Table of contents
These days it’s harder than ever to stay focused. We’re surrounded by fancy technologies and the whole new (and usually more fun) world is just a stone’s throw away.
And, let’s say it up front, there’s nothing wrong in scrolling through your Instagram feed or playing Dark Soul for a few hours (guilty ✋).
It becomes a problem when these things become distractions from the work that we want to do. We all have goals, deadlines, and dreams that we chase. And without deep work and plain manpower put into these projects, none of it is going to happen.
So today we’ll break distractions down into simple pieces so you’ll get to know exactly why we’re getting distracted in the first place to then discover how we can fight these distractions and finally learn how to stay focused.
Why we’re getting distracted
🥱 It’s too boring
The #1 reason why we give in to distractions is that the work we’re doing (or want to do) is too boring - it’s as simple as that.
A lot of activities that are generally good or healthy end up in the boring category when compared to fun, dopamine-led distractions. When it comes to making a choice, we’ll always lean more towards the fun over boring.
😓 It’s too hard
The second reason is that we turn to distractions when we hit a major roadblock while doing the work. Often it’s a combination of frustration and long hours spent on trying to crack that one mistake or step of the task that’s just taking too long.
When this happens it’s basically an open invitation to all distractions that are laying around.
👀 It’s too prominent
Sometimes we make it too easy to get distracted.
If the work is too boring or too hard then we have to fix the thing that we’re working on.
But, if we keep our smartphones a foot away from us, knowing that every single notification might turn our attention to an hour-long distraction then we’re making it too prominent and the thing that needs to be fixed is the distraction itself.
How to stay focused
Okay, now that we know the enemy, it’s time to give it the Dementor’s Kiss. 🧙♂️
We’ll explore 5 different techniques that I use to stay focused and hopefully, after you read the whole piece, at least one of those will become your go-to cure for distractions.
🚪 Embrace Welcome Distractions
It might sound counterintuitive but you should embrace a specific type of distraction and use it to your advantage.
What we’re talking about here is the distinction between welcome distractions and unwelcome distractions.
A welcome distraction would be:
- a close friend coming to talk to you
- a phone call from a loved one
- Warm sunshine that makes you take a look outside the window
An unwelcome distraction would be:
- a notification on your phone
- an unexpected phone call from your bank
- loud noises from right above your apartment
A welcome distraction is something that you should be looking forward to - an activity that brings joy and added value to your life. Sure, it’s still a distraction but given that it’s genuinely good for you, you should treat it as a break from your work.
When I was at the university, it was easy to drown yourself in exam material and study for long hours every day. To fix that unhealthy habit, I decided to use a doorstop to keep my door open so whenever I was studying in my room, my friends could come in and hang out for some time.
It did stop me from working which probably resulted in a 0.001%-worse grade but oh well, you’ve got one life. After all, when you’re on your deathbed you won’t regret that you haven’t stayed focused 24/7 but rather the fact that you prioritised work over relationships.
And the key to making it work is to know which distractions bring you tangible value (embrace those) and which are essentially time-eaters that bring nothing to the table and stop you from doing valuable work - get rid of those.
⚙️ Optimise For Enjoyment
Now, we’re directly tackling the first two reasons why we’re getting distracted in the first place. That's if our work is too boring or too hard.
One way to fix it is by gamifying the process and making your progress more visible which then should encourage you to take the next step. If you’re a bit of a nerd like myself and you’ve played a lot of RPGs then you know this feeling of satisfaction that you get with each new level earned. And, in the game, everything you do has a reflection in your so-called XP (the experience you earn) so you get that urge to play even more and level up even faster.
Gamifying the real-life work can make it much more satisfying and easy to go through. When you’re studying for an exam and you have a whole workbook to go through, it feels like a hard sell. But, if you divide it into smaller bits and track your progress over time (visually) then you’ll be tempted to do the next one and the next one until you finish the whole thing.
In fact, I have a whole video on how to study for exams where I explain my Traffic Lights method which helps you track your progress and make the whole learning process fun and enjoyable.
These days my hard-sell task is writing a book. So, instead of thinking about it as 300 pages that I need to write, I go chapter by chapter, idea by idea, tracking it all in Notion and making daily progress that I can track and look back on whenever I feel like there’s just no progress.
