Dear Crucial Skills,
In a world full of distractions, how do you focus on the ‘right’ things?
This is such a pervasive problem that we did a study on this recently. We surveyed 1,600 people about their ability—or rather inability—to focus. Here’s what we learned:
- Two of three respondents said they struggle to be fully focused on a single task or person.
- Sixty percent said the longest they can focus on a task without getting distracted is about 20 minutes.
- A third of respondents said they can only focus on a task for ten minutes before getting distracted. Ten MINUTES!
- Of the respondents who said they struggle to focus, 73% said they feel overwhelmed and drained and 72% said they feel stressed and work slowly.
- Half of them also said that at the end of a busy day they feel unfilled, like they’ve let themselves and others down.
When people think of distractions, they typically think of phone notifications, email notifications, and people walking into their office. But I have learned from working with people in all walks of life that the most detrimental distractions are self-inflicted. Yes, it can be helpful to minimize those external dings, but I’ve watched people get distracted while trying to work in silence in their office.
Here are few tips that should help.
Clear Your Mind
If you don’t clear your mind, you won’t feel focused no matter how quiet your surroundings. You’ll feel distracted, confused, compelled to multitask—all because of the conflict in your mind. The mind easily releases completed tasks, freeing it to generate ideas and focus on present stimuli, but it cannot let go of unfinished tasks. We are literally wired to get things done, and we can’t rest easy until we do.
The best way to clear your mind is with a “mind sweep.” Grab a paper and a pen and set a timer for five minutes. During that five minutes, write down everything that’s pulling at your attention, any would- or should-do items. These might be errands you need to run, calls you need to make, emails you’ve been meaning to send, projects you want to start or finish.
Don’t worry about quality, go for quantity; write down as many items as you can. Most people scratch down a list of 20-30 items, but this really only touches the surface. There is so much more we hold in our heads. Then, review what you’ve written down. How do you feel about those ought-tos and to-dos now that they’re on paper? You probably feel a little better. You may have a sense of greater control or feel a little less stressed. Why? Did anything about those items change? Did you complete the tasks? No. You merely moved them from inside your mind (sitting as amorphous weight) to in front of your eyes (definable tasks).
Prime Your Eyes
Focus begins when you first wake up. Most of us get sucked into email or some form of media first thing in the morning. Don’t make this mistake. Take two to three minutes each morning to review your calendar and to-do lists before diving into email or work. When we begin the day by looking at email, we put a lens of “latest and loudest” over our eyes. This is a major contributor to those “busy but unproductive” days. Begin your day by quickly reviewing what you want to get done and you’ll find yourself working on your more important projects and tasks more often.
Plan Time for Work
You need to set aside time each day for doing work, determining what work you’ll need to do later, and handling work you didn’t plan for (all separately). And don’t say that you don’t have the time; you’re already working in these modes, but you’re likely doing so all at once, which is incredibly inefficient. For example, instead of grazing on emails all day, spend 45 minutes once a day processing your email inbox to determine what work you need to do as a result of those emails. Then populate your calendar and to-do lists and focus on doing that work in the coming days.
It’s hard to focus when you’re drowning in opportunities of what you could do. Get in the habit of saying no to things that are not aligned with your long-term goals. The best way to say no is to share your good intent and explain why. Try this: “My goal is to be a solid contributor and help the team where I can, but I also don’t want to overcommit myself. If I agree to your request, I’ll be at a high risk of not meeting my other responsibilities and deadlines, which wouldn’t be fair to you, me, or the team. I think it’s best for me to not commit to this right now.” In the end, you can spend your time on anything, but you can’t spend your time on everything.
And last but not least…
Minimize External Distractions
When it’s time to do meaningful work, close your email and other communication apps. Don’t kid yourself into thinking you’ll be able to ignore those dings and notifications—your brain is conditioned to respond to them in search of dopamine hits. And ditch your smartphone when possible. I know that might sound scary. But what’s worse—going without your smartphone for an hour here and there, or failing to achieve your goals because you can’t focus? If you don’t need your phone for the activity you are doing or the conversation you are having, put it elsewhere. (Check out this article we published recently that outlines several tips for managing use of your smartphone.)
When it comes to distractions, you are in charge. Don’t blame everyone else (“My boss keeps…”) or everything else (“My notifications keep…”). Take ownership of your focus. We have worked with some of the busiest people on earth who focus on what’s most important to them even though they have numerous opportunities for excuses to get distracted. I share that to say that true focus is within your grasp. It’s less about what’s happening around you and so much more about how you engage with what’s happening around you.