Distractions: What They Really Mean

Freelancers-What-Distractions-MeanDistractions are a big problem for the self-employed, self-managing freelancer. Because of distractions, we waste our precious time. Our productivity is diminished. Rushing to meet deadlines means we enjoy life less. Ultimately, distractions reduce our profitability.

We don’t like that. Freelancers want to squeeze the most work from every minute that we’re working.

Therefore, the sooner we can become the bosses of our distractions, the better for us.

Internal vs External Distractions

As we’ve learned from the Pomodoro Technique, there are two main types of distractions: external and internal.

External distractions are pretty much out of our control. They arise from our environment in the form of a person or a situation demanding our attention (such as, in my case, a toddler who wants a snack).

Other examples of external distractions are:

  • the phone ringing
  • your neighbor coming over unexpectedly
  • a package arriving at your door
  • a fire suddenly starting in your kitchen
  • your dog whining to be let out

External distractions are unexpected and unpredictable, and you have limited control over them. However, you can manage them in a way that causes the least disruption in your work, as you’ll see later on.

Internal distractions arise from our own minds and therefore originate from ourselves. These are thoughts that spring forth while we’re in the middle of typing a sentence.

Thoughts like:

  • “I wonder how many RTs I have now.”
  • “I should check my email.”
  • “I’m hungry for a snack.”
  • “Let’s see what’s on TV.”

In many cases, internal distractions are little ways we sabotage ourselves and keep ourselves from doing our work.

It’s in every freelancer’s best interest to get to the root of his or her internal distractions and learn how to avoid them, minimize them, or eliminate them altogether.

But, how?

What Internal Distractions Really Mean

I’m no psychologist, but I will venture some theories on why we distract ourselves. All this comes from my experience of battling my inner demons every single day. Read them and see if you agree:

  1. You’re afraid. You distract yourself because of fear… of failing, of succeeding, of finishing, of moving on. I know that every time I sit down to write a sales letter, I wonder if I’m going to produce a dud. I wonder if my client will really sell stuff with the words I’m writing. I’ve been writing sales letters for two years and I still feel this fear. I hear you never really get over it.
  2. You’re bored. You distract yourself, because you’re not enjoying what you’re doing anymore. Sure, you started freelancing so you could do what you love, be it writing, designing, coding or whatever else. Honestly, when you’re doing it for somebody else, it can be a drag sometimes. Besides, we’d rather play than work. It’s totally understandable.
  3. You’re resisting. I’m currently reading The War of Art, and author Steven Pressfield says resistance is a negative force that prevents us from doing anything “that rejects immediate gratification in favor of long-term growth, healthy, or integrity.” Its only purpose is to keep us from moving to our higher nature.
  4. You feel inadequate. Another reason you may be sabotaging yourself is because you don’t feel up to the task. Perhaps you think you’re not good enough, you’re ill prepared, or not as good as the others.
  5. You’re doing the wrong thing. This is where I going to get airy-fairy-woo-woo on you. I can’t really explain it, but sometimes, I believe our intuition is telling us NOT to do something, because it isn’t in our best interest to do it.

Let me give you an example of that last point. I once had a big project for one of my regular clients. For some reason, I was feeling a big resistance to doing it. I wanted to do it. I would sit in front of my computer and try to work on it, but there would always be this block, so that it felt like I was running uphill.

A couple of days later, I get an email from my client telling me he has decided to go in a different direction, and gives me a new set of instructions.

See what I mean? It’s like my subconscious knew what was going to happen and was trying to stop me from pouring work into the project–work that would become useless because of the changes my client wants.

This has happened to me enough times that I believe in it completely. However, you don’t have to. Most importantly, don’t use this thinking as an excuse for not getting your work done.

Now that we have a better idea of where distractions come from, the next question is: what do we do with them?

Managing External Distractions

For external distractions, you have several options:

  1. Protect yourself from them. You accomplish this by getting your phone off the hook and letting your answering machine take care of your calls. You can also turn off the email notifications on your computer. Shut yourself in your home office, away from other people, the refrigerator, and entertainment devices. You can even use apps to keep external distractions at bay.
  2. Handle distractions as quickly and unobtrusively as possible. I like the two-minute rule by David Allen of Getting Things Done. If you can do something in two minutes or less, then do it. However, if something comes up that requires more of your time and attention, then simply add it to your to-do list. Include a date and time when it needs to get done. If it’s more urgent and needs your attention now, then you’ll just have to drop what you’re doing and switch to the emergency.

