The most productive people in the world do one thing done at a time.
December 12, 2018 8 min read
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by Deep Patel
We’ve all been there. Even with the best of intentions to stay on task, we still catch ourselves scrolling through social media when we should be working on a project. We can’t help but grab our cell phone the moment we hear a notification. And then there’s email! If we aren’t checking it every five minutes, we worry we might miss something important.
Distractions can seem impossible to avoid. Statistics show that distractions cause a massive loss in productivity. The typical manager is interrupted every eight minutes, and employees generally spend 28 percent of their time dealing with unnecessary interruptions and trying to get back on track.
So, how can you take back control of your time and attention? Here are seven proven strategies for overcoming distractions and reclaiming your focus.
1. Put yourself in distraction-free mode.
Begin building habits that help you eliminate distractions and stay focused. Start by creating an environment in which you’re less tempted to get preoccupied with something other than what you’re working on. This isn’t always easy to do. For one, many of us rely on a computer to do our work, but we also find our biggest distractions enabled by the use of a computer on the internet. If you constantly find yourself wandering over to video or shopping websites, try using a website blocker app.
Work to create habits that signal to yourself and those around you that you’re in distraction-free mode. Close the door to your office. Put on noise-canceling headphones. Turn off your phone or put it on silent and move it away from you (so you can’t easily pick it up). If you work in an open office, you may find it helpful to move to a quieter location. Studies have found that distractions happen 64 percent more often in an open office, and we’re interrupted by others more often in that environment as well.
Remove as many excuses and distractions as you can so you can bring your full attention to one task at a time — no multitasking.
Related: Distractions Are Hurting You More Than You Realize: Here’s Why
2. Set three main objectives every day.
A long list of things to do can feel insurmountable and leave us feeling overwhelmed. We’re ready to give up before we start, and that’s when it becomes easy to give in to distractions. You can offset this by giving yourself 3 objectives to accomplish every day. Write them on a sticky note and post it where you can see it every time you look up from your work.
By limiting the number of daily goals, you’ll have clearly defined what you need to work on. You’ll work with greater intention on those tasks and your mind will be less apt to stray.
Ask yourself every morning: What are the three most important things to accomplish today? Any other tasks should be put on a separate to-do list. You can begin to tackle those less-important tasks once you’ve accomplished the first 3 goals.
3. Give yourself a shorter time frame.
More hours worked doesn’t mean you necessarily get more things accomplished. Parkinson’s law says that “work tends to expand to fill the time we have available for its completion.” And the thing is, we usually fill any time remaining with distractions. This is because our mind is wired to conserve energy whenever possible. If we don’t have to do something, there’s a good chance we won’t do it. Instead, we’ll allow ourselves to get sucked into a YouTube video or a game app on our phone.
On the other hand, when we’re up against a deadline, we suddenly develop a laser-like focus and avoid distractions at all costs. When you know you have to get something done, you’ll figure out a way to do it.
To eliminate distractions, give yourself a shorter time frame to finish your work. This is like giving yourself an artificial deadline, but backed up with something that holds you accountable. Tell your boss or client that you’ll give them a draft of a project by the end of the day. Find an accountability partner who will hold you to your target time frame. However you do it, setting a hard deadline will help you avoid distractions and amp up your productivity.
Related: Working From Home? Avoid These Not-So-Obvious Distractions.
4. Monitor your mind wandering.
We spend nearly 50 percent of our waking time thinking about something other than what we’re supposed to be doing, according to one Harvard study. We are on autopilot, and our mind is wandering, in part to avoid the effort of focusing on something. The key to heightened productivity is to notice when your mind is distracted and bring your attention back on task.
This means paying attention to your thoughts and recognizing when your mind starts drifting. This allows you to manage what you focus on and redirect your thoughts when you slip up. Instead of allowing yourself to keep meandering over to social media to check out your newsfeed, you actively put the brakes on this distraction.
Pay attention to what distractions are particularly hard to avoid, so you can catch them sooner. When you feel a desire to give in to a distraction, take a breath and purposely choose not to react to it. Once you’ve given in and allowed yourself to focus on something else, like reading emails, it’s harder to regroup and bring your attention back to the task at hand.
In short, be mindful of your thoughts, instead of allowing yourself to skip between task and distraction.
5. Train your brain by making a game out of it.
Your mind is like a muscle. In order to use it effectively, you need to build it up. We need to train our brains to stay focused by gradually working on our concentration. This will strengthen our ability to focus for longer periods of time.
A great way to begin doing this is through the “Pomodoro Method,” in which you set a timer and are completely focused on a task for a period of time, such as 45 minutes straight. Then allow yourself a 15-minute break.
If 45 minutes is a stretch, start with something more manageable, such as 25 minutes, and then give yourself a five-minute break. The idea is to make a game of it — challenge yourself to work diligently on your task until the timer rings. Then allow yourself to gorge on whatever distraction you want, but only for an allotted time.
After the break, it’s back to work again until the timer rings. You’ll be amazed by how much you can get done using this method!
Related: 5 Mind Hacks Silicon Valley Founders Use to Stay Focused
6. Take on more challenging work.
If you’re having trouble focusing and are chronically distracted, it may be that your work isn’t engaging you fully. You might feel like you’re working hard all day, but it could be that your mind is fighting boredom and looking to fill the time with something more interesting.
Complex tasks demand more of our working memory and attention, meaning we have less mental capacity remaining to wander to the nearest stimulating distraction. We’re most likely to enter into a state of total work immersion when our abilities are challenged. We get bored when our skills greatly exceed the demands of our work — such as when we do mindless data entry for several hours.
Assess the level of unproductive busywork you’re doing. Are you having a hard time becoming engaged in the project? This could indicate that you have the capacity to take on more challenging projects. When we take on more complex work that pushes our skill and intellectual limits, we can become consumed and hyper-focused on the task. Our minds are wired to focus on anything that’s novel, pleasurable or threatening. And tackling these tasks gives us a sense of achievement.
We have no such sense of accomplishment with a task we deem menial.
7. Break the cycle of stress and distraction.
Stress can also play a major role in our inability to focus or overcome distractions. Too often, we find ourselves trying to work while feeling overwhelmed. This leaves us frazzled and exhausted, easily distracted and unable to focus. If you’re easily distracted, it can indicate that you’re under elevated stress.
There’s even a name for it: “easily distracted anxiety.” Symptoms include:
- You have difficulty concentrating and your mind constantly drifts from what you were focusing on.
- You have more difficulty forming thoughts and staying on track than normal.
- Your thinking feels muddled and impaired.
- You feel your short-term memory isn’t as good as it normally is.
Bringing your stress under control will help you regain your focus and overcome distractions more easily. You must find ways to calm your mind and relax your body to reduce the body’s stress response. Make sure you get enough sleep. Practice breathing exercises and find ways to contain your anxiety.