Why Distraction Blockers Don’t Work in the Long Run

In my experience, there are two types of things you can use to improve your productivity. There are blockers — things that block out or eliminate distractions from the work you have to do. Some examples of blockers could be software tools like Leechblock or DoNotDisturb, ear plugs, or muting the ringers on your phones. Then there are aids, which are the things that encourage us to work faster and better, like text substitution apps, calendars and to-do lists.

As someone who spends a considerable amount of time thinking about productivity, I realized that over years of testing and experience, the blockers don’t really work in the long run.

Don’t get me wrong — there are instances where a blocker might work. If an app, tool or hack can shut out things that you can’t control — such as noisy neighbors or needy pets — then they’re a must-have. Things that fall under this category include sound-proofing your office, or creating a separate room for your work. Blockers can also be useful if you need an urgent fix, but as a long-term strategy they tend to fall short.

Here’s why: if a blocker is removing a distraction or obstacle that’s within your power to control like, say, checking your email or looking at Facebook updates for the umpteenth time, then the fix is no more than cosmetic. It’s like sticking a Band-Aid on your problem and telling yourself that it’s cured.

Apps can be disabled and uninstalled. The same goes with the manual tweaks you do to “block” distractions, such as tinkering with your hosts file and whatnot. Some developers of blocking tools know this, so they add certain features that make it difficult for you to disable the app. But there’s always a way to disable a block if you try hard enough. If you’ve muted your ringer, you end up looking at your phone to check for messages. You reconnect to the Internet and uninstall your site blockers to see if someone’s emailed you or commented on your latest Facebook or Twitter update. We easily give in to disable a block “just this once” and, in doing so, give in to distractions which may eat up the rest of your day.

The funny thing about this is that your “productivity tool” is actually making you more unproductive at being unproductive. You need to jump through all these hoops just to give in to procrastination, which you need or want to do for one reason or another. And the reason I know this phenomenon so well? Because it happens to me, too.

So what really helps? Using aids rather than blockers. Finding our own internal ways to block out distractions. At the same time, we really need to be easier on ourselves and allow for slips in our productivity. This is especially true for knowledge work, where the difference between procrastination and healthy play may be blurry.

If we’re to become truly productive people rather than just “productivity people,” we need to develop our own distraction blockers that can’t be turned off by a “Disable” button. They have to come from our own efforts to change our habits and behavior. Not enough is said about this, probably because it’s a difficult, lifelong, and highly individual process. Maybe that’s why it works.

Have you tried using distraction blocking tools? How did they work for you?

Photo by stock.xchng user danzo08

Related GigaOM Pro content (sub. req.): Enabling the Web Work Revolution