Has there ever been a time in history where it’s this easy to get distracted?
Notifications, text messages, emails, Slack alerts, the number of ways in which we can be reached today is limitless. On top of that, especially in today’s remote culture, we are expected to be available for Zoom calls and phone conferences all hours of the day. Add in social media, breaking news updates, and funny memes from friends in group chats, and the art of staying focused has become its own item on the priority list.
They always say that research is me-search. I am writing this article because I, myself, am working on staying focused. Especially over the past month, during the election and subsequent insanity, focusing on anything except who was going to become the next elected president of the United States seemed impossible. And so, while I sat on the couch waiting for the verdict (and simultaneously checking three devices), I realized it was time to hone my focus skills and get things back on track.
I’m not sure we ever actually master the art of focus. It’s something we need to practice daily and it requires attention and consciousness until it’s a habit (and again, even then, we need a brush up every once in a while).
In the age of never-ending notifications, here are a handful of small ways I’ve found to be helpful in fending off distraction attacks.
1. Create time-sensitive work to force productivity.
Deadlines demand action.
And for some (myself included), a little bit of pressure — i.e., a deadline — helps fuel the action. When there are deadlines, I know I have no choice but to forge ahead on the presentation, the meeting prep, the reading, whatever it is. But when there are no deadlines, the opposite can happen. There’s no sense of urgency — and without urgency, action may stall.
So knowing this about myself, I can set deadlines to help create the necessary umph to get the task or project done.
Finding creative ways to put time limits on your work (whether you set a timer on your desk or you ask someone else to hold you accountable) is often a good first step.
2. Be aware of why you’re avoiding tasks and address the root causes.
Another reason for distraction is when I’m trying to ignore a nagging feeling or problem I’m not quite sure how to solve yet.
For example, I can think of a handful of times where I knew I needed to have a hard conversation with someone, and the longer it hung over my head, the harder it was for me to focus on other things. The root of my productivity issue wasn’t lack of motivation or anything related to the work itself, but rather something else going on in my life that needed to be addressed.
When this is the case, we’re far better off acknowledging the root issue than trying to force ourselves to push forward. Because what ends up happening is we seek out new distractions, which end up making it harder in the long run!
3. Create rules, and reward yourself for following through.
We all can’t be focused and productive 100% of the time.
The goal is not to become a robot, or to rid yourself of your vices (or distractions…sometimes distractions are a good thing!). The real goal should be to make sure that the moments you’re scrolling through Twitter are conscious — and not unconscious actions that happen every ten minutes, between tasks.
A great way of cultivating healthier behavior here is to set boundaries for yourself, and make it clear when you’re allowed to experience those “rewards.” For example, if you can focus deeply on work for the afternoon, you’ll “reward” yourself with other freedoms later. And for what it’s worth, you can make those rewards more significant than allowing yourself to check your Twitter feed! If you have a meaningful accomplishment — finishing a project, winning a new piece of business, a successful presentation–then do something nice for yourself. Plan ahead for it and reward yourself accordingly.
On that note, it’s also important to acknowledge why rewarding yourself is an important part of making progress in anything in life. One of the problems for high achievers (and I’m guilty of this myself) is we very rarely stop to celebrate. Instead, we forge ahead, obsessively pushing toward the next goal, the next goal.
Without taking a moment to appreciate what you’ve done, or how far you’ve come, you lose sight of why you’re on the journey you are — and you forget why you worked so hard to get there.
4. Don’t fight the flow.
Sometimes, what you need isn’t to keep pushing. Maybe you actually just need a break.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years as an entrepreneur, it’s that you can’t fight the flow. When things are working and you’re cranking on work, keep it going and take advantage. And when you’re not, that’s ok too. Go for a walk. Take a break. Make yourself a tea or coffee. Let your brain rest for ten or fifteen minutes.
The more you can listen to what your body is trying to tell you, the easier it will be to give it what it needs in the moment.
5. Call someone, and talk through the situation.
Distraction is an internal affair. So sometimes the only way to get back on track is to take it outside.
And the best way to do that is often a conversation with a co-worker or friend. Whether it’s objective problem-solving or a pulse check on tone or a new idea to overcome the thinking roadblock or just commiserating, these conversations can make all the difference.
Here’s the reality: we’re all faced with distractions every day. Especially in today’s day and age, we are all fighting the urge to look at our smartphones, check our emails, and pull ourselves away from the much harder, more mentally taxing work in front of us. But it’s usually not until we talk about it with someone else, or we hear how they have been struggling with the same thing, that we are able to observe our experience outside of ourselves and think about things in a new way.
Everyone gets it, because everyone’s living it. Especially working at home, employers understand that sometimes you just need to get out of your house or apartment and go for a walk. So, don’t be ashamed of it. Don’t try to pretend like you are immune to distractions.
Take a break, clear your head, come back and get a fresh start.
A good friend and client of mine, Pedram Shojai, O.M.D., just published a new book called Focus: Bringing Time, Energy, and Money into Flow, which talks about how we all have goals and desires and visions for the future, but without making life changes that allow us to focus on those things in a meaningful way, they will never come to fruition. Focus and intention, and putting our energy where our goals and dreams are… this is what drives progress.
We can all benefit from Pedram’s wisdom now, more than ever, so do yourself a favor and grab a copy today.