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5 Proven Techniques to Stay Focused & Kill Distractions

5 Proven Techniques to Stay Focused & Kill Distractions

Ever experienced this? You get to the office, have a cup of coffee, and get ready to start your day. But from the minute your colleagues start, that’s it, somehow, all you had planned goes out of the door – your attention gets hijacked by a steady stream of ad hoc requests and petty issues.

It’s not until everyone leaves again that you can go back to the working on the important things. The only problem is, it becomes tough to leave the office on time. It’s little wonder that a recent study by Deloitte showed that two thirds of corporate workers feel “overwhelmed”, and 80% wanted to do fewer hours.

My own study, with 390 working professionals, showed similar results. Many said it was difficult to stay focused because of ongoing distractions. And that’s why I wrote this article. What follows are five key strategies to improve your focus and reduce distraction.

1. Clarify Your End Goal

There many places you could put your attention. But how do you know what’s best? Imagine a military commander getting ready for battle. If he’s good, before any fighting happens, he rallies his troops and he details a thorough strategy for dealing with the enemy.

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By giving his troops this clarity, he drastically improves their chances of being victorious. Similarly, setting well defined goals clarifies what you’re shooting for. It puts your efforts in context. It keeps you on track. It gives you indications of where to start. The first step in improving your focus is defining your goals. There are various ways to do that, but for the sake of brevity, let’s keep this simple.

  • Take a few minutes to brainstorm a list of things that you desire in your career and your life. When coming up with ideas, don’t judge yourself or limit your desires. Simply write down whatever excites you, however big or small they are. Nobody else needs to see this. You’re simply exploring different possibilities.
  • Give your goals some concreteness. Be specific. Provide details about what defines successful outcomes, and when you realistically expect to achieve results.
  • Once you’ve got several ideas going, rank them in order of their importance. The top few items on that list should motivate you. (If they don’t, you need to keep at it until you have a list of things that get you excited.)

2. Know Where to Focus

Out of your list of goals, choose one on which to place most your focus. The one goal you select, when completed, should help you achieve many of your other goals. It’s like killing five birds with one stone. This might sound counter intuitive, but you’ll achieve more when you focus on one thing for extended periods of time, than if you multitask.

Next, break your goal down into smaller pieces. Doing so will give you clarity about the specific steps you need to take. It will also give you motivation, because a series of small efforts are far easier to imagine than a single big one.

Try to sequence your efforts to give yourself the biggest advantage upfront. The faster you benefit from your efforts, the better.
Once you have prioritized your steps, you’ll have confidence your focus is on the right thing. You’ll also feel like you’re being responsible towards the other people you work with.

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3. Access Maximum Willpower

As you tackle your goals, you may struggle. And maintaining focus amid difficulties takes willpower. In the 1960s, researcher Walter Mischel performed a famous study The Marshmallow Experiment with preschoolers. Experimenters offered the kids a single marshmallow, and were told that if they could wait until the attendant returned, they’d receive an additional one. Certain kids found ways to resist the urge to eat the marshmallow, while others didn’t.

Years later, in a follow up study, Mischel found that those with higher levels of self control experienced more positive outcomes, compared to the other subjects. Developing this idea further, in 1998, studies by Roy Baumeister demonstrated how willpower behaves like a muscle. For example, willpower becomes weaker with exertion, but when rested, it recovers again. When you use willpower on one task, you have less for subsequent ones.

Even seemingly harmless things like seeing an email notification, or hearing a phone alert, depletes your reserves. Hence, when working on your day’s main focus, you must reserve enough willpower so you can get it done. That’s why I recommend you work on your key task first, before email or meetings – because that’s when you still you have plenty of ‘juice left in the tank’.

4. Shield Yourself From Distractions

Distractions like email alerts, social media updates, surfing the web, playing games, phone calls, and work colleagues asking “Have you got a moment?”, will break your focused flow. If you allow them to happen, distractions will rob you of the opportunity to complete important tasks.

