I used to say things to myself like, ”I am just not that focused, how can I learn to be?”.
Or “Maybe I just haven’t found the thing I enjoy doing so much that I can just stay focused at it for hours”.
Until I realised that I was looking at it the completely wrong way round.
Focus is not some fantastical skill that you either have or don’t, or is even something that you can learn in a weekend. Focus is just taking away the opportunities for procrastination. If you don’t have the opportunities there, then you are less likely to become distracted and hence become more focused. By changing your environment (whether the physical world around you or the digital environment on your computer) you can change your behaviour in the most powerful way.
1/ Turn off Notifications
The easiest and simplest thing you can do is to turn off all notifications on your phone and certainly do not have any desk top notifications.
What about message notifications? There are now so many ways to communicate do you need to know straight way if someone has messaged you? I have notifications turned off for WhatsApp and Messenger. The only messages that notify me are texts as that is used by family.
You can then decide when to check email or your social media accounts. Honestly not having your phone ‘beep’ at you every 5 minutes is wonderful.
2/ Increase activation energy
So, I removed all my notifications, and guess what happened. I would still pick up my phone every 10 minutes to open the email app to see if I had any emails!
Then I discovered the idea of increasing activation energy and the 20-sec rule.
Activation energy is the energy required to start an activity. So, the trick to helping stop doing the activity is to make it harder to start. Make doing the habit you are trying to stop take 20 secs longer.
I recently went on a camping holiday and having less opportunity to charge my phone I turned it off a lot of the time. Even when there was signal I rarely looked at it because it needed to be turned on, input the security code, etc. It just took too long. And that is what you are trying to achieve. Maybe not as drastic as turning your phone off but have a spot where it is and only you can look at it there. Put it in a less accessible pocket in your bag. The harder it is to look at it, the less you will and then not looking at it will become the habit.
3/ Close those tabs
I used to keep a lot of tabs open on my browser, the sites I regularly used or sites I wanted to find again. It seemed useful and quick in principle but in practice it was a disaster. Open browser, quick check of email, quick check on new articles on Feedly, quick check on groups in Facebook…. you get the picture.
All these quick checks meant every time I sat down to work 20mins would go by before I even started doing any work. Now my regularly used sites are in a bookmark folder and I only have the tabs open that I need for that task.
I also had my browser settings set that it would open up where I left off. If the last thing I was doing at night was a quick check of Facebook. Or playing a game. That would be what opened the next morning. So now I have my browser settings open with a new tab. That is set to open Momentum (see below) and the opportunity to type in and refocus on my daily goal.
4/ Use apps for focus and blocking distractions
Momentum is my favourite app. Every time you open a tab you see a beautiful photo as well as your daily goal, and a to do list if you have entered one.
Pomodoro timers are popular too. Based on the principle that you do focused work for 25 mins and then take a break, there are loads out there that provide different levels of customisation. If none of the ones in the linked article are for you then just search for Pomodoro timers and you will find a host more.
There are also several apps that you can download that provide a distraction free writing environment. FocusWriter, DarkRoom and WriteRoom for Macs are just 3. I find though that using Word works fine for me, but these apps can also provide a timer and daily goals which may be helpful to those where writing is a large part of your work.
There are also a variety of apps which block websites either during set times or for certain time periods. The main ones are:-
SelfControl Macs only
StayFocused Chrome extension
LeechBlock Firefox extension
Focus Mac only
ColdTurkey currently Windows only
And here is a good overview of the main ones https://focusme.com/blog/5-simple-website-blockers-for-studying-and-increasing-productivity/
5/ Write your ‘Distractions plan’
Some examples are:-
I leave my phone by my chair while I am at home. I leave the sound on so I only need to look at it when I get a text message
I only check email every hour on the hour
I will only spend 20mins in the morning, at lunchtime and in the afternoon checking social media
I find this really works well for me. By writing my distraction plan down and looking at it regularly I focus them in my mind. Set yourself goals, or even mini-challenges (can you get to the end of the day with still 50% battery) so that you can clearly see progress.
6/ Setting clear boundaries
This for me is the hardest when you work from home. You may have friends or family that assume that because you work from home you are free for them to pop round and have a chat, or to call you up etc. But if you don’t set clear boundaries and expectations then this is likely to continue to happen. I don’t think there are any hard and fast rules but a good starting point would be, letting everyone know you have your phone on silent so not to call but if they send a text you will respond when you are able. This means that you are in control of when you are interrupted.
7/ Remind yourself of your goals
Things are easier to do if you know why you are doing them. If your goal is to grow your business then reminding yourself of that everyday can help you get that task done, and push through when tasks become tedious.
I use Momentum for my daily goal, I have my monthly goals spreadsheet printed out tucked in my work notebook and I have my long-term goals written down on cards which sit by my bed. Find a way that works for you that means you see your goals at the start of the day.
8/ Change how you talk to yourself
If you spend a lot of time thinking negatively about yourself and especially about your ability to focus then it will reduce your mood and reduce your confidence that you can stay focused.
So, change, ‘I’m the type of person who is always distracted’ to ‘I can stay focused and complete this task’. Reminding yourself of that when you do become distracted will help stop the moment of distraction becoming 20 minutes of distraction. This is in turn will reinforce your confidence and help you keep to your distractions plan.
9/ Use shortcuts on Facebook
I use Facebook for networking and connecting with other business people. But even if I am only looking at Facebook during scheduled times then I still get distracted by non-work posts.
So, I have all the work-related groups in my shortcuts bar on the left-hand side and then when I open Facebook I go to each group rather than scrolling through my newsfeed. This way you are also less likely to miss a useful post.
To pin a group to your shortcuts underneath the cover photo next to the share button is a button with 3 dots, hover over this and a menu will appear. Click on Pin to shortcuts and the link to the group will appear in your shortcuts. Facebook also shows the number of new posts so you don’t even need to look at a group page unless there is something new to read.
10/ Focus on small tasks
If you are struggling to stay focused for a long time then split your tasks into smaller chunks of work. It is motivating to focus on a 10-minute job, get it done and feel great that you did it. Few of us can sit down to ‘write a blog post’ and then we wonder why we get up 20 times to go to the toilet, make tea etc. Achieving these small blocks of work will then give more validity to your self-talk that you are focused and self-disciplined!
Remember the most important thing of all, being distracted is a habit and can take some time to change but if you do all of these 10 things then you will be well on your way to being less distracted and more focused. So why not take just 5 minutes now and decide how you are going to implement one of these ideas as a start.