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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 October 16, 2019

Invaluable Lessons You Can Learn From Your Mistakes

Invaluable Lessons You Can Learn From Your Mistakes

Do you like making mistakes?

I certainly don’t.

Making mistakes is inevitable. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could be at ease with them?

Perhaps there is a way to think of them differently and see their benefits.

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Why Mistakes Feel Dangerous

Mistakes often feel dangerous. Throughout human history, our errors have often been treated as dangerous for a variety of reasons:

  • Our vulnerability. We have limited and fragile support systems. When those systems fail, people often lose their lives.
  • Real dangers. Nature can be dangerous, and making mistakes can put us at the mercy of nature and its animal residents seeking a meal.
  • Ignorance. Many cultures scapegoats someone whenever there is a failure of some kind. Scapegoating can be serious and deadly.
  • Order. Many societies punish those who do not conform to the prevailing orthodoxy and treat difference and non-conformity as a mistake. Even our brains flash an error message whenever we go against prevailing social norms.

We have a history of handling mistakes and failure in an unpleasant way. Since each of us carries our human history with us, it can be a challenge to overcome the fear of making mistakes.

If we can embrace the reality of mistakes, we can free ourselves to be more creative in our lives and dig up some interesting insights.

Why We Can’t Avoid Making Mistakes

Many people operate under the notion that making mistakes is an aberration, a mistake if you will. You can call it perfectionism but it is a more substantial problem. It is really a demand for order and continuity.

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When we think we can eliminate mistakes, we are often working from a perspective that sees the world as a fixed place. The world, however, is not so obliging. Like it or not, the world, and everything in it, is constantly changing.

Change is more constant and pervasive than we can see with our own eyes which is why we often miss it. Our bodies are constantly changing. The natural conditions of the earth change constantly as well. Everything, including economic and cultural systems have life cycles. Everything is in a constant state of flux.

We cannot see all of the changes going on around us since rates of change vary. Unfortunately, when we try to create a feeling of certainty and solidity in our lives or operate from the illusion of stability and order, we are fighting reality and our natural evolution which is built on adapting to change.

It is better to continually bend into this reality rather than fight every change we experience. Fighting it can cause us to make more mistakes. Finding the benefits in change can be useful and help us minimize unnecessary mistakes.

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Lessons Learned from Making Mistakes

Life has so many uncertainties and variables that mistakes are inevitable. Fortunately, there are many things you can learn from making mistakes.

Here is a list of ways to harness the mistakes you make for your benefit.

  1. Point us to something we did not know.
  2. Reveal a nuance we missed.
  3. Deepen our knowledge.
  4. Tell us something about our skill levels.
  5. Help us see what matters and what does not.
  6. Inform us more about our values.
  7. Teach us more about others.
  8. Let us recognize changing circumstances.
  9. Show us when someone else has changed.
  10. Keep us connected to what works and what doesn’t work.
  11. Remind us of our humanity.
  12. Spur us to want to better work which helps us all.
  13. Promote compassion for ourselves and others.
  14. Teach us to value forgiveness.
  15. Help us to pace ourselves better.
  16. Invite us to better choices.
  17. Can teach us how to experiment.
  18. Can reveal a new insight.
  19. Can suggest new options we had not considered.
  20. Can serve as a warning.
  21. Show us hidden fault lines in our lives which can lead us to more productive arrangements.
  22. Point out structural problems in our lives.
  23. Prompt us to learn more about ourselves.
  24. Remind us how we are like others.
  25. Make us more humble.
  26. Help us rectify injustices in our lives.
  27. Show us where to create more balance in our lives.
  28. Tell us when the time to move on has occurred.
  29. Reveal where our passion is and where it is not.
  30. Expose our true feelings.
  31. Bring out problems in a relationship.
  32. Can be a red flag for our misjudgments.
  33. Point us in a more creative direction.
  34. Show us when we are not listening.
  35. Wake us up to our authentic selves.
  36. Can create distance with someone else.
  37. Slow us down when we need to.
  38. Can hasten change.
  39. Reveal our blind spots.
  40. Are the invisible made visible.

Reframe Reality to Handle Mistakes More Easily

The secret to handling mistakes is to:

  • Expect them as part of the process of growth and development.
  • Have an experimental mindset.
  • Think in evolutional rather than fixed terms.

When we accept change as the natural structure of the world, our vulnerability and humanness lets us work with the ebb and flow of life.

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When we recognize the inevitability of mistakes as part of the ongoing experiment which life is, then we can relax more. In doing so we may make fewer of them.

It also helps to keep in mind that trial and error is an organic natural way of living. It is how we have evolved over time. It is better to be with our natural evolution than to fight it and make life harder.

When we adopt an evolutional mindset and see ourselves as part of the ongoing human experiment, we can appreciate that all that has been built up over time which includes the many mistakes our ancestors have made over thousands of years. Each one of us today is a part of that human tradition of learning and experimenting,

Mistakes are part of the trial and error, experimental nature of life. The more you adopt the experimental, evolutional frame, the easier it becomes to handle mistakes.

Handling mistakes well can help you relax and enjoy all aspects of life more.

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Featured photo credit: Sarah Kilian via unsplash.com

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