Are you reading this article because you’re currently searching for a solution or method to stop being easily distracted and improve your focus?
Learning how to not get distracted is a tough goal to have. Most days, you sit at your desk, ready to finally get some work done. “Okay, lets do this,” you think to yourself. You scroll over to Word or Google Drive and open up a fresh document. You have some idea of what needs to be done, but what happens next?
You write a few words down but just can’t stay focused. Then you say, “Maybe I should wake myself up with something fun.” You go to Facebook, 20 minutes gone. Then comes an hour of mindlessly watching a handful of YouTube videos. Before you know it, lunchtime has come, and half the day is gone.
If you’re a typical working American, you’ll be distracted every 11 minutes; and, it will take you 25 minutes to settle down again to your task. Additionally, the more complicated your project, the longer it will take to regain your focus. This happens because your brain has to put in considerable effort when switching between complex objectives.
Distractions have a huge cost on our focus and productivity. If you want to improve or increase your focus, you need to learn to deal with the distractions in your life, and here’s how.
1. Keep Your Vision and Goals in Mind
It’s important to start with a good base for your focus as you learn how to avoid distraction. This means figuring out exactly why you need to focus in the first place. Do you have a big presentation at work next week that you need to prepare for? Do you have a dream of learning to play the guitar and need to focus for an hour each day while you practice?
Deciding what your ultimate goal is will help you dedicate yourself to learning how to focus. Knowing why we need to stay focused can help us push through the tough and tedious parts of accomplishing our goals. That’s when our ability to focus is really tested and when it’s most needed.
2. Clarify Your Day Before You Start
In the morning, before your workday begins, dedicate a few minutes to managing your schedule. A great way to do it is by applying the Covey time management matrix. Have a moment to set your priorities and determine which tasks are truly vital and urgent that day, which are not so urgent but still very important, and which you should avoid, either by delegating or eliminating them altogether.
This last type of task may be tricky because they will often be urgent, though uninspiring, issues, like questions from colleagues concerning their problems, phone calls, and emails that you answer by default, only because you’ve always done it and that’s the way it’s always been.
Instead, take control and make a conscious decision of what you’re going to when they come knocking. Once you’ve made it, hold on to it, and ruthlessly follow through.
3. Reduce the Chaos of Your Day
If you have 20 tasks you need done every day, how effective do you think your focus ability will be?
You can’t expect to do those things with sophistication if you’re too scatterbrained to focus. You need to break it down to the essentials if you want to learn how to not get distracted.
Focus on only doing 2-3 important tasks a day, but no more than that. It’s all you need to take steps towards accomplishing your goals. Slower is much better than giving up early because you took on too much, too soon. Ultimately, this is better for your mental health as you’ll continuously see yourself moving forward without getting easily distracted.
4. Do Those Tasks as Soon as Possible
In order to make sure you get those 2 to 3 tasks done, you need to do them early in order to stay focused on the task without feeling overwhelmed. This means that as soon as you wake up, you’re already plotting how to do them.
It’s tough, but waiting to do them later only invites distraction to take over. Those distractions will inevitably come in the form of unexpected emails, social media, a child that needs your attention, or coworkers who need a helping hand on their projects. All of this can drain your willpower and make focusing on the task at hand much more difficult.
5. Focus on the Smallest Part of Your Work at a Time
An easy way to kill your focus is to see a goal for the big, giant accomplishment that it is. Most goals will at least take a few weeks to months to accomplish, and knowing that can make it feel like it’ll take too long to do.
This will cause you to do one of two things:
- You become discouraged because the goal is too big.
- You fantasize about what it’ll feel like to achieve the goal.
Either is terrible for your focus and always a potential problem when focusing on the big picture or using visualization.
Instead, focus on doing a very small, minimum amount of work.
For example, if you need to write an article, you know you’ll need about 1000 words. If that seems like a lot, plan to write 200 words each day for the next five days (or adjust this according to the given deadline). Breaking it down like this will help the task feel more manageable, helping you learn how to not get distracted along the way.
6. Visualize Yourself Working
I briefly mentioned in tip 4 that visualization techniques can hurt you more than help you sometimes. However, there is a proper way of using visualization, and it’s by visualizing yourself actually working.
Champion runners use this technique to great effect, usually by working backwards. They imagine themselves winning at first, and then they act out the whole process in reverse, feeling and visualizing each step all the way to the beginning.
A quicker and more relevant way to apply this would be to imagine yourself doing a small part of the task at hand.
For instance, if you need to practice the guitar, but it’s all the way across the room (let’s assume maximum laziness for the sake of this example), what should you do?
First, imagine standing up (really, think of the sensation of getting up, and then do it). If you really imagined it, visualized and felt the act of standing up, then acting on that feeling will be easy.
Then, repeat the visualization process with each step till you have that guitar in hand and you’re playing it. The process of focusing so intently on each step distracts you from how much you don’t want to do something, and the visualizations ready your body for each step you need done.
All you need to do is apply this process to whatever it is you need to focus on.
7. Control Your Internal Distractions
Internal distractions are one of those problems you can’t really run away from. You need to find ways to prepare your mind for work, and find simple ways to keep it from straying to non-essential thoughts in order to learn how to not get distracted.
There are a few types of internal distractions:
One of the most common distractions we encounter is that we have too many options on hand. This can cause priority chaos.
For example, some people may find it hard to focus at home because there are too many options to choose from. You can choose to feed your dog, read a book, watch TV, have a snack or take a nap.