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Now, while you can’t eliminate all distractions, it’s certainly possible to minimize most. Here’s how:

  • Clear your desk and office of clutter. Only have things on your desk that you need for the task at hand.
  • During focused work periods, hang a “Do Not Disturb” sign on your door.
  • Close all applications and browser windows that you’re not immediately using for the task at hand. Mute all phone, email, social media, and Internet notifications. (Set aside a window of time during the day when you can batch process these types of activities in one go.)

5. Take Frequent Breaks

Like a muscle, your willpower somewhat recovers when you rest, making it easier to maintain focus throughout the entire day. That’s why you should get into the habit of taking short, frequent breaks. Some people find it difficult stop what they’re doing. To handle this, I find it’s best to use an alarm or egg timer. When the alarm goes off, that reminds you to take a break.

This is how to use a timer to manage your work periods:

  • Set the timer to between 25 – 50 minutes. If you find yourself craving to do something distracting like reading email, social media, or web surfing, experiment with shortening the work duration.
  • Focus intensely on the task at hand. Do not allow yourself to deviate.
  • When the timer goes off, immediately stop. Take 5 minutes to physically get up, walk around, drink a glass of water, get some air, or do some stretches.

Bringing It All Together

While we live in a frantic world, it doesn’t mean that you have to be. When you are clear about your goals, the steps for getting there, how to leverage your willpower, and how to stay focused, you will make steady progress.

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The 5 strategies I’ve shared here will help you toward that end. At first, they might might seem tricky. But over time, with practice, you’ll become more and more proficient. If I’ve provoked your thoughts on this subject, I’d love to hear them in the comments below.

Featured photo credit: Depositphotos via depositphotos.com

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Last Updated on August 16, 2018

16 Productivity Secrets of Highly Successful People Revealed

16 Productivity Secrets of Highly Successful People Revealed

The same old motivational secrets don’t really motivate you after you’ve read them for the tenth time, do they?

How about a unique spin on things?

These 16 productivity secrets of successful people will make you reevaluate your approach to your home, work, and creative lives. Learn from these highly successful people, turn these little things they do into your daily habits and you’ll get closer to success.

1. Empty your mind.

It sounds counterproductive, doesn’t it?

Emptying your mind when you have so much to remember seems like you’re just begging to forget something. Instead, this gives you a clean slate so you’re not still thinking about last week’s tasks.

Clear your mind and then start thinking only about what you need to do immediately, and then today. Tasks that need to be accomplished later in the week can wait.

Here’s a guide to help you empty your mind and think sharper:

How to Declutter Your Mind to Sharpen Your Brain and Fall Asleep Faster

2. Keep certain days clear.

Some companies are scheduling “No Meeting Wednesdays,” which means, funnily enough, that no one can hold a meeting on a Wednesday. This gives workers a full day to work on their own tasks, without getting sidetracked by other duties or pointless meetings.

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This can work in your personal life too, for example if you need to restrict Facebook access or limit phone calls.

3. Prioritize your work.

Don’t think every task is created equal! Some tasks aren’t as important as others, or might take less time.

Try to sort your tasks every day and see what can be done quickly and efficiently. Get these out of the way so you have more free time and brain power to focus on what is more important.

Lifehack’s CEO has a unique way to prioritize works, take a look at it here:

How to Prioritize Right in 10 Minutes and Work 10X Faster

4. Chop up your time.

Many successful business leaders chop their time up into fifteen-minute intervals. This means they work on tasks for a quarter of an hour at a time, or schedule meetings for only fifteen minutes. It makes each hour seem four times as long, which leads to more productivity!

5. Have a thinking position.

Truman Capote claimed he couldn’t think unless he was laying down. Proust did this as well, while Stravinsky would stand on his head!

What works for others may not work for you. Try to find a spot and position that is perfect for you to brainstorm or come up with ideas.

