By Stephanie Stevens
[4 minute read]
It happens to all of us. You sit down at your desk, log onto your computer and begin considering your work for the day. Then a text comes in from your boss asking you to join in a last-minute meeting on Zoom, a colleague sends you an urgent email asking for some feedback on a project that's due today, and your partner wants to know if you're going to be able to drop by the store before dinner. Meanwhile, the big project you're supposed to be working on sits untouched.
By five o'clock, you're exhausted, feel like you didn't get anything done all day, and wondering if you should work late to meet your deadline.
Distraction has become an uncomfortable norm in our day-to-day lives. Our attention is constantly diverted away from the task in front of us by everything going on around us. And while it's easy to blame it on the effects of living in the digital age, staying focused has been a challenge since long before smartphones, social media or the Internet existed.
So how do we stay on track with more distractions than ever? Preparation.
Prepare Your Body
If you're hungry, thirsty or tired, you will have a much harder time staying focused. Make sure you're physically ready by getting a good night's rest (or taking a power nap), schedule regular breaks to stretch, and listen to your body when it's time to eat or drink something.
Prepare Your Space
For many of us, the simple act of creating a comfortable, low-distraction workspace will create the right mindset.
- Turn off your phone, email, etc. You can check it when you take a break, if necessary. Or at least turn off the notifications from your most distraction-prone apps. You don't need a beeping reminder every time someone likes your latest cute kid or pet photo.
- Find a quiet, or at least interruption-free, space to work. If you don't have a separate room, such as an office or bedroom with a door to close, put on some headphones (create a work playlist to set the mood), and settle into your workspace.
- Give people a heads-up. Let those around you (co-workers, roommates, family, partners) know that you're working on a project and need uninterrupted, quiet time.
- If you have to work in a public space or open office, choose to sit near those focused on being productive.
Okay, you may be thinking, what if you've done all of that, and you're still distracted?
Prepare Your Mind
After doing years of research on the topic, Nir Eyal, the author of Indistractable, has found that our minds often use distraction to avoid uncomfortable feelings like boredom, loneliness, insecurity, fatigue and uncertainty. Here's how he recommends dealing with those feelings.
- Check-in with yourself. Are you unable to focus because of other issues you need to deal with before starting this task?
- Examine your feelings about the task. It's okay to admit it if you think it's boring or an area of stress. Own your feelings about it.
- Reframe it. Eyal notes, "Sure, you might be 'forced to do your taxes.' But another way of thinking about that is that you 'get to review last year's business successes.' It sounds laughable, but it works."
- Prioritize your time. If it's important to you, schedule time for it, whether it's quality family time, working out, making art, etc. It will help you stay on task because you won't be thinking about what you should be doing versus what you wish you were making time to do. Need help prioritizing? Daniel H. Pink's "When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing" provides some insight on the best time to do certain tasks. Sometimes, timing really is everything.
Prepare Through Practice
Most of us aren't taught how to actively focus on a task. It's assumed that it's a skill we've developed over a lifetime when it's often hit or miss on whether or not we ended up knowing how to do it well. However, there are ways you can practice and increase your ability to focus.
- Meditate. The practice of managing your thoughts, meditation is a great way to practice focusing, and it relieves stress. And it's not necessary to find a quiet mountain top. Mindfulness gained through meditation teaches you to deal with the barking dog, the pile of laundry, an unmade bed and the feeling that you "should" be doing something because sometimes the best productivity tip is a few minutes of "not doing".
- Try the Pomodoro Method. A time management tool developed by Francesco Cirillo, the Pomodoro Method promotes working in short intervals and taking scheduled breaks to give you bite-sized and easily achievable productivity goals.
Whatever methods you use, keep in mind that much like any other skill, learning how to focus and eliminate distractions is about finding what works for you. The distractions surrounding us aren't going anywhere, so taking the time to figure out how to overcome them is one of the best things you can do for yourself both personally and professionally.
Did you find this article helpful? Let us know any other tips and tricks you have for staying focused and less distracted in the comments.