Desktop Detox

Last week we rolled up our sleeves and tamed the device that is the most significant source of distraction in our world –smartphones. I started there because our smartphones are typically with us 24/7.

Most of us spend the majority of our day at a desk in front of a computer, so today, we will continue with practical techniques to tame the desktop. We routinely need our computer to complete a task that requires our full attention and focus. Yet often, we set our computers up to do just the opposite. We sit down to write a blog post with Slack and email open, staring us in the face at the same time. We tell ourselves that’s ok because they are on our second monitor. Spoiler alert – it’s not.

Before we dive in, I’d like to build some awareness. These posts give you practical advice that you can implement to help minimize distractions. In ontological coaching, we call this first-order learning. As you read these posts, I hope they also expand your awareness of the specific distractions and interruptions you experience. What are the circumstances that most frequently interrupt your focus? What technology? What people? What thoughts? The more aware you are of these circumstances, the better equipped you will be to pause, reflect, and make a different choice in the moment. This is second-order learning.

Desktop Notifications

How often does a little box pop up on your computer notifying you of something? In Windows, this is the lower right. On a Mac, it’s probably the upper right. Productivity kryptonite. We want to shut all of these off. They distract us from whatever we are working on and can cause uncomfortable moments when something pops up while we are sharing our screen.

  • Find the little icon for Outlook, right-click it, and uncheck “Show New Desktop Alert.”
  • Go into Slack and customize your notification preferences so you never get an alert (that little red dot on the icon is all you need to know you’ve got something new).
  • If you made the mistake of allowing notifications from Chrome, shut those off too.

If you’ve got a notification coming up that you can’t figure out how to turn off, post it in the comments. We’ll figure it out.


If you use Slack or Microsoft Teams, you have another world of distraction headaches. You will probably appreciate my Cut Me Some Slack blog post.

When working at your computer on something that requires focus, close Slack entirely. If you can’t close it, then snooze it. Type “/dnd 60 minutes” anywhere to snooze Slack for 60 minutes. No one else will see that you typed it. If you’re paranoid, send it to yourself as a direct message.

Other Applications

Are you the sort of person that leaves lots of applications running on your desktop? I encourage you to break yourself of this habit. Close everything you don’t need open for the task at hand. Every extra app is another distraction. It’s also consuming precious computer resources.

If you are unwilling to close the apps, at least minimize them. Don’t let another window sit open on your second monitor, offering potential distractions.

Your Browser

Are you the sort of person who leaves lots of tabs open in their browser? I’ve always marveled at the people who operate this way*. My brain can’t handle it. That being said, I regularly access seven tabs and like to keep them open. I also hit things I know I want to read at some point. Some people leave those tabs open to remember to read them. Here are a few practical tips (assuming you use Chrome, which nearly everyone does).

  • Use tab groups. I have a tab group for Work and one for Personal. I keep my standard tabs in those, and I keep them collapsed so they don’t distract me
  • If it is something you want to read later, use the Reading list. Right-click the tab and choose “Add tab to reading list.” To access your reading list, click the “Open side panel” icon in the upper right, next to your profile picture.
  • When you open a New Tab, if the initial page that displays is suggesting websites for you to visit, turn that off. More distractions competing for your attention.

Your Background and Desktop

If you close all your applications, what do you see? Is the desktop covered in icons? Is the desktop wallpaper distracting? These are more opportunities for distraction.

I recommend a solid color for your desktop background. Yes, it’s boring. That is the point. You don’t want it to distract you.

I also recommend getting rid of ALL the icons on your desktop. More distractions. More noise stressing you out. If you actively use those icons, consider making a folder on the desktop called “Stuff.” Move all of the icons into that folder, and close it. When you need to access one of those icons, open the folder.

Your Physical Desktop

Once you have cleaned up your digital desktop, take a look at the physical desk you sit at. Is it cluttered? Piled with papers and things you need to do? This adds to your stress and distracts you. Give yourself thirty minutes to process everything on your desk and get it clean and tidy.

This is part of my weekly ritual. One of the first steps in my weekly review is to clear my desk of any papers or notes.

Putting It Into Practice

We have covered several practical tips to tame your desktop (both digital and physical).

  • Turn off desktop notifications.
  • Close or snooze Slack when you are doing focused work.
  • Close any applications you are not actively using.
  • Close browser tabs you are not using or hide them in tab groups.
  • Use the reading list to save things you want to read later.
  • Set your desktop wallpaper to a peaceful, solid color.
  • Delete all icons on your desktop, or move them into a single folder.
  • Clear your physical desktop regularly.
  • As an awareness activity, log everything that distracts you. Identify the patterns of distraction and procrastination.

As always, if you want to take this to the next level, schedule time with Josh.

Want to comment? Join the conversation on LinkedIn.

Kari BranjordRob Layton, and Joel Sackett, yes, I’m talking about you.

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