Not many know this, but once distracted and moving away from a task, it takes us 23 minutes to go back into deep focus. To put it simply, staying focused while you study or work makes you more productive. The digital age has brought a lot of good, but we now realize more and more that it also brings distractions – a lot of them.
Employees who work mainly on their computers (and let’s be honest, most of us do), are distracted every 10.5 minutes on average. For some, these distractions include reading emails or reading a notification they have received on their phone, for others it’s checking what their friends are doing on Facebook or Instagram for example. Our attention span runs between 10-20 minutes, so it’s easy to understand how one will quickly drift off from the task in hand.
In addition to these distractions, Some of us have days that consist of lots of meetings. We spend somewhere between 35%-55% of our time in meetings, which makes staying focused while we work extremely important. It is the only way we can really accomplish all of our tasks and meet our goals.
Be the boss of your time
Many don’t see it, but our time is controlled by others for most of the day. Controlling your time is key to getting the work you need done. For example, notifications come in when someone ELSE sends them. This usually leads to stopping what we were doing, reading them, thinking about them, replying and so on.
Such notifications take our focus away from the task at hand. E-mails are just as bad. It has been reported that 23% of all work distractions come from emails. Seeing the operating system’s notification of “You’ve got mail” or a WhatsApp notification on our phone, takes us out of our “zone” and into someone else’s “schedule”.
However, there are some simple things you can do in order to stay focused while you work and not let these distractions stop you from completing your task.
- Monotask, do not multitask. This means you work on one thing at a time. This will give you better control over your task and will reduce losing focus while jumping between tasks For example, even if you get a text message you need to ignore it and focus on the one task you are currently working on, and remember you don’t start anything else till that task is done (even not replying to a message).
- We all want to reply to that message or mail we just received. Someone on the other side of it is waiting for something! Remember that not too long ago we didn’t have mobile phones, and e-mail was not in our pocket, easily accessible. The senders can wait a bit. To make it easier for you mentally, take planned breaks. The Pomodoro method states one should work for a set time (25 minutes is usually suggested) and then take a 5 minute break. During the 25 minute of work time you don’t reply to anyone (and preferably don’t check your phone or mail) and during the 5 minute break time you can reply to anyone you want, send messages or simply relax and clear your mind to help increase your focus while you are in the 25 minute work period. Focus booster phrased it nicely “By managing distractions to your advantage, you perform better, and the absolute worst that can happen is you might return a call, email or message 25 minutes later.”
Now that we have a better understanding of how distractions affect us, and some ways to own our time, here are some valuable steps to help increase your concentration and focus.
Set up your work environment
Having a comfortable area that you enjoy working in is important. Keeping it distraction free is crucial.
- The first step in setting up an environment where you can focus while you work or study is to find a quiet area in the house, office or any other working space. If that is not possible then make sure you have good headphones to block out the noise (a few tips about what you can listen to discussed later). Make sure that if you do use headphones that they are (1) over-ear or noise cancelling as those will help you block out as much sound as possible, and (2) that they are visible to others. The idea behind the latter is to make sure people are aware you are working and are trying to stay focused.
- Once you have found your space and/or headphones you need to set it up. Start by clearing out unrelated papers, mail and such. Whether you work with a block of paper or a laptop, verify you have enough space for it in your work area. Make sure you have everything you need to work and stay focused on your goals. Get yourself a drink and a snack so you don’t have any excuses to leave the area while you are working.. If you plan to use the pomodoro technique we suggested that you don’t forget to have a timer or download a chrome extension like BlockSite and use their work mode as your timer. Work mode will not only alert you to when the work session is over, but it will also count down your break so you are able to know when it is time to put the phone down and start working again. You can set certain sites to block while you work too, that can only be accessed during your break.
- If you work in a public place like a coffee shop (which we don’t recommend as there are many distractions you cannot control there), try to not connect to the WiFi if possible. That way at least on your laptop you will have a tougher time losing focus to other, less relevant things.
Set your goals and objectives
Order is key. One must be able to easily distinguish between tasks and connect them to a main goal or objective.