Being the Boss of Your Internal Distractions

Internal distractions are not as easily managed as external ones. But, it is possible. Here are five techniques you can use:

  1. For fear: Train yourself to forge ahead in spite of your fears. Remind yourself that you will make mistakes, and that you will have duds. So what? Nobody’s perfect. You learn from your mistakes and move on.
  2. For boredom: Reward yourself. Bribe yourself with a small reward after you complete your work. Or, reward yourself first. Take a break and do something fun for a limited time and then get back to work. (The operational word here is “limited.” Set a timer for your break.)
  3. For resistance: Act like a professional. According to Pressfield, you just have to treat your work as a job. You know, show up every day, put in the time, and just do it!
  4. For feeling inadequate: Give it your best shot. What else can you do? Just do your best with the task at hand. And then go out and get better. Get training, seek more opportunities to apply your skills. Remember, the more you do, the better you get.
  5. For doing the wrong thing: Wait and see. If your deadline permits, just stop and do something else. Sleep on it. Let your subconscious work on the project while you’re asleep.

Maybe something will turn up to let you know that you shouldn’t have done the task in the first place. Maybe not. Either way, leave yourself time to get the task done promptly.

Bonus Tip

The ultimate distraction buster is to remember your “reasons why.” Why did you become a freelancer? Why did you choose to work at home? Why did you quit your job?

When I don’t feel like working, I just look at my three kids and my hubby, and I remember my Four Reasons Why. It’s all I need to get myself back into action.

How Do You Do It?

What are your biggest distractions? Where do you think they come from? And how do you handle them?

I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Image by Leonid Mamchenkov


  1. says

    Love the psycho analytical thought process behind this article Lexi, my biggest distraction is the cat outside the door meowing because she wants to play with the cursor on the screen…

  2. says

    It seems a bit presumptuous to assume that these “internal distractions” mean the things you propose.

    It seems like this article is meant to groom designers into being machines. Often times checking email, checking Twitter, checking blogs, or just taking a break in general can help with this sedentary life and even inspire some creativity.

    Unless I’m really in the zone on a project, I usually am conscious whether or not I have an IM or new email, since if you use the Mac programs it’s clear as day when you have a new message.

    I think as free-thinking adults (for the most part) we can recognize when we’re avoiding a project because of fear, inadequacy, etc, but it is absolutely ridiculous to assume that we should start to over-analyze our daily motions and assume we’re falling back.

    If we are supposed to understand the psychology of the user, we should understand the psychology of people in general – and we know that these things you’re proposing are extremely subjective and really ends up being an admittance of your own inadequacies projected to the readers here.

  3. says

    You hit the nail on the head. I think fear of failure is crippling. Too mean people don’t want to risk taking a chance, so they talk themselves out of it using excuses.

  4. says

    I know that most of my distractions are now are internal and come from one source: me. I feel rebellious because I’ve worked 3 years straight without a vacation. That wasn’t by choice. The bottom fell out of the economy and knocked my self-employed husband’s new business for a loop, so for all of 2009, I worked 7 days a week and more than 40 hours a week to try to support our family of (currently) 4 by myself. Now his business is once again booming, and I have to push myself to work. We’re not yet back to the financial place where we can afford a vacation, so I think that I keep finding ways to procrastinate or distract myself as a way to rebel. And I’ve been self-employed for 15 years now, so you’d think I’d be handling this better.

  5. says

    @Jordan Walker – I considered using a picture of a laptop with a cat beside it, making cute faces. Would have been the perfect picture for you right now! But I decided not to use it, since the post is mostly about INTERNAL distractions. So no advice for you about your cat :-)

    @q4 – Hope this post helps you!

    @Glenn Sorrentino – As I said, “I’m no psychologist, but I will venture some theories on why we distract ourselves. All this comes from my experience of battling my inner demons every single day.”

    I’m not suggesting over-analyzing ourselves by any stretch of the imagination. However, self-knowledge is the starting point for change.

    If you’re free from any of the things I wrote about, then kudos to you! What’s your secret?

    @tgpo – Right on.

    @Katharine – (((Hugs)))! You know, a vacation doesn’t have to be expensive or cost anything. Taking a one-hour break every day to nourish yourself can work wonders.

  6. says

    Great Post Lexi,

    I think another internal distraction is trying to do too much. I often find myself trying to get so much work done i often only accomplish a few tasks. This is why I often schedule my day out and have a “must finish” portion and a “needs to be done soon” section of my to do list. I know of a few time management application that can help with that but i find that actually hand writing what you want to accomplish reinforces the needs to do it.

    Also, the Art of War is a good read, I also have it on my Ipod


  7. says

    @Lexi I’m never said that I’m free from those things – i just don’t label them in a dualistic way as your post suggests – personally i dont understand why someone wouldn’t be on top of something like email throughout the day since clients or co-workers are always sending time sensitive things.

    Having proper judgement about “distractions” is 99% of the battle.

  8. says

    Failure, in my honest opinion, is not nearly as bad as never trying at all.

    I have personally found really great benefit in setting up a “schedule” per se, where email, voicemails, etc. get checked at certain intervals and no other time. This has greatly helped with not getting distracted and being able to work more productively throughout a day.

