How to get rid of distraction
Imagine a workday in which you are fully focused on the tasks you are doing. Your phone is silent, off, or stowed away. You have no constant dings of new Teams messages or emails. Your door is shut. Your computer only has the files that you need open. And, what’s more, your mind is fully focused on what you are doing. If any stray thoughts pop into your head (I need to stop for milk on the way home!)
, you have a place to put that information where you will retrieve it later, so that it does not get in the way of your focus.
Productivity guru, David Allen, said: “Most people have never tasted what it’s like to have nothing on their mind except whatever they’re doing” [1
]. Much of the time, we may be working on task B, but still thinking about earlier task A, worrying about future task C, and ruminating over what a coworker told us about task D.
We often spend much of our days in a state of “frenetic shallowness,” [2
] jumping from task to task with frequent interruptions. Imagine instead a fully clear mental state that would allow you to have nothing on your mind except whatever you’re doing
“Spend enough time in a state of frenetic shallowness and you permanently reduce your capacity to perform deep work.”
Cal Newport, Deep Work
When you examine the nature of your work, some work may require frequent connection and attention to multiple tasks in short order. For example, if you are on call in a hospital, you cannot just turn off your pager in order to focus on a research paper you are reading. The nature of the work demands some level of frequent task switching. However, when we do carve out time for the deeper work, getting rid of distraction is key to making the most of those precious hours!
Here are three strategies to work with more focus, clarity, and mental freedom.
Step 1: Clear the mental space
We are our own worst enemies when it comes to distraction. Most distractions originate internally, such as distracting thoughts, seeking out our phones, surfing websites, or jumping from task to task, as opposed to external distractions like a knock on the door.
Sometimes the distraction is our perseverating thoughts. We can’t focus on writing the big paper because we’re ruminating over what someone said to us. We’re worried we will fail. We’re reliving the embarrassing moment from last week with occasional replays of the embarrassing moment from five years ago. We’re shaking our heads and thinking about the latest annoying thing that our company did.
Other times we distract ourselves in a desire to avoid the negative emotions the work is bringing up. If writing the paper brings up self-doubt, insecurity, fear of failure, or just plain boredom, then we can quickly reach for a hit of dopamine from Instagram, Facebook, or tik tok, or from knocking out a few emails.
Clearing the mental space is probably the hardest but most impactful of the three approaches here. A simple initial strategy is to take five minutes to write down all your thoughts on a piece of paper without judgment or censure. Get curious about what is swirling around in your head that could get in the way of your focus. You may be surprised at what comes out! One client described his thoughts like a swarm of bees. It was hard to focus with all the bees buzzing around his head. When he took the time to pick each out of the air and put it down on paper, it let him feel more mentally clear. Coaching can also be a great way to develop more awareness of the thoughts and limiting beliefs that are getting in the way most.
If you’re honest with yourself, you may find some BIG thoughts that come out of your head: This is going to fail. My boss won’t like it no matter how good it is. I don’t think I’m cut out to do this. People will think I’m stupid if this doesn’t turn out well. I’m a bad parent since I’m here at work and not with my kids.
No wonder it is hard to focus with all the hurtful, self-doubting thoughts swarming around our heads! Writing them down won’t permanently banish them, but it is a first step to gain more clarity and reduce the signal-to-noise ratio going on in our heads.
Step 2: Clear the physical space
Clearing the physical space is probably the easiest step. It may seem like a small thing, but research shows that when we are in a more cleared, clutter-free environment, we make better decisions. Princeton researchers found that “constant visual reminders of disorganization drain our cognitive resources and reduce our ability to focus” [3
]. That’s great news that something as simple as clearing away loose papers, organizing your files, putting books away, and clearing the desk space can help you focus better!
Clearing things away can also force you to develop a system for filing and storing papers that otherwise may end up in piles on your desk. Schedule some time to clear up your space this week. Cleaning up is a good task to do near the end of the workday when you are already mentally tired, as it doesn’t take much energy.
