You start researching something important online and find that 20 minutes later you’re on some stranger’s Facebook page, scanning their photos and reading the comments.
You’re writing an article, and before you know it, you’ve picked up your phone and started scrolling Instagram.
You’re working on a presentation, and every 2 minutes you refresh your inbox. You also send a few texts, and see what’s on clearance on your favorite clothing site.
It’s all-too easy to get distracted—even when we’re doing interesting, rewarding work. Which is tough because the most powerful resource we have for getting that important work done is our attention span. After all, if we can’t focus on a task, we’re going to have a very hard time actually completing it—and completing it on time.
Here’s a startling statistic: We focus for about 40 seconds before getting distracted or interrupted. And once we are distracted or interrupted, it takes us about 23 minutes to refocus on our initial task.
Thankfully, we can do something about this—actually many things. In his latest book Hyperfocus: How to Be More Productive in a World of Distraction, author Chris Bailey offers a variety of excellent suggestions for focusing on meaningful tasks. Below are tips from his book to help you get what really matters done in an effective manner.
Carve out time for hyperfocusing. How long can you realistically work on a challenging task without your attention waning? Is it an hour? Thirty minutes? Or maybe it’s only 15 minutes. That’s OK. Either way, it’s a good start. When Bailey started hyperfocusing, he began with 15-minute blocks, and 5- to 10-minute breaks in between.
Begin by setting a timer to whatever block is realistic for you. And, over time, as focusing on a tough task becomes easier, increase each concentration block (e.g., from 15 minutes to 20 minutes or 30 minutes and so on).
Don’t rely on self-control. No one is immune to distractions. One morning Bailey, who pens the blog A Life of Productivity, found himself checking different websites for 30 minutes—after he’d meditated for 25 minutes. This makes sense. Bailey notes that our attention naturally gravitates toward anything threatening, pleasurable or novel. Of course, this is vital for our species to exist and persist. Our attention needed to shift swiftly in order to survive and protect ourselves from hungry predators.
The key in focusing is reducing distractions before you start your task. Identify what usually distracts you from your meaningful work, and control what you can. Make a tangible plan, and make this your distraction-free routine.
For instance, Bailey uses an app on his computer that blocks specific websites when he’s working. He also puts his computer and his phone in “do not disturb” mode so notifications don’t come through. He keeps his phone in another room so he’s not tempted to check it. Sometimes, he wears noise-canceling headphones.
Be deliberate with your distractions. Bailey stresses the importance of changing your perspective about your biggest distraction—likely your phone—and being intentional about how you use it. Instead of seeing his phone as a device that needs to stay attached to his hip for the whole day, Bailey regards it “as a powerful, more annoying computer.” Which means he keeps his phone in his laptop bag instead of his pocket, and checks it only when he has a good reason.
Can changing your own perspective affect how you use your phone? Your computer? Other devices?
Bailey also suggests resisting the urge to pull out your phone in line, while you’re walking or when you’re in the bathroom. “Use these small breaks to reflect on what you’re doing, to recharge, and to consider alternate approaches to your work and life.”
Secondly, he recommends creating a “mindless folder” on your phone, which keeps your most distracting apps all in one place. “The folder’s name will serve as an additional reminder that you’re about to distract yourself.”
It’s also important to assess your apps in general. Which apps deplete your attention? Can you delete them from your phone? How much time would that save you?
Create an environment that fosters focus. Evaluate your working environment. What supports and what derails your focus? As Bailey writes, “Which of these do you find more attractive than your work?” Remove those objects from your environment so you’re not tempted to use them.
Also, introduce productive cues, such as plants, which have a calming effect. Hang a whiteboard. Use it to brainstorm ideas, and jot down your three daily intentions. According to Bailey, these are your three most significant tasks for the day. (He also sets three weekly intentions and three daily personal intentions, such as disconnecting from work during dinner and gathering tax receipts.)
The best way to set intentions, he writes, is to be very specific: Instead of “quit working when I get home,” it’s “Put my work phone on airplane mode and my work laptop in another room, and stay disconnected for the evening.”
Bailey also suggests putting your favorite books on a shelf to spark ideas at the office, and keeping a book on your nightstand at home instead of your phone to encourage reading.
Doing concentrated work is hard, especially when your task is something incredibly challenging or frustrating. But there are helpful practices and different perspectives we can adopt to sharpen our focus. Of course, our attention will wane, and our minds will wander. That’s just how our brains are made.
So when this happens, Bailey encourages readers to be gentle with ourselves. We can try to shift our attention back to the task, or we can simply take a break. Either way, acknowledge and celebrate the work that you have accomplished.