Lately, I’ve been trying to grow my attention span. I get distracted easily, and having the internet at an arm’s length most of the day does not help. But to be as productive as possible in my job, and to enter flow states and do good creative work, I need to be able to focus on one task for an extended period of time.
Like many people today, I’m a chronic multitasker. In my free time, you’ll rarely find me doing just one thing. I’m talking on the phone while driving, listening to an audiobook while gardening, watching a TV show while cooking, texting a friend while listening to a podcast while putting away laundry. Though always doing two (or more) things at once may make me feel more productive, I know that it reduces the amount of attention I’m devoting to each activity. I think multitasking too much can lead me to feel less calm, too. My brain sometimes needs silence, and the chance to devote itself to just one thing. So I’m making a conscious effort to do more unitasking (also known as monotasking).
It isn’t an easy change to make, and I frequently slip back into bad habits. I wrote down some rules for myself, and I review them regularly to help me stay on track. Here are a few things I’m doing to try to minimize distractions and increase my focus.
- Site-blocking software. I recently installed a site-blocking software called Cold Turkey on my computer. So far, I find it to be more effective for me than others I’ve tried in the past, like Morphine and LeechBlock. Cold Turkey is not a browser add-on; it works across all the browsers on your machine. You add specific websites to a list called “distractions,” and then you set it to block access to those sites for a set amount of time. Once you set the timer, you cannot unset it, so the blocker cannot be easily circumvented. If you get the urge to check social media while the timer is set, you have to either wait it out or switch to another device. Looking at certain sites out of boredom has become a habit for me, so much so that I sometimes find myself mindlessly typing a URL into my browser even when I know that my Cold Turkey timer is set and I can’t access the site. I don’t even think about it–the habit has become automatic. Having seen this habit in action, I’m glad I have Cold Turkey to help me break it. Addictive internet use is a real thing, and an external intervention is probably necessary for many of us to overcome it.
- Do Not Disturb. I love the Do Not Disturb setting on my iPhone. I set it every night when I go to bed, and while I generally don’t leave it on all day, I do often set it when I’m writing, working on a tight deadline, or when I just really need or want to avoid distraction. The Do Not Disturb function silences your phone so it won’t ring or vibrate when you get a call, text, email, or notification. You can set it to allow calls from specific numbers or to allow repeat calls so that people who need to reach you (say, in the event of an emergency) can still get through to you. It does not affect the alarm function on your phone, so if you’re using your phone as an alarm clock, the alarm will still sound even when you are using the Do Not Disturb function. I find that when I hear a buzz from my phone, I feel compelled to check it, and hearing that sound can really break my concentration. Even if I don’t respond to the text or notification, the simple act of recognizing the sound and looking at my phone for a second can make it hard to get back to my previous level of focus. Using Do Not Disturb helps a lot. I’ve told certain important people in my life–my husband, parents, boss–that I regularly use Do Not Disturb and set it to allow repeat calls, so they know that if they really need to talk to me and I don’t answer, they should call again.
- Jot it down. Random thoughts often cross my mind, some useful and some not. These can lead me to Google things out of curiosity, and if I’m not careful, I might end up reading a series of Wikipedia articles or following a bunch of links around the interwebs. The more useful thoughts might cause me to stop what I’m doing to check my bank account balance or add a product to my monthly Amazon subscription–tasks that are worth doing, but don’t need to be done right now. My new solution for this problem is to keep a Google Doc open on my computer, and when I have the urge to look something up, I add it to the Google Doc. (Sometimes I jot it down on an actual piece of paper instead.) Then, when I’m finished with whatever big task I’m doing, I’ll assess the list. Some of the things on it are silly and no longer interesting, so I just delete them. I treat the remaining items as a to-do list and and try to batch those tasks and do them all at once, if they aren’t too time-consuming. I think I may have originally gotten this idea from David Allen’s book Getting Things Done. I read the book several years ago and don’t remember all the details of Allen’s system, but I recall that one important aspect was to get things out of your head and into writing so that you don’t have to try to remember them for later. I find that this frees up space in my mind and allows for greater focus, while also minimizing my chances of forgetting things. Therefore, I make a lot of lists and always add appointments to a calendar.
- Leave notes for later. Sometimes, distraction is inevitable. An example is when I’m heavily focused on one project and my boss comes to talk to me about a new, more urgent project. Obviously, I’m not going to shoo him away so I can get back to what I was doing. In those situations, I try to write myself a quick note about where I am in my project. I note my stopping point and write down additional research tasks or other sub tasks that I haven’t yet had a chance to complete. These notes allow me to jump back into the project much more quickly when I return to it later. I don’t have to try to remember what I was doing when I stopped or reconstruct ideas I had earlier. Sometimes I do this at the end of a workday or when I’m heading to lunch. The notes cut down on unnecessary repetition and help me to get right back into the substance of what I was doing when I stopped working.
What tricks have you adopted to increase your focus and reduce distractions? Tell us your tips in the comments.
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