- The first thing to do, is to write down our goals and objectives. After reading this, take 15-20 minutes to sit down and write down all of your objectives. Then start breaking them down into smaller tasks. These smaller tasks should be tasks you can accomplish and are doable. Preferably in intervals of 25 minutes each, but they could be bigger and require more time or sessions of the Pomodoro Method. Everyone likes accomplishing tasks. Doing that leads to higher morale and increased productivity. By implementing these small tasks to achieve, you will give yourself a boost to do more.
- A nice trick that one of our users shared with us is that once you have these tasks set, you add them to a Google Sheet. This user updated their Google Sheet every work session and kept track of each single task that they were working on at that time. They set their “redirect to” feature on BlockSite to do it. This feature offers a way for each site on your BlockSite’s block list to redirect to a specific URL. This created a domino effect where every time the user would lose focus, they would surf to a blocked site, such as a social or news site, and then would be automatically redirected to their Google Sheet. They saw the task that they SHOULD be working on and regained their focus. Another idea is to write down your favorite quote in that document, or on your todo list highlighting the specific task. This will remind you that there is a lot that needs to be done and you must keep focused on your goals.
Even though staying focused while you work or study is very important, it is just as important, if not more important, to plan ahead. There are many methods that deal with how to handle your tasks and your time.
Here you can find some tips on how to plan ahead and make sure you are as productive and efficient as possible. These methods have been learned over long periods of time as well as some points from David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD) method.
- The trick here is to have a system, and TRUST that system. If you have a weekly review, then don’t skip it. If you write down every idea or task that comes into your head on a todo list, then write them all down. Once you start deviating from your routine and method you won’t trust it, and if you don’t trust it, you won’t use it. This method is not a must to stay focused while studying or working, but it does make it much more effective. All beginnings are tough, but once you get into it, you won’t even notice you have a routine.
- The most basic action is to start a todo list if you don’t already have one. There are many apps you can use to do this, such as Todoist or you can use your notes app on your phone. Of course, good old fashioned pen and paper also does the trick. We prefer the apps as we always have our phones on us now-a-days, but you are free to decide whatever works best for you, the key is to simply get down everything that you want to do, whereever that may be.
- Next, we suggest you have a weekly review. Once a week, at a set time and day EVERY WEEK, review all the tasks you have added to your list. Roughly plan what you want to do on what day during the next week, what you won’t be doing next week and what is a nice idea but should maybe not exist in your list. Write down an objective, if you haven’t already, for the general task and start adding your next actions. The next action really helps clarify what it is you need to do. Don’t just write, make bolognese rather write, buy tomato sauce, 250g ground beef, 1 onion… You get the idea.
- Planning your next day will help you get that extra push to really stay focused on your goals. Every evening, set aside 5 minutes, and plan what you want to do the next day. Even if you don’t have time to plan it all then at least write down what is your ‘Must Achieve Goal’ (or what we like to call MAG) for the next day. The MAG will be the one thing you HAVE to get done the next day. Even if you get nothing else done, this task will be completed. A MAG should be realistic (best to keep them as small as possible). The MAG will be the first thing you do when you sit down to work. By planning like this you will be able to stay focused on your goals and achieve them with great success.
Improving focus is not a one time thing, it is a system that works along with your tasks to enhance your performance while working on them. This means creating habits. At first you will have to remind yourself to work by this system, but quickly you will realize the benefits and it will become second nature to you.
- Capture everything. While working, thoughts creep up in our heads. Be it a great idea we want to work on, something we need to buy to be able to make dinner, or something we want to tell our significant other. Don’t be tempted to stop working and leave your focus behind. Write it down for later. As part of your routine you can set a time that you review these notes and then you won’t forget. This will give you trust in yourself to continue focusing instead of drifting to dream about different things . A great app to help you store all of your links that you run into and want to return to when you are not during a focus session is Pocket.
