Psychology Behind the Product Design: Staying Efficient in the Age of Distractions

Photo of Maciej Kotula

Maciej Kotula

Updated Jan 4, 2023 • 9 min read

It is very hard to be perfectly focused on your work throughout the whole day when you work on a creative project.

Some time ago, I started searching for a solution on how to overcome obstacles such as procrastination and unfocused work. Eventually, I found a book that changed my life: “The Now Habit: A Strategic Program for Overcoming Procrastination and Enjoying Guilt-Free Play” by Neil Fiore. This book has been my how-to-be-productive bible since then. In this article, I’ll share with you the key take-away points from Fiore’s book as well as my personal tips and tricks to improve productivity.

Every designer has his or her bad days. On those days, we feel like we are drifting from one distraction to another, trying to focus on our tasks without success. Because of the procrastination habit, we get stuck in a vicious circle: we start to experience strong negative emotions and pressure, we are afraid of failure, we work longer than usual, then we feel discouraged and eventually lose our motivation. Because of all these things we have the tendency to put off tasks for later.

The vicious circle starts from the pressure and the negative emotions that come with it and ends in escaping to the (un)safe haven of procrastination. When you are embedded in a vicious circle, there is no clear exit. You can’t even feel the joy of spending your time off, and this feeling kills your ability to create great projects. Suddenly, you start to perceive every moment spent on fun activities as avoiding what should you finally do. Delaying work becomes part of your identity, affecting negatively the way you think and the way you see your work, your leisure time, yourself and your chances of success.

Source of procrastination

Online guides and books about procrastination often make you see yourself in a bad light. They tell you that the only person who is lazy here is you and, if you don’t get down to working seriously, you will stay stuck in the state of laziness.

On the other hand, these guides and books offer only a few simple methods of dealing with the problem of procrastination. They aren’t that useful because they avoid tackling the essence of the problem: it’s not easy to follow those rules without understanding the problem itself.

Understanding the problem

Let's face it. In most cases procrastination makes sense, but only if we look from the point of view of a person susceptible to the negative effects of criticism, defeat and perfectionism. The first step towards getting rid of procrastination and transforming into a man or woman of action is to define procrastination again and understand how and why it occurs.

Procrastination is not the cause of the problem of postponing tasks for later. Instead, it is an attempt to solve many problems hidden behind this phenomenon: low self-esteem, perfectionism, fear of defeat and success, indecision, lack of balance between work and entertainment, inefficiency in setting goals and negative views on our work.

This implies that people most vulnerable to procrastination are those who fear the difficulties associated with starting a project, criticism, defeat, and the loss of other possibilities as a result of committing to one project.

Denis Waitley in his books (“The Psychology of Winning” and “The Joy of Working”) says that we delay action when we are afraid of losing our self-esteem and independence. We operate sluggishly only when our natural instinct for efficient action is threatened or suppressed. Dr. Theodore Rubin suggests (in the book “Compassion and Self-Hate”) that we put off work for later because of perfectionism, the fear of defeat and the fear of unrealistic expectations. These fears prevent us from achieving such quality of life in which we will feel the compassion and respect for each other in the present – respect for who we are and at what point of life we are.

Temptations and interruptions

Oliver Burkeman in his excellent article “Why Are We so Distracted All the Time?” puts the sources of distraction into two categories: temptations and interruptions. Temptations arise from the idea of taking a few relaxing minutes (even hours) and spending them for example on Facebook or playing online games, to name a few. What about interruptions? Well, interruptions are everywhere.

Burkeman sees distraction as coming from the inside, not from the outside. Such distraction-preventing measures as website blockers, shutting down the internet connection or even escaping the crowded city never seem to work very well. The real problem lies within our minds.

Burkeman mentions Nietzsche, who said in his book “Unmodern Observations” that we seek out distractions in order to stay mentally busy, so we can avoid facing up to the big questions — like whether we’re living genuinely meaningful lives.

We are desperately looking for the feeling of autonomy – we love to be in charge of everything. But this is a double-edged sword: we set goals and plans for ourselves and in the end, we rail against anything we feel we’ve been ordered to do, suggests Oliver Burkeman.

Distractions as your ally

Highly creative people tend to have minds that pay attention in a particularly “open” kind of way, says Christian Jarrett in his article “How to Use Distraction to Your Advantage”. Jarret’s idea is to think about our brain from the perspective of two modes: one is responsible for generating ideas and the second one is executing those ideas. The tricky part here is that very creative people have “leaky attention”, which means that while working on one task, their brains are also distracted by other thoughts and ideas, sometimes irrelevant to the task at hand. Don’t worry, though, because those kinds of distractions are normal for a creative person and they will help you do your work efficiently in the end.

My approach to dealing with procrastination

Not so long ago, I read an article about the relationship between the music we listen to and our efficiency when concentrating on a particular task. Psychologists say that the best type of music for working is no music at all. It is a great finding, I have to say, because I also experimented with different music genres as a background for my designing work, and only slow and quiet music or music with no vocals allowed me to fully focus on a task. This finding helped me a lot, and improved my inner satisfaction with the work I do, but also encouraged me to find other ways of improving my concentration.

I decided to go back to well-known Pomodoro technique with turning off all interruptions. The most important here is Pomodoro’s idea: focus for 25 minutes on your task, then (important thing) take a 5 minutes break. For me, this 5 min break is the key to success of Pomodoro.

I call this break a little success, a summary of the 25 minutes. It is also my reward for a productive and undisturbed work. By repeating this technique throughout the day, you can achieve remarkable results and strike an internal balance between work and free time.

Be water, my friend

Let me close the article by bringing up Bruce Lee’s famous quote about adjusting yourself to every situation: “Empty your mind, be formless. Shapeless, like water. If you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle and it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now, water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend.”

If you want to read more interesting articles and insights about procrastination and interruptions at work, feel free to check two great articles on our blog:

5 Ways (and 13 Apps) to Help You Fight Off Procrastination

Photo of Maciej Kotula

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Maciej Kotula

Maciej is a visual designer and art director mainly focusing on web/UI and mobile design. Since...
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