How to focus while distracted

6 min read

The struggle is real. Have you ever tried to focus on important work with a deadline rapidly approaching only to be distracted by notification after notification from the likes of Snapchat, Facebook, Messenger, Instagram, WhatsApp, Twitter, Texts, etc.? You probably feel the pressure and wonder, “How am I going to get this done!?” Yet, with each notification, you reach for your phone anyway, to see what’s so important. You smile. Someone just shared that they love your last picture of that funny sandwich board outside of your favorite café that read, “Next time you’re afraid to share ideas, remember someone once said in a meeting, ‘Let’s make a film with a tornado full of sharks.’” LOL. We are our own enablers.

Indeed, it’s getting harder and harder to focus on tasks. Just writing this article is a challenge. But what do we do? Do we stop everything and go into a digital detox program? Or, do we learn how to balance all of these new and emerging distractions to get things done? I believe it’s the latter. We face complexities simply living and working in today’s digital economy. But why is this so complicated and what do we do about it?

The truth is that we are all in our own way living an active digital life. That amazing meal. That incredible sunset. That drive where we’re listening to our favorite song. That bathroom mirror that makes us look just right. That ocean just beyond our toes. Those experiences are perfect for sharing with friends in our favorite networks like Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. On the other side of the screen, our friends and followers support us by “liking,” reacting or commenting to these moments. But with each social share and each digital engagement, we are learning how to act and interact in real-time, blurring the physical and online worlds in almost everything we do.

Digital distractions are a choice but we often can’t help ourselves

I once said that information overload is a symptom of our desire to not focus on what’s important. It is a choice. But it’s becoming an increasingly difficult choice for a lot of important reasons.

We’re learning to crave engagement, which encourages us to share and engage more. And with each notification, we are compelled to stop what we’re doing to see how people respond to our experiences and in those moments, we in turn respond to the experiences of others. Did you know that there’s a scientific reason why you can’t ignore social media? The answer is dopamine. We crave it and social media consistently delivers. Dopamine causes you to want, desire, seek out, and search. It feels wonderful and we, in many ways, can’t help ourselves. As a result, we are not only becoming an always-on society; connected devices, social networks, apps, etc., are cultivating an always-distracted society as well.

On the other side of the science equation is something we are all too familiar with, FOMO. No, it’s not a Drake song. It’s the real world phenomenon of “missing out” whether in social media or the real world. This feeling is only exacerbated by social media as we see our friends doing amazing things leaving us to feel inadequate or left out. This can lead to anxiety and even depression.

So how do we focus in a new world of deliberate and pervasive interruption?

It’s not easy. The constant switching between apps and real world tasks thin attention, making it difficult to get things done efficiently. Not to mention, that the constant stimulation from social media to your dopamine system can be exhausting.

People, like you and me, who perpetually and intuitively switch between social, e-mail, texts and work are engaged in what’s called “rapid toggling between tasks.” Essentially, we are attempting to interact and progress while interchanging attention and context. Doing so however comes at a cost. For example, Gloria Mark of the University of California, Irvine, found that a typical office worker only gets 11 minutes between each interruption. What’s more, it reportedly takes an average of 25 minutes to return to the original task after each interruption. To the extent of how this affect depth and quality is still largely unknown. But personally, we know the answer. It’s difficult to get to productive depths on demand.

How to swipe right on productivity

We are all in our own way struggling with the balance between technology and work. I don’t pretend to have the answers. But I do want to share some ways that we can improve our ability to focus and increase productivity, reduce multi-tasking aka task toggling and prolong our real-time need for dopamine fixes or the desire to curb FOMO. It starts by taking control of digital instead of letting digital control you. It’s a mindset. It requires an acceptance that you either are or are not in control. Only you can decide which is true in your world.

It’s highly recommended that you use behavioral principles to wean yourself from your digital devices. You have to plan and allocate time to be off the grid even if in incremental bursts.