- Put your phone away or put it on airplane mode. For some this might seem unnecessary, and for others too extreme. But by avoiding even looking at your phone, or knowing that you might be getting a text will help you keep focused. One nice trick we ran into is to actually lock your phone. This container is probably meant to keep you out of eating another cookie, but why not use it to lock your phone while you are focusing on your work or studies. You can put your phone on airplane mode and put it in the container and set a timer for how long you want to lock it for (The Pomodoro Method would suggest setting it for 25 minutes). This way you are definitely distraction free from your phone for at least 25 minutes.
- As you can see in the graph below, research shows that mornings are the best time to work – you are more focused and productive. You are energized, your mind is clear from clutter and it is not “exhausted” after a full day’s work. Adding it to your habits will be beneficial in terms of getting your work done and staying focused. Start by setting a time in your calendar, every day, for deep focus work and slowly it will become a habit that you get up and get ready, and then sit down to do work on your MAG. This will help you withreaching your goals and objectives quicker.
Using tech to stay focused
It is not mandatory to use technology to stay focused, but there are some products that will enhance your experience, and make you more focused on your goals and tasks.
- Brain.fm creates music that “sounds different–and affects your brain differently–than any other music.“ This is a paid service, but you can try 5 sessions for free before you pay. We tried their free sessions and we must admit, it actually works!
- There is also a Chrome extension we think is worth mentioning here. OneTab, compresses all of the open tabs you have and allows you to open sets of tabs by relevance instead of having all of the tabs open. The idea is that if you have less tabs open you are less likely to go check something for “one second” on another site that distracts you from what you are working on.
- A clever tech hack we found to help you stay focused and away from distractions is a type of smart watch, but not the typical one you would think of, known as a hybrid smartwatch. It is actually an analog watch, you cannot get the text from notifications on it and you cannot answer calls from it. It will however alert you when someone you set as “VIP” calls or text by moving the dials to a predefined position. That way you can hide your phone away knowing that if some important call or text will come in, you will be notified and at the same time remove all the other unwanted calls or texts to allow you to focus. It will still allow you to do all the cool things smartwatches let you do like control your music, but it will remove some of the distractions you would have otherwise encountered.
- Many of us use gmail for our email. If configured and used correctly, gmail can make our lives easier and more productive. Here are a few simple hacks you can start using today on gmail.
- Mute conversations on Gmail – by muting a conversation, all of the replies to it will go directly to archive. That way you reduce noise and clutter in your Gmail, AND it will reduce the emails you receive. Reducing the amount of emails received is great for staying focused as it means less notifications, meaning you can stay focused without getting constantly distracted. . To mute a conversation simply open up the conversation you want to mute, click on the 3 dots next to the subject and select Mute from the menu.
- Snooze button – Gmail has a snooze option which means you can set when you want to receive certain emails. This won’t reduce the amount of emails you receive. If used wisely, you can set group emails to show up at a certain times (say every day at noon) and thus stay focused on the tasks you have knowing that you will have all of those emails you wished to reply to or read better available to you at a time that is convenient to YOU. This relates to a point we made earlier about being the ‘boss of your time.’ Do not let emails that others send control your time, when you read them and when you reply to them. Set the snooze to the next slot you have to review these emails. To do so, click the snooze button (you can find it by hovering over the mail in the inbox or inside the mail itself). Set the time you want to receive it and voila! you are worry free knowing this mail will show up at the right time and on your “command”.
As humans, we are easily distracted. Unfortunately, during this day and age, distractions are everywhere and easily accessible. Be it a notification on your phone or computer, social media – infinite scroll “time sucker” site, or simply our own natural behaviors or short attention spans.
The fact of the matter is that focus is slippery and can easily be lost. . There are several things we can do to stay focused while we work or study and improve our productivity.
Small things such as putting our phone away while we work or putting it on airplane mode can make a big difference. Setting a routine and forming habits are also critical here. We must learn to trust the “system” we build in order for our new habits to kick in and for focus to be truly possible.
Staying focused is not easy, but it is possible to achieve with a bit of work. We recommend you implement our tips slowly, not all at once. Choose small actions you can implement such as setting up your work area and investing in a good set of headphones to make it clear to others you are in focus mode and do not want to be distracted.