6. Pick three to five things you must do that day.

To Do lists can get overwhelming very quickly. Instead of making a never-ending list of everything you can think of that needs to be done, make daily lists that include just three to five things.

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Make sure they’re things that need to be done that day, so you don’t keep putting them off.

7. Don’t try to do too much.

OK, so I just told you to work every day, and now I’m telling you to not do too much? It might sound like conflicting advice, but not doing too much means not biting off more than you can chew. Don’t say yes to every work project or social engagement and find yourself in way over your head.

8. Have a daily action plan.

Don’t limit yourself to a to-do list! Take ten minutes every morning to map out a daily action plan. It’s a place to not only write what needs to be done that day, but also to prioritize what will bring the biggest reward, what will take the longest, and what goals will be accomplished.

Leave room for a “brain dump,” where you can scribble down anything else that’s on your mind.

9. Do your most dreaded project first.

Getting your most dreaded task over with first means you’ll have the rest of the day free for anything and everything else. This also means that you won’t be constantly putting off the worst of your projects, making it even harder to start on it later.

10. Follow the “Two-Minute Rule.”

The “Two-Minute Rule” was made famous by David Allen. It’s simple – if a new task comes in and it can be done in two minutes or less, do it right then. Putting it off just adds to your to-do list and will make the task seem more monumental later.

11. Have a place devoted to work.

If you work in an office, it’s no problem to say that your cubicle desk is where you work every day.

But if you work from home, make sure you have a certain area specifically for work. You don’t want files spread out all over the dinner table, and you don’t want to feel like you’re not working just because you’re relaxing on the couch.

Agatha Christie never wrote at her desk, she wrote wherever she could sit down. Ernest Hemingway wrote standing up. Thomas Wolfe, at 6’6″ tall, used the top of his refrigerator as a desk. Richard Wright wrote on a park bench, rain or shine.

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Have a space where, when you go there, you know you’re going to work. Maybe it’s a cafe downstairs, the library, or a meeting room. Whenever and wherever works for you, do your works there.

12. Find your golden hour.

You don’t have to stick to a “typical” 9–5 schedule!

Novelist Anne Rice slept during the day and wrote at night to avoid distractions. Writer Jerzy Kosinski slept eight hours a day, but never all at once. He’d wake in the morning, work, sleep four hours in the afternoon, then work more that evening.

Your golden hour is the time when you’re at your peak. You’re alert, ready to be productive, and intent on crossing things off your to-do list.

Once you find your best time, protect it with all your might. Make sure you’re always free to do your best uninterrupted work at this time.

13. Pretend you’re on an airplane.

It might not be possible to lock everyone out of your office to get some peace and quiet, but you can eliminate some distractions.

By pretending you’re on an airplane, you can act like your internet access is limited, you’re not able to get something from your bookcase, and you can’t make countless phone calls.

Eliminating these distractions will help you focus on your most important tasks and get them done without interruption.

14. Never stop.

Writers Anthony Trollope and Henry James started writing their next books as soon as they finished their current work in progress.

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Stephen King writes every day of the year, and holds himself accountable for 2,000 words a day! Mark Twain wrote every day, and then read his day’s work aloud to his family to get their feedback.

There’s something to be said about working nonstop, and putting out continuous work instead of taking a break. It’s just a momentum that will push you go further./

15. Be in tune with your body.

Your mind and body will get tired of a task after ninety minutes to two hours focused on it. Keep this in mind as you assign projects to yourself throughout the day, and take breaks to ensure that you won’t get burned out.

16. Try different methods.

Vladimir Nabokov wrote the first drafts of his novels on index cards. This made it easy to rearrange sentences, paragraphs, and chapters by shuffling the cards around.

It does sound easier, and more fun, than copying and pasting in Word! Once Nabokov liked the arrangement, his wife typed them into a single manuscript.

Same for you, don’t give up and think that it’s impossible for you to be productive when one method fails. Try different methods until you find what works perfectly for you.

Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

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