If you want to follow my book writing journey I have a dedicated newsletter just for that. So, if you fancy becoming my book-writing buddy, hit the subscribe button below.
All in all, whatever your work is - learning how to code, writing a book, working on some business idea - give yourself these little milestones that will help you visibly track your progress. Simply, ticking off one task from the list will make the whole process more satisfying and before you notice, you’ll have a whole tracking system that you’ll enjoy going back to whenever you finish another part of your project.
📲 Throw Away the Phone
Our smartphones are easily the most attention-grabbing devices out there. And because they’re always only a few inches away from us it’s easy to get sucked in. A constant stream of notifications and some potential unexpected calls don’t make things easier.
Whenever I have something important to do I simply put my phone a few feet away from my desk. This way I don’t get bombarded with notifications and there’s no urge to pick it up and start scrolling through Instagram or Twitter.
Although usually I simply put my phone face down and turn on airplane mode. For some reason when I don’t see the screen there’s less temptation to pick it up and start procrastinating. And since it’s on airplane mode no notification or unexpected call is going to interrupt me.
So, if you know that your smartphone plays a big role in your ability to focus, turn on airplane mode, put it a few feet away from your workstation so you won’t randomly glance at it and enjoy distraction-free work time.
🎛️ Control your Environment
Remember the third reason why we’re getting distracted? It’s too prominent. When our environment is messy and a lot of things fight for our attention it’s really easy to channel our attention to one of these distractions when our work becomes too hard or too boring.
The 21st-century work environment is usually a desk and the simplest tip would be to keep your desk clean and simple. Who would have thought, right?
It’s a simple rule but one that I find really hard to follow so my desk usually looks like this 😅
To make my desk distraction-free I usually follow a 2-minute rule:
“If a task will take less than 2 minutes, do it right now.”
2 minutes is usually not enough for me to clean all the crap that I piled up over the last couple of days but even a slight cleanup can lower the number of distractions and the likelihood of my mind wondering “what’s that lens doing” or “how about I play with that fidget cube?”
No matter if you’re working from a desk or your workplace is much more complex than that, do your best to keep it clean and simple. Strip it down from all unnecessary additions and make sure each thing that’s there adds value work-wise or enjoyment-wise. But if anything becomes a distraction just get rid of it. No hard feelings.
⏳ Deliberately Manage your Time
There’s one more part of the work process that we can free from distraction and that’s our calendar and how we’re planning and scheduling things.
In his book Indistractable, Nir Eyal points out that often you can tell how prone to distractions someone is only by looking at that person’s calendar. If there are a lot of empty and unplanned spots, there’s a higher chance that you’re not going to do any deep work as your mind will focus on the low hanging fruit which is usually some kind of entertainment.
On the other hand, once we get deliberate about our time and start to plan things ahead, it’s much more likely that we’re going to do these things because we now have a plan. Therefore, once it’s go-time, you know exactly what to do.
A few productivity techniques that you may find really helpful are time blocking and daily highlight.
🚧 Time blocking - For any task that you want to do, put a time block (fixed amount of time) in your calendar. This way you end up with blocks of time in your calendar which leaves no room for wondering what to do or for how long you should work on any given task
⭐️ Daily highlight - Set one thing for a day that you want to get done. One reason why we find it hard to sit down and do the work is analysis paralysis caused by an overly long to-do list. So, once you decide on one thing that you want to get done (above all else) it’s much easier to start doing the work which is usually the hardest part.
And I’d actually recommend you combine both of these techniques so in addition to time blocking your tasks you should also choose one that you want to prioritise above everything else.
If you’re already using these techniques or simply want to explore more ways in which you can efficiently manage your time, I have a video with 10 Time Management Tips which you can look up down below.
Distractions are an inevitable part of our lives and, in fact, I don’t think getting rid of your phone or giving up on your gaming console is a way to go. A much better solution would be to control our environment, plan our day ahead of time, and shut down all distractions while working.
Also, if you’d rather watch a video, you can check out this clip on Why You're Always Distracted (and how not to be).
Lastly, if you enjoyed this article, you should check out my weekly newsletter - Sunday Snippets. There are more than 120,000 friendly readers on the list so you won’t feel alone. And it’s my favourite place to share actionable productivity tips, practical life advice, and high-quality insights from across the web. If you fancy joining, feel free to use the form below. See you inside! 👋