How to Focus Amid Distraction

Last week, Laura posted a video on Facebook of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson working out and yelling “Focus!” at his fellow gym goers and at himself. Later that day, we went to the gym and in the middle of a set of crunches, she came up behind me and yelled, “Focus!” and I almost passed out, I was so startled. Once my pulse returned to normal, though, I was pleased to realize that I had been focusing very intently on engaging my abs during the exercise.  Now, if only I could bring that same degree of focus into other areas of my life…

It’s been a busy and stressful couple of weeks for me. There’s a lot going on that’s out of the ordinary, and although all of it is good, exciting stuff, it’s still been weighing heavily on me. As a result, my work has been suffering tremendously. I was worrying over this a couple of days ago, when I realized that my problem wasn’t even a lack of focus while I was trying to work, but rather that I simply never sat down to start working.

As chance would have it, this week I decided to complete an earlier module from Leo Babauta’s “Sea Change” program – the one from February called “Unprocrastination.” I realized after reading the first few posts that my inability to focus amid distraction was really just an amped-up version of my usual procrastination. I followed Leo’s advice and began starting each day by writing down my most important task for the day. It worked immediately. Just getting unstuck was all it took for me to regain my focus and get back to work. I was also happy to note that my work provided welcome relief from those other things that had been consuming me.

I realize that just getting started might not be enough to generate the kind of focus you’re looking for, and it might not be enough for me under different circumstances, so I did a little more digging. I found a few more tips you can use to sharpen your focus and do your best work, no matter what else is going on around you:

1. Just Get Started – I know, I already talked about this, but you might have a short attention span and it’s really important, so I’m listing it here again.

2. Set Up a Distraction-Free Environment – According to the New York Times Magazine, once your focus is broken, it takes an average of 25 minutes to regain it, so not breaking focus in the first place is very important. Taking a few minutes to make sure you won’t get distracted before you start to work is worth it. Turn off your cell phone, stop alerts and banners from email, social media, etc. and tune out any distracting noises by listening to music that facilitates work, preferably through noise-cancelling headphones.

3. There is No Such Thing as Multitasking – In that same Times Magazine article, around a page and a half is spent effectively explaining that there is no such thing as multitasking. The bottom line: every time you switch tasks you are creating your own distraction, causing yourself to lose focus. Instead of doing one thing well, you end up doing several things very poorly. One task at a time, please.

4. Practice Focusing by Doing Fun Stuff – It turns out, you can train yourself to focus better at work by simply focusing on anything. Specifically, several forms of entertainment are good focus tools, because you are more likely to keep paying attention. The only stipulation is that your activity be one you can do for a long stretch of time.  So watching TV is no good – the commercial breaks actually cause you to practice breaking focus. Reading, watching movies, playing games and – my favorite – exercise are all good choices. Just be sure you follow the same rules at play that you do at work – no distractions. So turn off your cell phone, don’t check your email/Facebook/Twitter accounts, and no multitasking. You can put those dishes away later, when it’s time to work.

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