How to Block Out the World When You're Trying to Work

Loner WeekLoner WeekCalling all loners! Dining alone, gaming alone, traveling the world alone… there’s a lot to be said for enjoying the finer things in life solo. It’s Loner Week at Lifehacker, and we’ve got hacks for every possible way to make the most of the world as a party of one.

Sometimes, you want to be alone, but your coworkers, pets, or kids won’t go away. Goodbye, productivity. Thankfully, there are plenty of techniques you can use to carve out a little bubble of comfort for yourself when you’re trying to burn through all the items on your to-do list.

How to deal with annoying audio distractions

First, let’s talk real-world distractions. When I have to really focus on work in a noisy environment, and I find myself getting pulled away by the idle chatter or other noises I overhear, my first level of attack is to pull out a pair of noise-cancelling headphones. I use the Bose QuietComfort 25s and I absolutely love them. They one of Wirecutter’s previous picks, if I’m right, and I was thrilled when I got them. So much so, that I use them for everything: working, flying on planes, not having to deal with people when I’m commuting somewhere, walking around, et cetera.

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If you need a little more firepower, or you don’t really want to invest in another pair of headphones, there are some software solutions that can help. Turn to YouTube and find one of the many “10 hours of…” videos to play on your headphones while you work. (I love the “starship sleeping quarters” version, as well as the ambient engine noise video.) Or check out myNoise, which is an incredibly thorough website dedicated to all kinds of “white noise” sounds—like the incredibly soothing “Irish Coast.”

There’s also the simple Rainy Mood, a free website that gives you exactly what its name suggests (and a volume control, if you’d rather have a gentle misting than a downpour). A Soft Murmur gives you little sliders that you can use to add and remove sounds from your mix, in case you’d rather have slightly more “coffee shop” than “thunderstorm” without losing either. Speaking of, try a virtual coffee shop, or pick from a number of unique ambient setups that others have created—like the Slytherin common room from Harry Potter.

Try dark mode

I find that when I have to hunker down and get a lot of work done, I can focus longer if I’ve switched over to my operating system’s dark mode, rather than staring at a bright, white display. This is easy to set up in Windows and macOS, as well as Chrome, Edge, or Firefox—I’m assuming you spend most of your time in a combination of these operating systems and apps. Don’t forget Slack, too.

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Stop distracting yourself

I recently highlighted a number of apps, services, and features you can use to keep yourself from drifting off to things that aren’t what you need to focus on—Facebook, games, et cetera. But those were more for extreme examples, like when you realize you’re spending way too much time on your computer, in general, than getting up and being productive or social.

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If you feel you have a pretty good handle on your tech, and you just want some ways to stay focused without drifting, there are plenty of not-so-extreme options you can use to give yourself a little boost. The first and easiest strategy is to use any of the smart devices sitting around your home to set productivity timers. Yell at Alexa, Google, or Siri, and set a timer that you promise you’ll stick with; once the timer is done, you can reward yourself with a little entertainment.

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I’m a fan of this technique—Pomodoro, or the “I vow to work without distractions for a certain period of time, before I then reward myself some other way.” If you don’t have any nearby smarts speakers, there are plenty of other ways you can give yourself a focused countdown: TomatoTimer, Pomotodo, Pomodairo, ToMighty, Marinaratimer, et cetera. Heck, you can turn your task-completion and dedicated focus into a game, if you use Habitica. (Or if you don’t mind using your smartphone to track your productivity, Forest is always a great option.)

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Similarly, use your devices’ built-in “Do Not Disturb” features to temporarily turn off digital distractions and other notifications that you’d otherwise be tempted to answer. Windows, macOS, iOS, and Android all come with these features—all named something slightly different—but they’re worth exploring. Better still, see if you can set up a do-not-disturb schedule for the times of day when you really need to focus most, whether that’s the first two hours of your workday or your entire 9-5 shift.

Screenshot: David Murphy

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And don’t forget about any “do not disturb” settings you might have to separately enable for your various social apps. If you mostly talk to your friends on Facebook, for example, flip on the do not disturb there, but maybe leave your phone’s notifications active in case there are any urgent texts you might need to answer. (Or turn everything off! That’s fine, too.)

Finally, when I’ve worked in a corporate setting, I’ve also been a big fan of just booking out work time on my calendar. That way, nobody can drop in with a meeting invite when I really, really need to get something done. Or, at the very least, they’ll reach out to you if its urgent and you can shuffle your priorities as needed. It’s Office Life 101, but it’s an effective technique, and I’m always surprised when people haven’t thought to do it.

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