Personally, I’m experimenting with the “Pomodoro Technique” combined with a reward system. Based on the Pomodoro kitchen timer, this time management method was developed by Francesco Cirillo in the late 1980s. It uses a timer, or an app, to break down work into 25 minute intervals, separated by short five-minute breaks. I do my best to focus for the full time and in those breaks, I then rush to check email, apps, etc. It helps quite a bit when I can remember to actually use the timer. There are many variations of this process such as the 40/20 rule, where you focus for 40 minutes and take 20 minutes to indulge in distractions.

Another way to focus is inspired by the research of Nathaniel Kleitman. He deduced that our brains work in 90-minute rest-activity cycles while we sleep and also when we’re awake. He suggests that we recharge every hour and a half. Kleitman further suggests that during some breaks, that we refrain from tech and do simple things like take a 10-minute walk, listen to music, look at art, exercise, or meditate. These activities have a calming effect that slows down the overactive brain caused by the stimulation of technology distractions.

Other methods for improving the ability to focus seem logical and even commonsensical. But honestly, we live in a world where common sense is rather uncommon. Even though these tips sound simple, they do help.

Try “single-tasking” when you can. Resist reaching for technology distractions. Also, make sure not to indulge in the things that pop-up as you do try to focus. Instead, make a list of everything that you would have jumped to and hit them later. Personally, I single-task with a tablet because it is just difficult enough to multi-task on them. In fact, I’m using an iPad Pro as my main writing machine when I need to focus on one thing at a time.

Turn off notifications. You don’t really need to know in real-time that you have a new reaction, Like, Tweet, email, or text. Get to them when you can.

Close unnecessary windows, browser tabs and apps. Whether you know it or not, they “pull” at you and prevent you from diving deeper on your primary task at hand.

Set tangible deadlines and reward yourself for achieving them. It’s important to break big tasks down to give yourself a sense of progress and real-time achievement.

Track how you spend your time. This one’s hard because like finances, we don’t actually want to see what we’re doing, but it does help.

Clean the clutter around your workspace. Whether your messy or obsessively organized, when there’s clutter, it too is both symbolic that you’re doing too much (or too little). Press pause. Get organized. Work.

Put together a good old fashioned list of things to get done for the day. Write them down on a piece of paper and take great joy in crossing them off as they’re accomplished.

Try meditation, Yoga or just use Headspace. Whatever your opinion, these, and other things like them, are ways to promote concentration and do help boost your attention span. Headspace is a meditation app, ironically, that helps teach you how to focus. I’m currently experimenting with it.

Listen to classical music or music without vocals (or vocals in a language you don’t understand). Doing so provides an ambiance that promotes focus. Whether we realize it or not, often we unconsciously try to cognitively process the words of the song which makes it harder to reach depths of greater thoughtfulness.

Beat FOMO with YOLO. One way to combat FOMO is with YOLO (yes that is a Drake song). Challenge yourself to do something different or better rather than feeling inferior. Ask yourself what you can do with your time in that moment that is more productive or fruitful…then do it.

Get distraction-free sleep. Many of us take our phones or tablets to bed to wind down with our favorite apps. However, the National Sleep Foundation and Mayo Clinic discovered that the use of blue-light-emitting LED devices is in fact detrimental to your sleep and affects the critical period that helps you retain what you learned during the day. The National Sleep Foundation goes as far to suggest that you don’t have your device anywhere within reach when you go to sleep. Doing so blocks the release of neurotransmitters that energize your brain and instead promotes the release of melatonin, which helps you sleep.

Without embracing other methods and making them part of your everyday routine, it’s easy to lose grasp of progress and instead feel an ongoing sense of defeat. You slowly and then quickly feel like you’re not getting as much done as you could. This ultimately makes you feel less than 100% and as such, you self-sabotage your ability to be productive, which only creates a vicious cycle. I haven’t figured it out either. But I have recently come to the realization that I need to work through many distractions and reevaluate how I value and reward focus, time and attention. We can only benefit from taking over technology and choosing how it benefits our life and the experiences of those around us.

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