This article was based on episode 204 of The Modern Manager podcast. To hear this episode, and many more like it, you can subscribe to The Modern Manager Podcast on iTunes, Google Play, Spotify, iHeart Radio, Amazon, and Stitcher. Get the full episode guide when you become a member at themodernmanager.com/join. Purchase any full episode guide at themodernmanager.com/shop.
I wonder if this era will be known as the time of infinite distractions. I often feel pulled in a thousand directions, trying to keep up with everything on my plate. Between the number of emails in my inbox, meetings on my calendar, and tasks on my to-do list, not to mention social media, my kids, and my goals, it can be hard to focus. And yet, focus is essential for doing good, productive work. Here are some tricks of the trade I’ve gleaned from personal experience as well as an assortment of literature I’ve been reading in my search to increase my ability to focus.
THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN INTERNAL AND EXTERNAL DISTRACTIONS
If we want to be serious about increasing our focus, we need to be honest about the difference between internal and external distractions. (As a reminder, a distraction is anything that breaks your focus.) Here’s the crazy truth: 80% of all distractions come from within us. 80 percent! This was one of my greatest “aha!” moments when I was learning about focus.
If your phone alerts you that you have a new comment on an Instagram post, that’s an external distraction. If you see your phone lying on the counter and pick it up to check Instagram because you’re curious if anyone messaged you, that’s an internal distraction.
External distractions trigger your senses: A knock on the door, a calendar alert sliding into view on your monitor, a buzz on your wrist telling you to stand up. Internal distractions arise from your mind: hunger or other bodily needs, dirt on your pant leg which reminds you to do the laundry when you get home, the inclination to check your email for no obvious reason.
By acknowledging that most distractions come from our brain, we are able to take ownership and control of them. So how do we do this? It starts with applying long-term approaches to improve your overall ability to focus. Then, if you’re struggling to sustain attention in the moment, you can apply additional techniques to get you through the rough spot.
SET YOURSELF UP TO FOCUS
Thinking actually takes a lot of energy! The more we have on our minds, the less brain power we have for other things. If you’re mentally keeping track of deadlines, processing a difficult conversation, and more, you have less brain space available for whatever you’re working on at the moment. This means your level of internal distractions is through the roof! Plus, if your brain is running on high gear for too long, you lose the stamina to concentrate and keep distractions at bay. So, the first step to better focus is creating the proper environment.
Set Up Your Physical and Digital Spaces
Clear your physical and digital spaces of visual distractions. Put your phone where you can’t see it. Set your notifications so you’re only alerted to the most important things.
Close or hide tabs on your browser that you’re not using so you’re not tempted to engage with other tasks at the same time.
Keep sticky notes in a planner rather than on the computer screen, so you don’t get distracted by other things you need to do.
Plan For Focus Time
Consider creating deep work time blocks so you have enough contiguous hours to get into the mindset and flow of work. Block out time on your calendar for meetings with yourself so that it pushes other meetings to cluster more. Some teams even like to have ‘no meeting times’ like from 1-5pm on Tuesdays when everyone gets to focus.
Let your team members (and housemates) know when you aren’t to be interrupted. For example, let people know that a closed door means not to knock unless it’s urgent. Wearing headphones might be a “don’t bother me” sign for an open workspace. Some team software tools even have settings that allow you to set your availability.
Build Your Mental Stamina
Develop your mind’s ability to focus so that even when your attention is broken, you can quickly get back on track. This can be done through meditation, breath work, and learning to be more present. Just like exercise for your body, meditation is a form or exercise for your brain. It teaches you to keep your mind on one thing, to notice when other thoughts are entering, and then how to quickly let them go.
RETURN TO FOCUS WHEN YOU DO GET INTERRUPTED
Inevitably something will distract you and you’ll need to get back into focus mode as quickly as possible. Here are a few of my favorite techniques to minimize the impact of both internal and external distractions.
Write It Down
If your mind starts wandering about what you need to do, jot down these ideas on a piece of paper. This helps to release your mind from holding onto them while avoiding getting deeper into the distraction by navigating to your task manager, email, etc.
Breath is a powerful tool and yet we often forget about it. In a moment where you need to refocus, it can quickly calm your mind and your body and get you back into focus mode. Try counting to five while inhaling and exhaling.
Set An Intention
The more specific I am about what I need to do, the easier it is for me to power through to completion. For example, when I notice my mind wandering during a meeting, I tell myself, “There are only 25 minutes left and you’re going to respect this person and stay present.” This gives me a direction and goal that feels good when accomplished. (This technique also helps when parenting!)
The ability to focus is a skill that every professional needs. It’s time to take ownership over our minds and actions that make it easier to succeed. We can’t expect our brains to do the heavy lifting forever. Consider what you can do physically and mentally to take care of your cognitive space. Talk with your team about how to facilitate focus time for everyone. And remember that while distractions and interruptions are inevitable, you don’t have to let them keep you from accomplishing great things.
Get the full episode guide when you become a member of the Modern Manager community at themodernmanager.com/join. Or, purchase an individual episode guide at themodernmanager.com/shop to help you implement the learnings and continue to enhance your rockstar manager skills.
This article was based onepisode 204 of The Modern Manager podcast. To hear this episode, and many more like it, you can subscribe to The Modern Manager Podcast on iTunes, Google Play, Spotify,iHeart Radio,Amazon, and Stitcher. Never miss a worksheet, episode or article: subscribe to Mamie’s newsletter.