth Carnival – A New Record!

    Welcome to the September 19, 2006 edition of the personal growth carnival. I’m happy to say this week is a new record! We’ve had 23 submissions, which is more than any week in the past. The carnival is certainly growing, and it shows how much ……

  19. Maus says:

    First of all: congrats for your baby.
    Second, I just wanted to add, that somepeople, like me, tend to be anxious. I’m working on it right now, and patiente is what I try to exercise, and try to do the things in their moment, and take as much as needed.
    Because, in my case, I rather spend 15 minutes more in a work and turn it in, than be 1 hour earlier and find many mistakes.
    Same thing with relationships, I’m thinking of leaving when I just arrived.
    So trying all your techniques TAKES time for some of us, and it’s ok, I found out that is gratifying to do something right and calm.
    Let’s see if I can rest points to go party and playing computer, and add points to copy analysis and talking to my bosses… that’s gonna be tough! hahaha!

  20. Gavin says:

    Hi Dave,

    I was disappointed that the title of this article wasn’t “N ways to do X”, where N is a positive integer and X is a worthy goal, but you made up for it by slipping an enumerated list in the article anyway. Love those lists!

    This strategy of diminishing distractions by convincing myself that certain enjoyable pastimes are neutral or intolerable seems strange: I doubt I can fool myself that effectively, and even if I could, it would be a bit dispiriting. Oh well; accentuate the positive I say!


  21. Dave Cheong says:

    Hi Gavin,

    You make a good point. However, I believe that in life there are things which are positive and things which are negative (eg distractions). If you only accentuated the positive, you would only be dealing with one part of life. The negative things are inevitable, and any strategy which can help reduce their impact, must be a good thing.

    The other thing is some positive things are difficult to accentuate. If you have do something important/urgent which you may not by nature be suitable for, sometimes you can’t fool your mind to make yourself like it.

  22. Jo says:

    Hi Dave,

    Since childhood I have found myself getting constantly distracted and not being able to focus on the task/activity I am working on. Although I got through more than three decades; through college and having good jobs, I feel if I wasn’t distracted as much as I am I would have fared much better or even excelled. I desperately need to find a solution to this.

    One major distraction right now for me is login to the social network I belong to – dedicated to mothers and women. I find a lot of solace and answers to some of the challenges I face and I am addicted. This network/site has been very helpful for me so I can’t see it as a negative thing when I use your strategy but I am trying to limit how many times I access the site but it’s not working. I cannot afford to do that from work. What do you suggest?

    Thank you,

  23. Dave Cheong says:

    Hi Jo,

    Thank you for your question and I’ll try to help as best as I can. Initially, I was going to write a few lines on what I thought would help. It turned out to be fairly long and have dedicated an entire post to your question:


    Hope it helps!


  24. Bryan C. Fleming » Blog Archive » Personal Growth Carnival - A New Record! says:

    [...] Dave Cheong presents How to Overcome Distractions Anytime posted at Dave Cheong Engineer to Entrepreneur. [...]

  25. Alan H. says:

    I found you on digg. Thanks for such a great article on distractions!
    I wanted to share my invention called DISTRACTIONS TO DO, which is a way to prioritize your TO DO’s and your distractions… http://www.creativecomponent.com/2007/01/19/distractions-to-do/

  26. 15 Tips to Cope with a Demanding Life says:

    [...] Talking to yourself is a powerful tool everyone should have in their personal development arsenal. I find it is useful for so many things and in all sorts of situations. When I’m faced with a stressful situation, talking to myself gets me calm so I can focus on the task at hand. When I’m unsure of what to do, I reflect on what it is I’m trying to accomplish and walk myself through the steps to get things done. When I’m distracted, talking to myself allows me to regain focus and apply the Diminishing Distractions technique. What you do and how you react, is determined by what you say to yourself. So make a habit to say the right things, to help ensure the right results. [...]

  27. Aubrey says:


    I have had a serious problem with distractions all of my life, and more so since the internet. Accomplishing tasks while dealing with distractions can be very stressful. After reading this article, I plan on taping a note on my monitor to remind me of the positives of accomplishing the tasks that my job requires.

    Thanks for the help…

  28. How to Overcome Distractions Anytime | di4ent.com {topical rotating wunderkammeresque distractions and delights | By Bill Keaggy } says:

    [...] You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site. « Polaroid Donates Corporate Archives toHarvard [...]

  29. Fight Procrastination! says:

    [...] Experience Quantification: Use the Experience Quantification technique to increase the attractiveness of a task by either downgrading the associated Pain or boosting the associated Payoff. [...]