Besides the costs of distraction mentioned before, priority chaos is a big demotivator. When there are too many potentially attractive options, it’s hard to focus your energy and choose one of them – ideally the one you should be doing.
Priority chaos is also a demotivator because it makes you feel guilty. When you let your internal distractions overtake your focus, you’re the one who chooses to divert your own attention and energy away from your task. So when the task you wanted to complete doesn’t get done, you can’t blame an external factor. Whether you do it consciously or not, you’ll end up blaming yourself!
Why does priority chaos happen? Well, your brain subconsciously prioritizes tasks based on three factors:
- To fulfil an existing need. For example, you need to go to the bathroom urgently, so your brain is guaranteed to prioritize it.
- To achieve a certain feeling of satisfaction, such as the satisfaction of eating a delicious chocolate fudge cake.
- The perceived cost of achieving the benefit. What is the effort, energy or time required to complete this action?
The brain automatically take these 3 factors into account even when you’re not thinking about it.
Unfortunately, unless you’re consciously making an effort, your brain is not always the best at making accurate judgement calls. It tends to have a bias towards short term benefits and short term costs.
As there are often many more options our brains link to short term benefits, when you’re trying to focus on a task that gives you a long term benefit, that task usually becomes low priority. This is the essence of Priority Chaos.
Short & Long Term Mismatch
As explained earlier, our brains are not good at evaluating and comparing short term and long term benefits.
Short term benefits usually have a relatively low cost and are concrete, allowing our brains to easily grasp them. We usually associate long term benefits with high cost, and these perceived costs are usually not as clear cut. The longer term it is, the more effort it takes to imagine the benefits. This automatically creates a mental barrier and resistance in our brains. As a result, we tend to trade long term gain for short term gains.
This is the reason why you might know that something is good for you in the long term, such as losing weight and exercising, but for some reason, you can’t force yourself to feel excited about it. On the other hand, you might know that something is bad for you, such as binge eating junk food. But, the anticipation of short term satisfaction overwhelms your conscious ability to resist it.
This internal distraction is just like instant gratification. Thankfully, this can be tackled, too:
- Identify what task needs the most focus to get accomplished.
- Break down the tasks into smaller, bite-sized tasks. Each bite-sized task should have a very clear short term benefit (something that you can easily describe in one sentence), and a very clear short term cost (something that you can quantify, such as time spent).
- Set a time limit or duration for each bite sized task. The time limit should be short enough so that it’s a no-brainer to want to check it off.
- Evaluate your other options. Be realistic about what they are! Write them all down, and list out the benefits and the costs associated.
- Once you have your list completed, start prioritizing them. You have a time limit, so you need to order your tasks by priority, starting with the focus task as your top priority. Then fit the others around it.
- Schedule the remaining tasks for another time. For any remaining tasks on the list that won’t fit within your allocated time, don’t worry. You don’t have to give them up. Just schedule them for another time.
8. Remove External Distractions
This tip is a bit more straightforward as it requires you to simply distance yourself physically from things that are causing distractions.
If the television is disrupting, turn it off or work in another room. If your kids are playing and yelling, try getting up to work before they wake up. If you keep checking your phone, put your phone on silent while you’re working. Empty the wall in front of you to keep your mind on track. Photos, prints and various knick-knacks you like to display may be cute, but they will make your mind wander.
It’s usually obvious what you should do, but you still shouldn’t overlook this piece of advice.
9. Skip What You Don’t Know
This is a tip I don’t see often enough. If you hit a snag in your work, then come back to it later as you learn how to not get distracted. Focus your attention on what you can do to keep working “mindlessly” at all costs. All this means is that you should focus on the easy parts first.
Eventually, you can come back to the more difficult parts, and hopefully by then it’ll have come to you or you’ll have built up enough momentum that it won’t break your focus if you work on it.
10. Improve Your Discipline With Focus Practice
There are a few focus exercises you can do to improve your overall discipline.
The first one is meditation, which is basically the definition of focus in practice. It’s a great method for building focus ability, de-stressing, and giving you greater control over your emotions.
The second exercise is the Pomodoro method, which asks you to set a timer to track the time you spend on a task. These are basically “focus sprints,” and each one is followed by a solid break. Like real sprints, you’ll get better and better at doing them over time. Each interval improves your ability to stay focused when it matters, helping you learn how to not get distracted in the long term.
11. Manage Your Momentum
Momentum is like a discipline lubricant‒it helps ease the process of sticking with goals. That’s why I think it’s important that we never take true breaks from our goals; we end up losing momentum and relying on discipline to get back on track (not an easy thing to do).
This means each and every day, we need to do something significant to further our goals (yes, even weekends and holidays). And when I say “significant,” I don’t necessarily mean a big task, but rather, any task that brings us closer to our goals.
For instance, if your goal is to be a freelance writer, then write one single pitch on a weekend. If your goal is to get healthy, then go for a short, 5-minute walk, even on Christmas day.
The Bottom Line
Learning how to not get distracted is certainly easier said than done. Distractions exist in every corner of our lives these days, even if it’s in the form of a short beep generated from a notification. These kinds of distractions can seem minimal, but anything that pulls you away from your focus can get in the way of your productivity.
Don’t get distracted. Instead, use some of the tips above to win back your focus and overcome distractions. Your productivity will thank you.
Featured photo credit: Chase Clark via unsplash.com
|||^||The New York Times: Olympians Use Imagery as Mental Training|