    Working in a home office takes great discipline to make it successful. Splitting home and work life in the same location can be hard, but it can certainly be done! :)

  9. says

    Distractions suck, really. For me, I usually find them when I’m resisting doing something else. I’ll get up and grab a snack, or I’ll stand up and turn on some music, or I’ll make a phone call I don’t need to make… to avoid doing something I know I have to do.

    It’s a work in progress, but learning to deal with distractions is a major plus. When I effectively deal with them, my productivity soars.

  10. says

    Hey Lexi,

    Really well written and helpful article, My takeaways:

    1) We can take control over most of our external distractions, or at least, I think it is beneficial to try.

    2) I also use my “gut” to help make decisions. If I ever begin to feel “unsettled” I know that my intuition is telling me something, I don’t read to much into it, I just try to listen to whatever extent is possible

    3) Remember the “why” behind what we do. This is a HUGE motivator.

    My current distractions come in the form of the people in my life (that I LOVE!) not taking my work serious, or seeing it as a real job. They know that I make my own schedule, so I find that I am always the guy called upon to drive someone here or there, take care of my awesome nephew (like ALL day long!), and just be available to drop everything and go wherever.

    I KNOW this is something that I have to work on, but I have so much trouble saying no to my loved ones. It is times like these when I wish I had a good ol’ fashioned 9-to-5!

    Any ideas?


  11. says

    @McConnell Group – I like Leo Babauta’s (of Zen Habits) approach, which is to have only one Most Important Task for the day. I find myself having at least 3 MITs every day, but it’s a start.

    @Glenn Sorrentino – Point taken.

    @Cory – I could never stick to an email schedule. I know others who work from home check emails only twice a day or something like that, but I am a compulsive email checker :-(

    @Charles Bjornsen Ravndal and Chris Mower – I’m so glad I’m not the only one!

  12. says

    @Mike Roberts – I’m the same way with my immediate family. Of course, since hubby works and has set office hours, I need to be the one to take care of things that happen when he’s at work. It doesn’t happen very often, but when it does, then I just plan my work around all the other stuff.

    However, for extended family “favors,” I think you need to learn to say “no” — in a gracious way, of course. Point out that you have a deadline or it falls on your working hours. I think eventually, other people will realize that we’re doing real work (even if we never change out of our pajamas). HTH!

  13. Jano says

    I enjoyed reading this article. The external distraction’s can be easily ignored. However the internal distraction’s is what I’ve personally felt about multiple subjects, from work to hobbies. This has been a killer for me at times, to where I’ve walked away from projects for days till I can get excited about it again.

  14. says

    Hi Lexi,

    First, thank you for your post. I really think you hit the nail in the point “What Internal Distractions Really Mean”. It’s a valuable insight. As for the external distractions, even if they are time-consuming, they are somehow easy to understand and usually to manage.

    It’s our own created problems what are really hard to identify and solve…


  15. says

    Great post! Distractions don’t have to be the enemy though. I’ve been learning lately how to turn my distractions into productivity. I even posted on it several days ago!

  16. says

    I totally agree with you, Lexi. Internal distractions are harder to manage than external ones. One of the biggest pet peeves of freelancing is boredom. Unlike the traditional office setup where your supervisor or team can motivate you to perform better, you are on your own as a freelancer. You’re right that giving rewards really work, so long as you set a limited time for that. My biggest distraction is party invites, specially when I’m working on a deadline. It’s something hard to resist, to go out and get social when you’re stuck the whole week all by yourself.

  17. says

    For me, putting a headset on minimizes the external distractions, but feeling bored and heavy makes me squeeze my brain harder enough to function. I think External distractions are controllable than Internal ones.

  18. says

    Good points. My biggest distraction is the internet. I may plan to do some quick research and then find myself looking at something totally different an hour later.

    Another form of distraction is discomfort. Your chair, the temperature in your office etc.
    When you get rid of it your productivity increases.

  19. Kamal says

    Hi Lexi,

    This really helped me to see what is the cause of my internal distractions. i am afraid of making mistakes, and in my case the more i do it, the more i will become good at it, i will follow this, and remind myself every day of the same.


  20. says

    Hi Lexi,

    Thanks for a great post. In a way its like I could have written it myself as more or less everything you list is things I struggle with myself, especially when it comes to the internal distractions.

    Being your own boss is so different to having a normal job as it is not only the part about getting the job done. First you have to get the job, then plan it and so on.


  21. says

    Great article.

    I get distracted way too easily, and then have trouble remembering what I was doing before the distraction, which then leads to further problems.

    I like the way you break up the different types of distractions too.

    Like many people, I’m prone to checking email, FB, etc. too often, so sometimes (but not often enough) shut down the browser I use for those sites.

    But it’s the internal distractions that seem the hardest to fix, and of all the ones you list, I think the fear that I’m not good enough is probably the one that strikes home most.

    Not sure yet what to do about it, but maybe I’ll find the answer (if I don’t get distracted en route).


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>