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No-nonsense perspectives on startup growth

Distractions aren’t bad for your productivity

Manage your distractions instead of eliminating them

Distractions aren’t bad for your productivity
Boris Veldhuijzen van Zanten
Story by

Boris Veldhuijzen van Zanten

Founder & board member, TNW

Boris is a serial entrepreneur who founded not only TNW, but also V3 Redirect Services (sold), HubHop Wireless Internet Provider (sold), and Boris is a serial entrepreneur who founded not only TNW, but also V3 Redirect Services (sold), HubHop Wireless Internet Provider (sold), and pr.co. Boris is very active on Twitter as @Boris and Instagram: @Boris.

Boris is the wise ol’ CEO of TNW who writes a weekly column on everything about being an entrepreneur in tech — from managing stress to embracing awkwardness. You can get his musings straight to your inbox by signing up for his newsletter!

In the book I’m currently reading, there’s a scientist who is doing a lot of thinking. It’s not just some ‘everyday thinking’ mind you, but constructive, scientific thinking.

She’s gone as far as to eliminate ALL distractions around her, to make sure it’s impossible for her to lose her train of thought. And what’s her biggest distraction? Her phone.

Now I agree that our phones can be hugely distracting. I just checked my statistics, and last week I picked my phone up 90 times a day on average… and that’s actually 17% down from the week before that.

Indeed, that’s a lot of distracting moments and I wonder how often a pointless notification interrupted a vital thought process. Maybe I was close to a major scientific breakthrough, but it was lost forever when you liked my Instagram post. We’ll never know.

But a life without distractions is an empty life. Instead, I desire to manage my distractions, rather than eliminate them. It also doesn’t hurt that some of my best work is done while I’m distracted.

A casual chat with a neighbor about an utterly irrelevant subject might provide the breakthrough I was looking for. Doing the dishes or ironing my shirts can be highly meditative and inspiring. That doesn’t mean that everybody agrees with me though.

Once, an employee told me that the random tasks assigned to people around the office were too much of a distraction. We were a smaller company back then, and we all had to do groceries at least once a week or even do the dishes.

When you’re out shopping, you can’t write code, reach out to a client, or design a new logo. I get that. But it does allow you to chat with a co-worker, look at how other companies do package design, or find other sources of inspiration in the world around you.

And who knows, maybe there’s a reason you let some things distract you, while you ignore others. Perhaps you let the things through that might help you in the long run?

I learned this lesson at my first office outside of my house, which was in a members club. It was a little like Soho House, but at a different time. I found the distracting environment a great place to work and start a company.

Sure I was often distracted and spent a lot of time chatting to the people around me, but my work was so demanding and satisfying that I kept getting sucked back into it.

One evening, I was intensely focused on a programming challenge. I had worked on it for a few hours and couldn’t quite figure out the solution.

As I was searching for clues, someone tapped me on my shoulder. The stranger pointed at my screen and asked me if the stuff I was doing was important. I nodded yes. He shrugged, pointed behind me, and said, “Well, you’re missing the show.”

You might not believe me, but I swear that a few meters behind me, a local fashion designer was showing off her new lingerie line. While I was working, they had built a whole catwalk and put down chairs, and were now in the middle of a show.

I eventually did turn around and watched the rest of the show — which didn’t particularly help with my programming challenge if I’m being honest — but it does show that if you’re really into your work, nothing unimportant can distract you. And in my case, not even lingerie models.

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