The phenomenon of focus is something that has captivated some of the best minds in our society. It’s a resource that social media and advertising companies spend billions on every year. Our world is one of increasing distractions where every buzz, bling, and ring set off a chemical tirade sending our emotions into a flurry. Is that my boss? The guy who ghosted me last week? My ex… and does she want to get back together? Or is it another like on the latest selfie you posted to Instagram?
And while some industries are shelling out over 20 percent of their annual budget on advertising, our collective attention spans continue to drop. Our brains crave distraction. In fact, when we engage with something novel we’re actually rewarded with a hit of dopamine. Although we’re eager to see our goals achieved, we continue to give distractions our full attention. We project into the future what we will achieve, but have yet to focus on completing what’s currently at hand (Oh the irony!).
Our brains are full of hundreds if not thousands of thoughts, and focus requires that we choose the right thoughts in an avalanche of data. How can we, then, in times of need (like when that report is due) channel our focus and free our minds of distracting thoughts? Five strategies stand out for achieving productive focus:
Become Conscious About How You Spend Your Time
Before you start changing your habits, it helps to know what they are. Start with a short journal for one week. Take note of what you do at the top of each hour. It helps to mention a goal you’re working toward achieving – “Completing Review of Inbox” for example – and at the end of the hour make a note of how far you got and whether or not you accomplished your goal.
As you go through the week you’ll likely also start to note what distractions happened during the hour. You may write, “Didn’t finish email because I was pinged on #slack, or my mom called, or went down a YouTube hole” (hey we’ve all been there).
When you reflect on the kinds of activities you engage in and where you are using your time, it will help inform the strategies you use to get your focus back on to the things that matter. This first step is actually pretty important, so if you’re tempted to skip it, don’t. Not if you’re serious about finding your focus over the long term anyway.
Remove The Goal
This might sound counterintuitive, but it’s a proven method to help decrease your anxiety about delivering in the moment. Our performance-driven world pushes us into obsessive thought patterns about what we need to deliver and how others will judge us. The fear about being able to produce when prompted allows our brains to become hijacked by anxious thoughts and a vicious cycle ensues. We become so ensnared by our desire to deliver high-quality results that we actually fail to perform in some cases.
Rather than be consumed with an unknown future, the best strategy is to focus on what your strengths are in each moment. Remove the goal for a short time – for example by glancing at an inspirational note on your desk. This provides a window to break the cycle of toxic thinking keeping us trapped from executing like we know we can. Breaking this cycle can be the key to unlocking productivity, especially when under a looming deadline. This isn’t some self-help gobbledygook either. When we sit with “the undemanding present”, we find ourselves more free to lean into our natural gifts. This guidance pertains to those who struggle with becoming ensnared in cyclical and toxic thinking. If you struggle with distractions keep reading.
Distractions, in an age of ever (read over) availability, constantly draw in our minds and we become engaged by other things. It’s easy for our focus to get fragmented into a thousand little must-dos. Distractions don’t just eat up our time, they can also diminish our sense of meaning in life. As our focus becomes more and more divided, it’s difficult to articulate at the end of the day what we used all our time for.
We have to take steps to ensure that we’re creating safe spaces for our productivity. What does that mean? How would that look? Remember in step one where you tracked your working habits for a week? Now is the time for deeper analysis. If you’re struggling with the self-discipline needed to ensure you don’t end up with countless open tabs and hours of lost time, it’s time to call in help. Thankfully, you’re not alone. Productivity apps abound. These are great tools to help put necessary restrictions in place to keep you from heading down the rabbit hole. If you know you need these kinds of tools and don’t get them, you’ll only have yourself to blame when deadlines come calling. It’s not our faults that will destroy us, it’s failure to admit and change them that does us in.
Get Comfortable with No
Outside of technology and our own projections into the future, people – IRL and on slack – remain a real source of distraction. We have to get comfortable saying no. Many of us struggle with this tiny, two-letter, one-syllable word. We’re unsure of how to use it without making ourselves feel like the bad guy (duh!).
First, take a deep breath. It’s okay to be assertively selfish, especially when it comes to your productivity. Second, there are some phrases that help to soften the edge. Try something like, “Unfortunately, I can’t right now, but I will let you know if something changes.” Third, don’t be afraid to push back on the person making the request. You could say, “I’d love to help here, but I’m going to need two full days to complete this and do a good job. How would you like me to prioritize this against what’s already on my plate?”. This kind of question is incredibly helpful because it asks the requester to take full stock of their request from a strategic perspective rather than a “I need to get this off my plate and on to yours” kind of thing.
The thing about priorities is that they require a give and take. When people fail to acknowledge the ripple effects of their own asks, they continue pretending as if they live in a world that is consequence-free, and that’s just not realistic. Finally, if that doesn’t work you have to do what I call “find your firm”. You’ll need to dig your heels in, sometimes literally, and draw a hard line in the sand. “I can’t de-prioritize what I’m working on right now, you’ll need to ask someone else.” Don’t be afraid to practice saying this in the mirror or with trusted friends if you’re someone who struggles with asserting your firm side.
Renowned author J.R.R. Tolkien once said, “Not All Who Wander Are Lost”, pointing to the idea that the art of wandering can be employed strategically to help us achieve our goals. Ever watched a highly productive executive get up from their desk and go for a walk around the city? Certainly you’ve heard the phrase, “I’m going for a walk to clear my head” before. This idea already enjoys some popularity with the most productive people. Sometimes we need to get away to find sanity. Engaging in activities that don’t overly stimulate the mind can prove extremely productive. In fact, when we embrace boredom strategically we can start to approach problems in unique ways. Author Chris Bailey describes a concept he refers to as “scatter focus” or the idea that allowing our attention to wander can actually help to help us solve problems and think more creatively.
In the digital age, none of us are immune from the distractions making their way into our productive spaces, moment by precious moment. To find our focus, we have to strategize and work hard to uncover the root causes and biggest culprits. When we can look our fears and distractions head-on, we stand a better chance at conquering them. Ultimately we each have to be the champions of our own productivity. It’s up to us to prioritize and plan accordingly, each and every day. Hopefully you find that employing these strategies doesn’t just make you more productive at your place of work but in your personal life as well.