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Last Updated on August 22, 2018

How to Not Get Distracted: 10 Practical Tips to Sharpen Your Focus

How to Not Get Distracted: 10 Practical Tips to Sharpen Your Focus

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 Excel, or Office, etc.) 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 Youtube, 60 minutes gone. Before you know it, lunchtime has come and half the day is gone.

Does this seem familiar? Do you ever find yourself wasting your day?

Well it doesn’t have to be this way, all you need to do is focus on finishing this article to find out how to not get distracted easily.

But before we move on to the tips, here’re some important notes you need to know:

  • Avoiding distraction is tough. You’re not alone when it comes to distractions. It’s not easy staying on task when you need to work for hours at a time, but some people are able to do it. The question is: why them and not you?
  • You were never taught how to focus. It’s funny how all throughout our school days we were never taught HOW to learn and be focused, even though that’s all we did. It was just assumed, and ultimately it was hit or miss on whether or not you ended up knowing how to do those things at all.
  • The tools to help master your ability to focus. Since everyone’s left to their own devices, it’s up to you to find ways to master your focus ability. That’s what these tips are for, so you can finally stay focused and on track with what we want to accomplish for ourselves.

So without further ado, let’s get started. 

1. Keep your vision and goals in mind

First things first, why do you even need to focus? Do you want to become a skilled guitar player? Do you want to write a novel? Do you want to start working from home?

Think about it.

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. Reduce the chaos of your day by focusing on 2 to 3 important tasks

If you have 20 tasks you need done everyday how effective do you think your focus ability will be? Terrible, right?

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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.

Focus on only doing 2-3 important tasks a day (even one is okay), 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 early.

3. 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. This means as soon as you wake up, you’re already plotting how to do them.

So get up, use the bathroom, eat breakfast, and do it (Yes, BEFORE work is the best time to do it).

It’s tough, but waiting to do them only invites distraction to take over. Those distractions WILL come, and they will drain your willpower. This makes working on your goals harder to do, so don’t wait do work on your goals, do them as early as possible.

4. Focus on only 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 FOREVER to do.

This will cause you to do one of two things:

  • You become discouraged because the goal is too big; or
  • You fantasize about what it’ll feel like to achieve the goal

Either way is terrible for your focus and always a potential problem when focusing on the big picture or using visualization.

So what should you do? Focus on doing a very small, minimum amount of work instead.

For example, which seems easier:

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Writing 200 words per day or writing a minimum of 2 sentences per day?

20 pushups per day or a minimum of 1 pushup per day?

The key here is to use minimums. Chances are you’ll push past them.

Eventually your minimum will increase, and you’ll slowly improve your ability to stay focused on the bigger tasks.

5. Visualize yourself working

I briefly mentioned in tip #4 that visualization techniques can hurt you more than help you sometimes. But there is a proper way of using visualization, and it’s by visualizing yourself actually WORKING (not as if you’ve succeeded already).

Champion runners use this technique to great effect, usually by working backwards. They imagine themselves winning at first, 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 your 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.

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All you need to do is apply this process to whatever it is you need to focus on, just start with the smallest motion you need to do.

6. 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 as well.

A good way to prime your mind for work is to have a dedicated work station. If you always work in a specific area, then your mind will associate that area with work related thoughts.

Simple enough, right? When you take breaks make sure to leave your work station, that way you’ll know when you’re “allowed” to let your thoughts roam free as well.

Deadlines are useful here also (use Pomodoro method for example, see tip #9). This method helps keep your mind from wandering around since you’ve got that looming deadline coming along.

Ultimately though, silencing those unwanted thoughts is all about getting some traction going. So instead of focusing on what’s happening internally, focus getting something done (anything!). Once you do that, you’ll see that all your thoughts will be about finishing your task.

7. Remove external distractions

This tip is straightforward, just get away from things that distract you.

Is the television a distraction? Work in another room. Are the kids distracting you? Get up earlier and work before they wake up. Is the Internet distracting? Turn off the modem.

It’s usually obvious what you should do, but you still shouldn’t overlook this piece of advice.

8. 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. Focus your attention on what you CAN do, keep working “mindlessly” at all costs. All this means is that you should focus on the easy parts first.

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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.

9. Improve your discipline with focus practice

There’s 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. Think about it, you’re literally just sitting there doing nothing. It’s a great method for building focus ability, de-stressing, and giving you greater control over your emotions. You should definitely give meditation a shot.

The second exercise is the Pomodoro method. 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, so it’s more than worth your time to try this out.

10. 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 everyday 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 get healthy, then go for a short 5 minute walk even on Christmas day.

Nothing big, nothing crazy, only stuff that is significant enough to contribute to the success of your overall goal.

Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

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Ericson Ay Mires

Ericson is a writer who shares about work and productivity tips on Lifehack.

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Last Updated on July 17, 2019

The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

What happens in our heads when we set goals?

Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

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Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

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One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

The Neurology of Ownership

Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

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But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

The Upshot for Goal-Setters

So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

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It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

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Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

Reference

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