One of the cornerstones of being successful is managing distractions to get the important stuff done without being distracted or diverted before you have finished. It is easy to become distracted by endless little things that prevent you from doing the one big thing you should really being doing. The challenges arise in the form of multiple items on both your work and personal ‘to do lists’ which compete with each other and the endless potential distractions for such a limited amount of time.
One of the many benefits of using the MTQ48 Mental Toughness framework is that one of the 4C’s – Commitment – directly addresses focus and reliability and the need to actively use a clear strategy.
There have been many recent research projects, which in summary reveal that you are distracted more often than you think and at great cost to your productivity.
Gloria Mark from the University of California found that a typical office employee works for only 11 minutes between each interruption and then takes an average of 25 minutes to return to the original task after the interruption.
In another study Alessandro Acquisti, Professor of Information Technology at Carnegie Mellon measured the brainpower lost when someone is interrupted through a phone call or email. They performed cognitive skill tests, which demonstrated that once interrupted individuals performed at 20% lower effectiveness on their original task than those without interruptions.
More Research by Professor Larry D Rosen, Professor Emeritus and Past Chair of the Psychology Department at California State University found even more startling results. Observing the focus of 300 high school and university students studying something important for just 15 minutes they found the students were able to focus and stay on task for an average of three minutes at a time. Almost all of their distractions came from technology with their smartphone and laptop providing the most common interruptions.
Perhaps not surprisingly they found that those students who stayed focused for longer were more successful in their studies with the amazing revelation that if they checked Facebook just once during the 15 minute study period they performed at a lower level than those that did not. Interviews with the students revealed their thought process in that they felt compelled to either respond to a Facebook alert or if not they lost concentration anyway by diverting their thinking to wondering what was in the alert. Either way it was a distraction that affected their productivity.
So it is clear that being distracted takes up time during the distraction, and afterwards, to get back on track with your original task. Even then your productivity and quality of work will be materially lower than had you not been distracted at all.
Tips to help you stay focused
Here are 7 tips for managing distractions:
1) Be supremely clear about your goals and what is most important to you
Managing distractions requires having clarity around your goals. Knowing what is most important to you and why it is important will allow you to stay focused and on track to achieve your goals. The strength of your intent to achieve your goals is also critical in keeping you focused. There is a world of difference between like and must – I would like to achieve this goal or I must achieve this goal – and if you are repeating this intention hourly or daily it will resonate more than a weekly or monthly repetition.
2) Prepare to avoid being distracted
Managing distractions requires being prepared. Some distractions are unexpected, therefore unavoidable and out of your control, whilst others are entirely expected and so can be avoided.
With the unexpected/unavoidable just expect them to happen – that is, become expected, and schedule them into your routine. Perhaps add a 20% time line to your day for such distractions so that when they occur they don’t surprise you and derail your whole daily routine. Also focus on getting back on track as soon as you can post the distraction. If they don’t occur at all then just enjoy the time bonus.
With the expected and avoidable you should plan to avoid them happening at all. These are distractions like emails, phone calls, text messages and pretty much anything on the internet or they can be non-technology interruptions like phone calls or a knock on the door. Each of these is under your control and by preplanning you should be able to resolve and ensure that you don’t become distracted, at least for several hours at a time.
3) Use your brain for creativity not memory
Managing distractions frees you up to be creative and productive. I used to pride myself on remembering stuff until I realised that trying to remember prevented me from doing important things like thinking and being creative. I now write stuff down in an A4 notebook – anything I’m trying to remember goes in the notebook, any thoughts or analysis or conversations or priorities go in the notebook. As well as improving my focus it also helps me manage my stress because in my conscious mind I’m not over thinking or processing or trying to recall facts or figures.
4) Focus through single tasking and time blocking
As much as you can, focus on one thing at a time. If you try and work on too many things at once you will spread your attention too thinly which means you are doing a few things but not actually completing on one. If, in your conscious mind, you can focus on one thing only and intensely immerse yourself in that task then you should complete it sooner and quite possibly to a higher level of proficiency.
By blocking your time so that you complete several similar tasks in the same block of time, one after the other you gain further productivity because you are being proficient by being focused in one area. If you are spending the same time on a series of random tasks then you are having to power up and power down on each discrete task before tackling the next one. This is far less efficient than completing like-minded tasks in the same block.
5) Use your energy levels to your advantage
Managing distractions requires maximising your energy levels. Some people are morning people – others are at their best late at night. There is no right or wrong but if you can find out when you have the most energy then you can increase your productivity. You should schedule your most demanding tasks during your best times, which for me are early mornings, and your least important tasks when you have lower energy levels.
6) Eat, sleep and exercise to improve your focus
Routines are key to managing distractions. Routines work because they help you stay structured and disciplined. Routines around the way you eat and drink, sleep and exercise form a big part of your success around focus.
What you eat has a huge impact on your energy levels, and so your focus. There are two kinds of food: food that’s highly processed and burns fast, and food that’s natural and burns slower. It’s the natural foods like fruit and vegetables, nuts and beans that burn more slowly which provide more energy. Similarly drinking water reduces fatigue and increases energy.
Sleeping is important because it rebuilds your energy supplies and your productivity and focus for the next few days. Over time sleeping properly for the right amount of time for you builds energy and sets you up properly for the next day.
Meanwhile, when you exercise, you have more energy and energy is the fuel you burn to stay focused and productive.
7) Control your technology addiction
Most people who own a smart phone are addicted. Watch in any public place and people are constantly checking messages, surfing social media and occasionally taking phone calls. This addiction destroys your focus because the addiction becomes the focus. Everything else comes second to the smart phone and the world it contains. If you are trying to focus on getting something done, turn your smart phone off and don’t turn it on and become distracted until you have achieved your goal. It is more productive to use it as a reward for your focus once the task has been completed, or if it’s a bigger task then as a balance to improve productivity – 50 minutes on the job and 10 minutes on the phone.
Being focused and achieving your goals and targets is a big part of being productive and, if its part of a routine or habit it becomes a big part of you being successful. You really need to focus (!!) on ways to develop routines that avoid distractions and diversions.
For more on managing distractions and building mental toughness contact us.