Finding focus – Dealing with distractions

Lyn Lavery

You might think that you’re reasonably focused when you work, but how often do you stop to check your phone or get interrupted by a notification? Research shows that it takes a significant amount of time to get back into a task once you’ve been interrupted – even if you don’t check your email or phone when a notification arrives, it’s enough to break your concentration. The time cost of distractions can really start to add up, with some research suggesting that the average worker loses 8 hours of a 40-hour work week to distractions – an entire day! To further compound this, once we start to get behind in our work due to these distractions, we tend to become stressed and compensate by trying to work at a faster pace, all of which reduces productivity and the quality of our work.

To combat this, think carefully about the types of distractions you face while working. I mentioned phone and email, but there are plenty of other possibilities such as social media, interruptions from colleagues, alerts from news websites, clutter in your workspace, just to name a few! Once you’ve identified your most common distractions, consider how you can eliminate them. Keeping your phone on silent, tidying up your workspace, wearing noise-cancelling headphones and making a ‘do not disturb’ sign for your door are all good suggestions for some of the more common distractions we face.

Email and/or internet-related distractions deserve a special mention. Hopefully dealing with this will be as simple as keeping your email client closed and logging out of social media. If that doesn’t work, you might need to consider using one of the many available distraction-blocking apps, such as RescueTime, Cold Turkey, Leechblock and Freedom. Alternatively, if you’d like a more positive take on this, rather than restricting the sites you can visit you could reward yourself for not doing visiting them. Forest encourages you to stay focused – for each focused block you finish, a tree grows.

A good strategy is to aim to work for an hour each day with these distractions eliminated and assess how productive you were during this time. If it was a successful strategy, try incorporating additional blocks of distraction-free time into your day (try not overdo this though, aiming for 8 hours of intense, concentrated focus is a tad ambitious!). If it wasn’t successful, assess why not and try and problem solve around it. For example, you may have switched off all notifications but have been distracted by non-work-related thoughts popping up when you tried to concentrate.

If you’re still struggling to eliminate distractions, consider whether any of the following may help:

  • Be clear about what you’re trying to achieve – sitting down and saying that you’re “going to work on your research” likely won’t result in much progress, but if you have a specific outcome/goal in mind you’ll be less likely to succumb to distractions.
  • Give yourself a shorter period of time to complete the work – an impending deadline (even if it’s self-imposed) will often keep you on track and less likely to engage with distractions.
  • Consider your environment – often our physical environment is the source of our distractions. Is there anything you can change to reduce these and/or is it possible to work in a different environment for a short period (I’m sure your local café would appreciate you stopping by!). If you’re interested in maximising your environment to improve focus, Huberman Lab have recently done an excellent podcast on this topic.
  • Often we engage in distractions (physical or mental) because we’re actually exhausted. Think about whether this is the cause of your distracted mind and aim to do something about it if you can.

Lastly, don’t be too hard on yourself. There’s a lot going on in our lives and the world at the moment, so if your usually good focus has slipped a little, it’s completely understandable!