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 much we struggle with distractions nowadays:
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.
To combat this, check out these 11 ways to fight off distractions and to work with laser-focus instead.
Identifying your daily priorities is critical for your focus and productivity. Often, people get distracted by lesser important tasks — email, social media, phone calls — because they haven’t identified what’s truly important. Despite working hard, they still aren’t really productive because they failed to tackle their most important tasks.
As soon as you’ve identified what’s truly important, however, it’s much easier to say no to tasks that might hijack your time and attention.
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’.
Every single workday, schedule at least 2 hours of uninterrupted work time in which you focus intensely on an important task — something which Call Newport calls ‘Deep Work’. This means no email, no social media, and no smartphone. Just you and your (valuable) task at hand.
By following a deep work routine, you will be able to accomplish in 2 hours compared to what most people achieve in an entire day. It’s incredible how productive we become when nothing is interrupting our focus.
Sometimes, it can be too hard to resist digital distractions such as social media, funny cat videos, or the latest news updates. One quick look at these websites or apps, and before you know it, you’ve lost another 20 minutes.
To prevent yourself from falling for these focus and time wasters, download website or app blockers such as RescueTime or Forest. These tools block certain websites or apps for a limited amount of time, so you’ll have no other option than to focus on your work at hand.
A study from IDC Research showed that about 80% of smartphone users check their mobile devices within 15 minutes of waking up each morning — and that’s a big problem.
Your thoughts, ideas, and focus are immediately hijacked by the new messages, emails, and notifications that you’ve received. In other words, your mind will be occupied with other people’s agenda — not your own.
Instead of starting your day proactively focusing on your own goals, you’re being forced to react to other people’s stuff.
Furthermore, by starting the day distracted, you set the tone for a distracted day — as it impacts your ability to prioritize effectively. According to Dr. Nikole Benders-Hadi, “The information overload that hits [you] before you’re fully awake interferes with your ability to prioritize tasks.”
All in all, smartphones make a good servant, but a bad master. Therefore, avoid checking your smartphone the first 30–60 minutes of your day. Instead, dedicate this time towards your goals and self-improvement.
Meditation is one of the most effective habits for boosting your focus and productivity. Many studies, including this Harvard study, have shown that meditation increases the grey matter in the pre-frontal cortex, the area of the brain responsible for decision-making, focusing, and prioritizing.
In other words, meditation makes it easier for your brain to focus intensely, prioritize important work over non-important work, and say no to distractions.
Furthermore, through meditation, you train yourself to be okay with very little stimuli and to focus intensely on one thing — your breath — for an extended amount of time. This prepares you for deep, focused work.
When you’re first trying out meditation, I recommend you use an app like Headspace or a device like Muse (also recommended for advanced meditators) to get the most out of your meditation practice.
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Our environment has a significant influence on our thoughts and feelings — and it serves as a trigger for our brain to go into certain mental ‘states.’ When you walk into the living room, for example, you’re likely to experience entirely different thoughts and emotions than when you walk into your office (or another dedicated workspace).
Therefore, trying to work where you usually relax is one of the surest ways to get distracted. For example, if you work from your living room or kitchen — a place where you normally have fun, relax, ad wind down — your brain will have a hard time staying focused.
It’s used to be entertained or relax in those rooms, so it created the association between these spaces and feelings of relaxation — making it almost impossible to stay focused for long without getting distracted.
Furthermore, distractions such as TV, video games, food, or family members are way too close to resist. Eventually, they will get you.
Therefore, find a space that you dedicate only to highly focused work. Mine, for example, is a hotel lobby that I only use for doing deep work.
Most people don’t go all-in when they work — and they don’t go all-in when they relax. They continuously hang between both worlds, never fully relaxed and never fully in deep work mode. This is why so many people feel stressed and overwhelmed — yet also think that they don’t do enough.
While at work, they procrastinate by checking social media, browsing through news or entertainment websites, or have long chats with colleagues. While at home, they quickly check work email or respond to work-related messaged.
They are never fully on, and never fully off.
Learning to regulate your on/off switch is one of the keys to decreasing work-related stress while also improving your focus and productivity. The most effective way to do this is by creating rules. Examples of such rules are:
Remember, the time you waste away distracted at work is time that could have been spent on a fun activity, a hobby, or with loved ones. So learn to be fully ‘on’ during work hours, and fully ‘off’ during hours of relaxation.
Aside from external distractions such as notifications, email, and social media, internal distractions can be equally disruptive. Thoughts, worries, and stress, for example, can completely occupy your mind and hijack your focus.
One antidote to this is by journaling before and after work. Personally, I start and end my day by writing down my thoughts and ideas in my journal.
When my mental clutter is onto paper, it’s out of my mind. My mind stops racing, which frees up valuable mind-space to focus intensely on my work at hand.
Next to meditation, journaling is one of the most effective ways to declutter the mind — not only does it provide clarity of thinking, but it also helps to keep your mind focused on your tasks.
The idea behind the Pomodoro technique is that you’ll be able to focus better by taking regular breaks and by working for a fixed, relatively short amount of time with full intensity on one specific task. Here are the 6 steps of the Pomodoro technique:
Since you’re working in 25-minute bursts without distraction on one specific task, it’s much easier to stay focused on the task at hand. And by taking short 3–5 minute breaks every 25 minutes, your brain can recharge and get back to full energy for your next Pomodoro session. This way, you won’t burn out or lose concentration over time.
When you lack clarity on precisely when you’re going to do what, your brain will use this moment of ambiguity to talk you out of doing the hard work and do something easier instead (such as watching a funny YouTube video). That’s why scheduling your day is so important.
By pre-determining when you’re going to do what, you remove the need for decision-making within the moment as you’ve already created a precise plan in advance. This way, you eliminate the space for distractions to creep in — which usually happens when you have a moment of doubt about what to work on next.
In fact, a study in the British Journal of Health Psychology showed that creating a schedule increases the success rate of following through with an activity from 34% to 91%. In other words, by scheduling your day, you’re much less likely to procrastinate. That’s a big benefit for such a simple routine.
Change only comes from taking action, not just knowing about it. That’s why I encourage you to try out at least 3 of these methods in order to do deep, focused work without getting distracted.
To Your Personal Growth,
Founder Personal Growth Lab