Recall one working day of yours. In the whole day, how many hours did you manage to work without any distractions?
Now, when I say no distractions, I mean not using your phone, checking email, answering chat messages, chit-chatting with people or browsing random articles.
So, how many hours did you work without distractions? Chances are, you do not even know the answer to this question because your day involves distractions throughout the day. My story was no different.
You and I encounter distractions daily and wish we could focus better. I have not managed to completely win over my distractions but I have managed to improve focus with some tricks.
How distractions affect your ability to focus better
You might think that a minor distraction will not impact your efficiency by much. Whether you encounter a distraction at work or while studying, the outcome remains the same.
For example, answering a text takes 30 seconds, so you think the impact the text causes no impact.
However, answering a text in between a task creates far more damage than you think. Human beings do not operate as a switch where we move from one task to another without losing focus. Every time something distracts you, you need time to refocus and get your head off the distraction.
Every time you switch your focus on a different task or area, a certain attention residue lingers in your head. As a result, even if you move from one task to another, you need more time to refocus back on where you were.
For example, your focus lies on a difficult problem to solve. As you wrack your brains, your colleague walking by and says “Hi”. Even such a small interruption can hamper your focus.
You might have only said hi in return, but you might remember an email that you are yet to send to the same colleague. You might also notice the new shoes your colleague wore.
Such thoughts linger on even after your colleague walked by after the split-second hi.
As human beings, we cannot control our minds from stopping such thoughts. A lot of our brain works subconsciously which we do not have complete control over. The best you can do against such thoughts is to avoid the distractions itself.
For example, if you wore earphones(even with no music on), your colleague might have passed by without saying hi to interrupt you.
Avoiding the distraction lies under your control. What happens in your brain after you are interrupted is harder to control. Therefore, if you try to improve focus amidst distractions, you will not get anywhere. Instead, you must try to avoid the distractions themselves.
7 tips to improve focus:
I worked in a distracted world too. I used to work for long distracted hours. When I made the switch to work lesser hours with focus, my results improved by leap and bounds. I even got enough rest as a bonus.
I tried multiple tips and tricks. I read tips online and tried my own experiments.
After many tests and trials here are the 9 tricks which helped me reduce distractions at work, increase focus and optimize my efficiency.
1. Do not wait for the exact 30 min or hourly mark
You enter your workplace at 9:15 AM. For the next 10 minutes to settle down and you are ready to begin a task. You look at the clock and the time shows 9:25 AM. Ok, 5 more minutes to go for 9:30 AM, so you decide to watch a funny video.
At 9:30 AM, you are mid-way through the video. You cannot stop the video now because the short movie made you laugh till your stomach hurt. You watch the whole video and finish it by 9:36 AM.
Now that you missed the timeline, you decide to check emails instead of working on the task. The emails extend beyond 10 AM. Some other task follows and you keep waiting for the exact 30 minute or hourly mark.
The cycle repeats and your task keeps getting delayed. Yet, you keep waiting for the right time like a drunk man waiting on the new year countdown.
Stop waiting for the exact time to start a task. The only good time to begin something is right now.
2. Skip what you struggle with
You start with a task and midway through it, you face an unforeseen problem. Due to the problem, you are now unable to finish the task.
You run around, google and break your head to solve the problem. You expected the task to finish in 30 minutes, but it’s been beyond 2 hours since you started. The worst part, you do not have a solution to the problem yet.
Often, not completing such tasks has no consequences. For example, during the programming of a module, you face an unexpected bug. Even if you skipped that module and moved to another, no consequences would occur. Yet, you go after the bug like a dog chasing cars.
In urgent cases, where solving the problem is a priority, you have no choice but to go after the problem. But more often than not, skipping and moving to something else causes no impact.
Try to solve what you’re struggling with for a small amount of time and move on. You can later come back to your problem with a fresh mind. You can also ask an expert for advice later while you move on to the next task.
Do not be like the person who attempts to put in extra toothpaste back into the tube. Move on with the next task.
3. Know what Not to-do
You have a to-do list that helps you with the things to complete. Great. But do you have a Not To Do list to avoid mistakes and bad habits?
You and I exhibit behaviors we need to avoid. Each one of us has different bad habits. Some might have a short temper, some love browsing social media endlessly, some complaint about every little thing, some procrastinate important tasks and whatnot.
Such habits seem simple because they have now become a part of us. To get rid of them and focus better, you need to remind yourself about repeating the bad habit.
Having a Not To-Do list serves as a reminder. When you remind yourself enough number of times, you finally manage to get rid of the habit for good.
For example, I have got rid of the habit of using filler words such as ummm, errr, like. After I put this on my not to-do list, it would remind me every time I used a filler word. It took a couple of months to get rid of the habit but the effectiveness of the not to-do list was obvious. It prevents you from draining your attention span on tasks which do not add value.
Not correcting your bad habits is like learning a musical instrument the wrong way. If you do not attempt to stop your poor techniques, you will never attain the level you’re capable of.
4. Stop keeping your work email/chat open
Emails have turned into the defacto mode of communication in the business world. Emails have their advantage because they are easy, quick and instantaneous.
The problem – people tend to obsess over checking emails.
How do you work with emails? Do you leave your email open all the time? Some even take it further to set a notification or a pop up to show up whenever an email comes in. People configure it on their phones along with notifications too.