“Our physical environments significantly influence our cognition, emotions, and behavior, affecting our decision-making and relationships with others. Cluttered spaces can have negative effects on our stress and anxiety levels, as well as our ability to focus, our eating choices, and even our sleep.”
Libby Sander, HBR article
Step 3: Clear the digital space
Clearing the digital environment is the final key! If much of your work takes place on a computer screen, then this step will be especially important. Imagine a work environment in which someone came and tapped you on the shoulder and asked you for something every two minutes. The constant interruption would be rude and intolerable. However, when we keep our notifications on, that is essentially what we are allowing. Notifications could be from your phone, email, Teams notifications, Slack dings, or any number of other apps and programs that keep us both constantly connected and distracted
It is hard to get our focus up to speed and keep our minds clear when, in 2023, we check our phones 144 times per day and clock in 4 hours and 25 min of daily screen time on average. When we receive a notification, 75% of people look at it within 5 minutes [4
]. As an interesting aside, while we check our phones now 144 times per day, compared with 344 in 2022, our total screen time has gone up from about 3 hours to 4 hours and 25 min.
Email adds another frequent interruption. Studies vary, but when at our computers, on average, we check our email 10-30 times an hour. More time spent on email is associated with higher stress levels and lower productivity. Batching your email time has been shown in some studies to reduce the total time spent on email and “checking email once a day may not reduce stress, but it saves a significant amount of time” [5
Your personal email and notification strategy will depend on your work and how you architect your day. But the key here is to be intentional and strategic
about it rather than responding to emails and notifications as they come in. A first step is figuring out how often you need to attend to notifications or emails. You will still need to schedule time to deal with the messages, but by scheduling time, you can give your deeper work the time blocks you need to prioritize it in a distraction-free way.
If you need to respond quickly to emails or messages, consider asking how often you need to read and respond to emails and messages. Can it wait 10 minutes? Can it wait 30 or 60? If so, give yourself that time to work with a deep focus, then come back to your messages.
Next, close or turn off anything that could distract you with sounds, flags, or new message notifications. Every time you hear a notification, it triggers a habit loop. The habit loop is: Cue-Craving-Response-Reward [6
]. When you hear the habit cue of a new message ding, it triggers a habit craving to see what it is. Sometimes that un-viewed notification feels like an itch that you need to scratch. Once you look at it, which is the habit response, you get the habit reward of no longer being curious about it, or deleting it so that you feel the boost of micro-productivity. This approach of responding to messages as they come in, triggered by notification sounds, strengthens the habit loop of constant interruption.
By turning off your notifications, putting your phone away, and changing notification settings to silent or off, you can more easily focus on the work that matters more to you.
A word of warning
The three approaches presented here can help you move from frequent distraction to gaining more traction on the projects and work that is meaningful, rewarding, and interesting to you. However, a word of warning: if you brain has become habituated to constant distraction or quick hits of dopamine, you may feel worse at first. When you try to focus for a longer period, it may feel difficult. You may find yourself reaching for your phone out of habit. In those moments, take a pause. Ask your brain what it is looking for with the phone/email/website. Is it distraction? Is it an easy task? Is it a break from the challenging work? Is it to relieve the habit craving? Is it to escape from the self-doubt that the task brings up?
You may feel worse initially because as you clear the time and space to work, you also make more space to feel any negative emotions brought up by the task. Therefore, your brain may seek distraction as an escape from the negative emotions. However, when you make more space to do the work that matters, you also create space to feel positive emotions of determination, confidence, productivity, and pride. You also trade frenetic shallowness for feeling more calm and in control of your day.
What is your current approach to doing focused work?
If you were to craft your day strategically, when would do deep work?
When would you attend to emails, messages, and other shallow work?
What are the next steps for you to clear the mental, physical, and digital spaces in your life?
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