As Alexander Graham Bell said, “The sun’s rays do not burn until brought to a focus.” Yet, that’s precisely what most people struggle with nowadays. They have goals, ambitions, and to-dos, but fail to make any meaningful impact because they have a hard time staying focused and avoiding distractions.
Here are some worrying statistics about how most of us struggle with distractions nowadays:
- A study led by Harvard showed that the average knowledge worker spends 47% of his or her day in a state of (semi)distraction.
- RescueTime has researched that the average knowledge worker checks email 55 times per day (on average every 8.5 minutes in an 8-hour workday)
- And instant messaging apps about 77 times per day (on average every 6 minutes taking in an 8-hour workday)
- A study by Gloria Mark showed that, on average, each knowledge worker in the study spent only 11 minutes on any given project before being interrupted
All in all, these studies form proof of that what we already intuitively know: most of us are terrible at focusing uninterruptedly for longer periods of time — and it’s hurting our productivity.
Tip 1: Practice The ‘Fully On, Fully Off’ Method
Most people are never fully ‘on’ and never fully ‘off.’ When they’re supposed to work (aka, be ‘on’), they procrastinate and waste time on distractions. Every few minutes, they get distracted by private messages, social media, or news websites. This leads to low productivity and slow progress.
On the other hand, most people never fully relax when they’re supposed to. Especially with the rise of technology, the boundaries between work and relaxation have disappeared. During the evenings or weekends, most people quickly check their work email or send their co-workers a message regarding a project. No wonder stress and burn-out are rising.
All in all, most people are never fully engaged during work hours and never fully relaxed during ‘off’ hours. Therefore, I recommend following this one productivity principle: When you’re ‘on,’ be fully on. When you’re ‘off,’ be fully off. Don’t hang somewhere in between. It’s the least enjoyable state to be in.
Learn to regulate your on/off switch. When you’re ‘on’, put your phone away and focus on your work. When you’re ‘off’, learn to let go of your work and relax. It’ll make both your work and your personal life a lot more fruitful.
Tip 2: Stop Multitasking
Research has shown that multitasking doesn’t work (at least not with cognitively demanding tasks). In fact, every time you switch tasks, it takes, on average, 25 minutes before your focus is fully available for your task at hand again.
This phenomenon is called ‘attention residue,’ which implies that some of your attention is ‘left behind’ at the previous task that your brain was dealing with.
Instead, focus on one task and, when completed, move on to the next task. This makes you a lot more efficient as you don’t suffer from the attention residue.
Tip 3: Follow A Daily Deep Work Routine
Deep work is the most productive state we can be in. It’s when you work on a highly valuable task uninterruptedly for a longer period. In a 2-hour deep work session, you’re likely to be more productive than most people are in two full days of work.
“To produce at your peak level you need to work for extended periods with full concentration on a single task free from distraction. Put another way, the type of work that optimizes your performance is deep work.” — Cal Newport (author of Deep Work)
The reason why deep work is so powerful is that you combine the two most productive things:
- Working in deep focus mode — free from distractions and time-wasters
- Working on the most important tasks that generate the most value
This way of working is exponentially more productive than how most people approach their work. Where most people work on many non-essential tasks — email, making small tweaks, posting on social media — in a state of continuous distraction, you work in a highly focused way on one task that truly matters. That’s where you reach peak productivity.
Tip 4: Download App & Websites Blockers
Using blockers is probably one of the easiest ways to protect your focus. You don’t have to rely on your willpower anymore as technology is doing the work for you. This way, you keep the most distracting websites and social media platforms from disrupting your work- or study flow.
One of my favorite apps to get less distracted by my phone is ‘Screentime.’ Screentime measures exactly how much time you spend on your phone, and it shows you which apps are the most distracting. This will give you a harsh-but-valuable insight into how much time you are wasting on your phone.
Furthermore, you can use Screentime to put a time-limit on the most distracting apps. For example, I’ve put a 15-minute time limit on Instagram, so I’ll never spend more than 15 minutes per day on the platform. This way, I can get the enjoyment of checking Instagram without overdoing it.
Another blocker I recommend is Forest, an app gamifying the process of not using your phone. With Forest, you set a time limit for how long you don’t want to use your phone. If you succeed, a tree will grow in your digital ‘forest.’ This makes not using your phone a bit more fun!
If you want to block certain distracting websites on your desktop, I recommend using RescueTime or StayFocusd.
Tip 5: Use The Pomodoro Technique
The idea behind the Pomodoro technique is that you’ll be able to focus better by working on one task — without distractions — for a relatively short amount of time, followed by a short break to recharge mental energy.
(You could, for example, apply the Pomodoro technique in your daily deep work session.)
Here are the six steps of the Pomodoro technique:
- Step 1: Pick one specific task that you’d like to get done
- Step 2: Set a timer for 25 minutes
- Step 3: Work on the task until the timer rings — without any form of distraction (no phone, social media, email, etc.)
- Step 4: Check off your 1st Pomodoro session
- Step 5: Take a short 5-minute break
- Step 6: Repeat for 4 sessions, then take a longer break of about 20–30 minutes.
As you’re working on one specific task in short 25-minute bursts without distractions, it’s much easier to stay focused. And by taking 5-minute breaks every 25 minutes, your brain can recharge and get back to full energy for your next Pomodoro session. This way, you can get a lot of work done without losing concentration over time.
Step 6: Use Music To Your Advantage
Music can help you stay laser-focused. However, the music you listen to must be familiar to you (aka, no new songs). When new songs come up, or when you listen to a variety of different songs that include vocals, the music starts to compete for attentional space in your brain.
As your brain now needs to spend energy to fight off these distractions, it’ll be harder to focus on your task at hand. Therefore, put one song on repeat for 1–2 hours or listen to repetitive type music like techno (which works like magic for me), classical music, or trance music. This will help you reach a state of deep focus with more ease.
Tip 7: Batch Produce Lesser Important Tasks
Unfortunately, we can’t always escape those lesser important tasks — whether it’s email, answering comments, making phone calls, etc.
One way to efficiently get these lesser important tasks out of the way is by ‘batch producing’ them. With batch production, you essentially lump a few similar tasks together and finish them all in one effective go instead of doing them scattered throughout your day.
You can compare this to doing your laundry. You wouldn’t do your laundry each time you have a new pair of dirty socks. Instead, over the period of a few days, you collect your dirty laundry and ‘batch produce’ it all in one go. This way, you don’t have to do your laundry multiple times per day, which would be crazy.
Yet, this is what most of us do with routine and low-value tasks such as email, answering comments, checking business statistics, or making phone calls. We scatter them throughout our day, which distracts us from finishing the essential tasks that make a real impact. We, metaphorically, do our laundry multiple times per day instead of in one efficient go.
Therefore, schedule fixed batch production moments in your day to protect your focus for the important stuff. Personally, I schedule these moments at the end of my workday, when I’ve already finished my most important tasks.
Now Do It
Change comes from taking action. Therefore, as an action point for this article, pick one of these tips and apply them in your next work session.
To Your Personal Growth,
Founder Personal Growth Lab