If you follow the same, you have let email dictate your life. Do you believe you need to be notified when every single email comes in? Many a time the email notification would have popped up and distracted you from the task you were working on.
Unfortunately, most people believe they must attend to email all the time. It also gives people a dopamine rush every time they check email and attend to some.
You might feel good checking email all the time. It might even put you in the good books of your manager. However, immediately reacting to every email kills your productivity.
Try checking your email every few hours a day. Once you finish checking them, do not check them for the next few hours. Close your email such that you do not receive any notifications either. Everyone assumes that doing so will create impact but it rarely ever does.
The same applies to chat as well. Your chat can bombard you with messages. People will demand your attention as per their needs. You will end up being pulled from one task to another because someone pinged you on chat. Close the chat and make yourself available only as per your choice.
When all hell breaks loose, people will call you.
Bonus tip to improve focus: If you work on a computer, close the unnecessary tabs and applications. For example, while you work on one tab on the browser, the Facebook tab next to it will show a notification (1) Facebook and you feel the urge to check it. Even if it was your friend posting a story, you end up distracted.
How would you feel if the waiter kept tossing random food on your plate every now and then? You would hate the disturbance and even find it difficult to concentrate on the food you like. That is how distraction works when you are on a task.
5. Keep your phone away
The smartphone works as a device of distraction. Hearing your phone buzz or beep makes you curious to check what the notification was. Soon, one thing leads to another and you end up wasting hours on your smartphone which could have been utilized for more productive tasks.
Heck, even sleeping or resting works better than spending an endless amount of time on the smartphone.
Why do we spend so much time on the phone? Because we share some attributes with cats. Cats are curious. Hence the saying – As curious as a cat. Human beings are no less curious.
For example, when you hear your phone beep at a distance, you feel the urge to check your phone. Even if you decide not to check your phone right now, you still hold the thought in your head that you have a pending notification to check.
Resisting such an urge is no easy feat. Your best defense against such an urge is to cut as many notifications as possible. Using DND yields great results.
I use DND for the whole day except for three hours, 8 PM – 11 PM. If you do not use DND, the phone controls your behavior by asking you to pick it up every time it beeps.
By using DND, your phone never beeps and you can check your phone every few hours as per your choice. In addition, if you pick up the phone, you also end up spending energy and losing time to regain focus.
Your phone is one of the key elements to target to improve focus and get things done.
6. Close Doors, Use Headphones, DND
As much as possible stay away from an environment that facilitates distractions. For example, if you sit in an open cafeteria where people are in high numbers, you are bound to get distracted. The same applies to your workplace.
People will speak loudly, crack jokes, answer their phone, drop a bottle, ask you unnecessary questions and more. You do not have to isolate yourself from the rest of the world like a prisoner. But whenever possible stay away from the commotion.
Using empty rooms when available prevents you from being accessible. Using an earphone(even without any music) blocks people from bothering you needlessly. You can also cultivate a habit of asking people to not disturb you for a certain like 9 AM to 11:30 AM every day.
Every workplace, job role, and culture has a different working style. Do what you can to reduce scenarios that lead to distractions.
Working among distractions is like many people talking at the same time in a meeting. Nothing good comes out of it. To focus better, stay away from such scenarios as much as possible.
7. Say No
Are you a people pleaser who cannot say no to requests? If a person asks you to work on a task, which you believe you should not work on, do you agree to work on it?
Most people say yes and accept tasks that could and should have been avoided. People agree due to multiple reasons such as:
- To avoid hurting the person
- For a future benefit of their own
- Due to the request coming from a person in authority
As human beings, we prefer avoiding discomfort. Saying no to a request coming from a known person creates a discomfort. For example, when a friend of yours asks you to lend him some money, you oblige even if you do not want to.
Similarly, you agree to many other tasks and requests which start consuming your time little by little. Over time, all these little tasks pile up.
By failing to say no, you end up doing things which others want you to do. Since you only have 24 hours in a day, you have to sacrifice some of your happiness to accommodate requests from others.
You must learn to say no to tasks that eat up your time without any benefit. Be polite, be selfish.
There is a striking difference between working with distractions and without. You can accomplish more in 1 hour of focused work than in 3 hours of distracted work by nailing the right way on how to avoid distractions. Students can improve their model of studying and working professionals can get more done by implementing these minor tweaks to improve focus.
If you have tried to increase your results by working for longer hours, you have got it wrong. Most people think working more leads to better results.
But think about it from your own experience. Recall a day when you worked long hours. How exhausted were you by the end of it? Your productivity, decision making and ability to think would have taken a downward spiral as more and more time went by.
Working long hours does exactly that. It drains your brain and body little by little causing you to produce half your usual results.
You must aim for better results by improving the quality of your work in just the hours you work.
I went from working 15+ hours a day to working 10 hours a day by implementing the tips for reducing distractions. You might think my results went down.
In fact, it was the opposite. Today I achieve more in 10 hours than I previously did in 15. Focused work beats long working hours. Hands down.
Maxim Dsouza has spent over a decade experimenting and finding various time management techniques to improve his productivity. He strongly understands the fact that time is a limited commodity and tries to make every second count. He has extensive experience in leadership in startups, small businesses, and large corporations.
He has helped people of different professions and age groups gain clarity on their goals, improve focus, revise their time management skills and develop an awareness of their psychological cognitive biases.