How to stay focused in a world of distractions
If you can still remember a world before smartphones and social media, you’ve likely had the feeling that your attention span is a fraction of what it used to be. And you’re not alone. According to Johann Hari’s book Stolen Focus, the problem is systemic, and he describes twelve crucial factors that have our crippled our capacity for sustained thinking, from ‘rising pollution’ and ‘deteriorating diets’ to ‘the rise of physical and mental exhaustion’ and ‘the rise of technology that can track and manipulate you’.
Working, studying, or the simple act of reading a book or even an article can often feel like insurmountable obstacles in an age when we’re constantly surrounded by multiple distractions all competing for our attention. And that’s why staying more focused is arguably more important now than it’s ever been. In this article, we’ll share some top tips on getting and staying in the zone when you have important things to do.
One: Your phone is not your friend
Disable notifications, turn on ‘do not disturb’ if possible, and try to get into the habit of keeping your phone out of your eyeline and ideally out of your reach. According to Bloomberg Law, the mere sight of your phone on the table can be a distraction, and reading notifications is likely to disrupt your concentration each time you do it. Also, remember that going on your phone is not a break, and is unlikely to calm your nerves or help your focus. Schedule in special times for checking social media, and remember that it is designed to distract you and to keep you on the platform for as long as possible.
Two: Focus on one task at a time
Write a list of everything you have to do (by hand, if possible), and try to rank your tasks in order of priority, with the top of the list containing the most time-sensitive tasks, and any tasks that the rest of your work depends on. Try to respond to emails and instant messages in batches, rather than as soon as they come up, because each time you break away from the main focus of your work, you’ll then need to recover your concentration, and this can really add up over the course of a day.
Three: Be mindful of your sensory environment
Your visual and auditory environment plays a big role in your overall state of mind, so try to keep your desk clear of clutter and make sure your lighting and ventilation is good. If you work in a noisy or distracting environment, then listening to white noise tracks, video game music, or one-hour repeats of your favourite songs can help. And if there’s anything that lifts your spirits, whether it be fairy lights or merry-go-round music, go for it.
Four: Take regular breaks and switch things up (but avoid multitasking)
It’s best to take regular breaks even if you don’t feel you need to. If you’re stuck on a particular part of a project, sometimes taking some time out is the quickest way of getting the perspective you need. If you’re really pushed for time, moving on to spend some time on another project, or part of a project, at least gives your mind something different to focus on. But try to avoid doing too many things at the same time: although multitasking is often praised, the human mind is better at focusing on a series of consecutive tasks.
Five: Change your location or environment
If you work or study from home, then leaving the domestic environment can be helpful - whether that means going to a coffee shop, coworking office or public library. If nothing else, the walk will do you good, and sometimes it can be easier to ‘get in the zone’ when you’ve already deliberately separated yourself from home, not to mention making it easier to wind down from work afterwards.
On this same topic, it can often be worth working or studying in the presence of another person, if you’re lucky enough to have a colleague or a friend available who also needs to get some important work done. Working alongside someone else can help you maintain your focus, as well as being a morale boost, and it gives you someone to chat to in breaks and once your work is finished.
Six: Work when your mind is most active
Not everyone has the luxury of being able to choose their own hours, but if you’re a natural night owl or an early morning person, it can be really helpful to aim to do the majority of your work at a time when you naturally feel creative and calm. On a more practical level, if there are particular times when you’re less likely to be distracted by the outside environment or the activity of people around you, it’s a good idea to aim for that too.
Seven: Plan something nice to look forward to
Whether you’re writing an essay or submitting a tax return, it always helps to have something to look forward to afterwards. Not only will this boost your mood; it will also help you beat procrastination by giving you a reason to finish on time. Try to focus on activities that will favour your overall wellbeing, such as exercise, artistic activities, or time spent in the company of other people.
Eight: Don’t be too hard on yourself.
It’s not your fault. We’ve never lived with this many distractions. Be realistic in what you can accomplish, and don’t feel bad if you don’t manage to tick off everything you intended to in the one day, unless you’re working to meet a particular deadline. Often we come back sharper after taking a break from things.
We hope these tips will help you banish distractions, but we’d love to know what’s worked for you too, so please don’t hesitate to leave suggestions in the comments. Until the next time!
Bloomberg Law, Is your smartphone marking you less smart? Distraction addiction is real. Available at: news.bloomberglaw.com/us-law-week/is-your-smartphone-making-you-less-smart-distraction-addiction-is-real
Johann Hari, Stolen focus: Why you can’t pay attention (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2022)