  30. Waking Up Early - 15 Tips That Work says:

    [...] As I’ve written about previously, when faced with doing something we don’t want to do, we’re generally motivated not just by Pleasure, but also Pain. I’ve found that it was very effective to be aware of the consequences of sleeping in. For me, losing that extra 2 hours in the morning can have a significant flow on effect to my day and the rest of the week. Everytime I sleep in, I have to stay at work later and sacrifice quality time with my daughter in the evenings. This is something I clearly want to avoid, so being aware of this has been really effective in keeping me motivated when the alarm goes off. [...]

  31. Annabel (London) says:

    What a wicked blog….just discovered it and the advice is ace

  32. Jason Feather says:

    I have to say that I actually enjoy my distractions. As you say distractions may be because it gives us pleasure or it takes away pain. Distractions are like weeds. A rose can be a weed if it’s growing on a football pitch but not if it’s in a garden. Similarly a distraction can lead to something wonderful or can lead you down a dark path to nowhere. A good example of a positive distraction are those brought about by the synchronicity of the ‘library angel’ whilst doing research, anyway interesting points in your srticle, Jas

  33. Arool says:

    Thanks so much for the great advice, Dave. It’s heartening to know that there is someone who faces the same issues I do, and more importantly, has been thinking of solutions to these issues. It inspires me!

  34. Stevie says:

    Thanks a lot for this advice. Right now I’ve got a complete coursework overload and I’m finding it hard to cope. Because of this I’m getting easily distracted and as you have said I feel disappointed in myself after my distraction (pointless web surfing and my xbox). I’m going to give this theory a go and hope it cleans things up for me. By the way the whole sites great and i will continue to use it from now on! Keep it up.

  35. Sam says:

    I disagree with one of the points in this article. You say that distractions give us pleasure and take the pain away. So if my back is aching when I’m working, that gives me pleasure, and takes the pain AWAY?
    If a car drives past very loudly, does that give me pleasure?

  36. Deano says:

    I will say that it is awkward that a software engineer and not a psychologist is doing a article on procrastination and distraction. However your articles are very valid, and helpful. I feel that I suffer from chronic procrastination and have been looking for some help. Thanks Dave for this article!

  37. Austin says:

    Very interesting. I have been feeling increasingly apathetic lately, and I stumbled on this. Hopefully, thinking about tasks this way will help me concentrate on what really needs to be done. Thanks for taking the time to write it.

  38. Pastor Tom says:

    Wow, thank God I came across your blog. I retire 2 1/2 yrs ago after 31 yrs in the military, I was 50. I’ll turn 53 on the 26th. I’ve started an awesome home-based business, but I’m lagging behind for the very reasons you stated in your article. After I read your article it occurred to me that the joy and pleasure I receive from being successful in my business will be much more pleasure able than wasting time and energy on the computer like I am now. I need a paradigm shift! Thanks for the help.

  39. Why Getting Personal Stuff Done Is Hard says:

    [...] Seems obvious! Why hadn’t I thought of it before? Without a concrete deadline, how can I judge if I’m behind or not? Also, how can I plan my time to ensure I meet it? Also, if there are no real consequences for not making a deadline, what’s going to stop me from playing on my Xbox? And, what’s to prevent me from procrastinating time and time again? [...]

  40. Gaurav Kumar says:

    This blog has so much helped me regaining control over my life than what I thought lifehacker.com would? I am a tech savvy guy and technical blogs and stumbles are a hell of distractions. I wish I could pay you in some sort. What I do is whenever I visit your blog I turn AdBlockPlus off so you could earn more from the advertisements.
    Also I would like to add the 90/10 rule which says
    “Ninety percent of a situation is out of your control and happens before you even know about it. Ten percent of a situation and the most important is how you react to it. The repercussions of your actions last far longer than the actual fifteen minutes you spend dealing with that situation and it could effect your whole life.”
    Thank You very much.
    Gaurav Kumar

  41. Vicki says:

    Hey Dave,

    Great article- I myself buckle under my obsessive (or simply lazy) nature every single freaking study time of my study life.

    I’ll give it a go!


  42. rosa says:

    This was just lovely to read! The quantification technique is so math-geeky in the absolute best way possible. I was smiling widely as I read.
    I think it works because on the inside we know that we don’t really want to spend all day, every day, for the rest of our lives on the video games, or browsing idly, or lazing about—even if that’s what it seems to us when we’re working.

    Great blog! I’ll definitely come by again.

  43. Work Hard For Your Dreams says:

    [...] to use every trick in my personal development arsenal in order to stay focused – including minimising distractions, fighting off procrastination, working in time boxes and keeping motivated with well defined [...]

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