Self

How To Find Your Focus In The Age Of Inattention

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Young woman looks intensely at the camera.

It can feel impossible to focus in today's world. Between all the alerts, emails, social media, and other distractions — it can feel like you’re constantly being pulled in a million different directions.

And even more so if you’re also juggling work, parenting, running a household, and the day-to-day “stuff” of life!

How can you possibly find your focus when it seems like everything is competing for your attention?

In this article, I share 10 strategies you can use to become less distracted and take more focused action toward creating the life you want.

Stop blaming technology and focus on the real problem

In recent years, many commentators have claimed that our attention spans are getting shorter and shorter.

It can certainly feel that way!

How often do you find yourself scrolling through social media platforms mindlessly, writing emails while also trying to have a conversation, or watching Netflix while you “should” be sleeping?

It's tempting to point the finger at technology, and it's no secret that many applications on the market are intentionally built with the goal of keeping us "hooked."

RELATED: Why The Pandemic Has Destroyed Your Ability To Concentrate

Is it truly technology, though, that is causing the problem?

Nir Eyal, the author of Indistractable – How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life, points out that distraction is not new, but rather is a part of our innate psychology. It’s the nature, accessibility, and sheer volume of distractions that have changed.

What is a distraction, and why do we do it?

Distraction is when you act in a way that moves you away from what's important to you, in that moment. For example:

  • Answering an email during play with your child
  • Taking a call from your spouse when you’re “supposed to be” focussing on work
  • Going online to find a specific piece of information, getting side-tracked, and resurfacing 30 minutes later

Distraction is against your best interests. So why do so many people do it? According to Eyal, distraction is your brain’s attempt to avoid discomfort.

You may be avoiding boredom or the discomfort of doing something outside your "norm." Maybe it’s an escape from negative thoughts, or from dissatisfaction with your current situation.

RELATED: 5 Ways The Most Successful People Turn Anxiety Into Productivity

So how do we beat it?

Here are 10 ways to avoid distraction and focus on what you want 

These are a mix of what I've learned through my own coaching practice and tactics from Eyal's book.

1. Know what you want.

If you’re unclear on what you want, it’s easy to get pulled off track.

This is where goals are important. A clear, focused, set of goals empowers you to allocate time each day towards the things that matter.

RELATED: 4 Easy Steps To Beat Procrastination In Every Area Of Your Life

2. Plan your day around your goals.

Stephen Covey said “don’t prioritize your schedule. Instead schedule your priorities”. Avoiding distraction means taking care about what you allow into your schedule … and filtering out those things that don’t align with your goals and desires. Remember: if it’s not moving you towards what you want, it is moving you away from what you want, by taking up your precious time.

3. Use “time-chunking."

Group similar small tasks into a larger “chunk." For example, if you have several emails to send, chunk them together. Or if you have writing or content creation tasks, schedule these together.  

This allows you to focus on the one “chunk," instead of constantly bouncing between different types of work during your day.

RELATED: The 3-Step Guide To Overcoming Procrastination For Good Just By Shifting Your Energy

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4. Focus on inputs, not outcomes.

How often do you sit down to complete a task, only to find it takes longer than expected? The result? You don’t get it done, or you put in extra time and something else drops off your plan.

Either way, it’s not a good feeling. And it reduces our longer-term productivity.

Eyal recommends that, when starting a task, you:

  • Decide how much time you will put towards that task, and set a timer.
  • Make staying focused on that task your only objective.
  • STOP when the timer goes off even if you haven’t finished.

Uncomfortable, I know! Over time this will train your brain to be more focused — and you will find you get things done in less time.

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5. Try the 10-minute rule.

Distraction is our mind seeking relief from discomfort in the moment. So, give the discomfort time to dissipate. Try Eyal’s “10-minute rule." When you feel the urge to get off-track:

  • Set a timer for 10 minutes.
  • Allow yourself to simply notice the feeling that is trying to pull you off track, without judgment.
  • If that urge is still strong after 10 minutes, you may choose to follow it. But most of the time that feeling will have subsided, and you’ll be able to stay on task.

6. Change your personal story.

Do you have thoughts like “I am such a procrastinator," or “It’s so hard to stay focussed?" Every time we have a thought, it’s an instruction to our brain. And that is what our brains deliver us — procrastination, lack of focus, and so on.

RELATED: 10 Easy Ways To Immediately Improve Your Attention Span

You have the power to change your story. The story I feed my brain is “I always have more than enough time every day for all the things that matter.” What story do you choose?

7. Play the “focus game."  

When you feel resistance toward something on your schedule, turn it into a game. Try putting constraints on the task to give yourself a challenge, say by setting a timer (see tip No. 5) and seeing how much you can get done in that time. Or by finding different ways of looking at the task — how can you do things differently from usual? Allow yourself to have some fun with it!

8. Reduce triggers.

While the core reason for distraction is internal — our desire to avoid discomfort — our environment does have an impact on our focus. Anyone who's ever been distracted by a social media notification, or an email alert, understands how easily our environment can “trigger” distraction.

RELATED: 10 Habits Of Highly Productive People

Here are just a few ways to reduce external triggers:

  • Clear your workspace so you can concentrate solely on the task at hand.
  • Take control of your email by turning notifications off and blocking time in your schedule to respond to messages.
  • Remove distracting apps from your phone or desktop, or place them in folders.
  • Use one of the many tools available to block distracting websites when you are doing focused work.
  • Negotiate with family members or colleagues to give you uninterrupted time.

What other tactics can you think of?

9. Set up pacts.

When my children were younger, we had a jar in which we'd put 50 cents, every time someone said a “bad word." This helped us all to practice managing our responses, even when we felt “triggered." We can use similar “pacts” to help us commit to staying focused.

You could try the money-jar approach, having a “focus-buddy” to help you stay committed, or rewarding yourself for not being sidetracked during the day.

RELATED: People Who Are Easily Distracted Are Creative Geniuses, Says Science 

What kind of pact would work best for you?

10. “Catch your focus."

During the day, take a pause and keep track of all the little ways in which you have stayed on track. Taking notice of the urge to eat a snack, check email, hang out the laundry, or follow an interesting Facebook thread and opting to stay on task instead are examples of this. Collect every shred of evidence, however small, that you are the kind of person who is focused, and avoids distraction — and use this to affirm your self-belief.

When it comes to distractions, we often think it's our technology, our environment, or other people that are to blame. However, the primary cause of distraction is actually internal – our brain’s desire to avoid discomfort.

Fortunately, there are many things we can do to increase our focus and concentration. By following the tips above, we can train our brain to focus on the task at hand, and avoid distractions. In doing so, we'll be more productive, improve our relationships, and feel better about ourselves.

RELATED: 10 Easy Ways To Immediately Improve Your Attention Span

Anna McKinlay is a lifestyle and well-being coach, with a passion for helping people enjoy greater well-being, happiness and fulfillment. For more information visit Anna's website or email her.

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