How to stay focused at work? 7 tips to avoid distractions
August 12, 2021
As we live in a world oversaturated with information, distractions ambush us from all directions. Additionally, the current epidemiological situation means that many of us work and study remotely. In this situation, the ability to stay focused has become one of the most important. Eric Barker, a famous business writer, called concentration a “21st-century ultimate” that needs to be exercised and mastered to perfection.
Table of Contents:
What is concentration?
Concentration is the basis of the so-called deep work. It applies to both professional and leisure activities, such as language learning or reading books.
Cal Newport, the author of the best-selling book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, defines it as “focusing without distraction on a cognitively demanding task.”
And he concludes: The ability to do deep work (in other words, to work in concentration) is becoming less and less, while its value for our economy is increasing. Therefore, the few who acquire this skill and make it the basis of their working life will be successful… That’s the state in which you can learn complicated things quickly and [in which you can] produce output at a much higher rate and a much higher level of quality than more distracted work.
Deep work means focusing without distraction on a cognitively demanding task
Concentration is also the axis of the so-called flow state. The creator of this concept is Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, an American psychologist of Hungarian origin. The flow state is being fully focused on the activity one is currently doing. Apart from the fact that we do not receive any external stimuli in this state, we also enjoy what we do and, in a way, “lose ourselves” in this activity.
The flow state means being fully focused on the activity one is currently doing
Why the ability to stay focused is crucial?
Having this skill means that we are able to perform complex tasks and projects, generate ideas and solutions, and easily assimilate knowledge. As a result, we are more creative and productive and use our intellectual potential to its fullest.
What affects concentration?
Our concentration is most often influenced by external factors that do not come from our mind but the world around us and – in most cases – can be controlled and changed.
But, of course, there may be times when your inability to focus is influenced by internal factors such as your current emotional state, negative attitude, lack of motivation, and even lack of inspiration. In the worst case scenario it is an illness or a personal problem.
Mind-wandering – the opposite of staying focused
Speaking of inner distractions, one of the more frequent manifestations of them is mind-wandering. It usually happens when we are bored or tired or we lack the motivation to do what we should at a given moment.
David Rock, an author of Your Brain at Work, explains in his article the reasons for wandering thoughts:
The brain loves to know what’s going on in the social environment, and it’s incredibly important to our survival to know what’s happening socially. Whether it’s someone walking past your desk or someone sending an email, we can’t help but check out who that person is, are they okay? It’s a knee-jerk reaction.
In turn, neuroscientist Amishi Jha, in her speech for TED Talks, says that the reason for wandering is the mind’s tendency to travel through time (like a music player):
We can rewind the mind to the past to reflect on events that have already happened. Or we can go to the future to plan for the next thing that we want to do. And we land in this mental time travel mode of the past or the future very frequently, often without our awareness.
Amishi emphasizes that the opposite of a wandering mind is the mindful mind. In that case we pay attention to the present moment. To prevent wandering, you can have a notebook and write down your thoughts right away. This way, they no longer trouble your mind and you can bring your attention back to the present moment.
The University of California Irvine survey shows that it takes 23 minutes to regain focus after being distracted
7 tips on how to stay focused and avoid distractions
1. Take care of a well-organized workplace or study area
Try to find a space that you will use only for work or study. If you change it, try to recreate the conditions you used to work in as much as possible. Don’t forget to ventilate the room. Prepare all necessary tools and materials for work/learning. You should avoid keeping unnecessary objects there.
Usually, when it comes to distractions, it is mainly auditory. What about visuals? According to an article in the Harvard Business Review, researchers at the Princeton University Neuroscience Institute found that when we constantly observe the mess around us, our ability to concentrate decreases.
In addition, when study participants cleaned up clutter in their workstations, they were more likely to regain attention and increase productivity. So you should make sure your workplace is clean and that you don’t have any unnecessary personal items around you. Mess makes it almost impossible to concentrate
2. Eliminate distractions
While it is impossible to eliminate them all, it is worth limiting or eliminating as many as possible. Main culprits are usually phones, e-mails, social media, notifications, meetings, visual distractions, programs or unnecessary apps.
Main distractions at work:
According to a survey published by The Economist Intelligence Unit and Dropbox, there are several key distractions faced by remote and on-site workers.
- face-to-face interruptions from colleagues – 34%,
- reading and responding to e-mails – 29%,
- office distraction (ringing phones, chatty colleagues) – 23%,
- mind wandering – 23%,
- meetings (in-person and virtual) – 21%,
- technical difficulties – 20%,
- non-work/personal activities – 11%.
How to avoid the distractions?
- mute a phone during work or keep it out of range – check it, for example, once an hour, in case you’ve had an important call or message;
- do not browse social media;
- do not check your e-mail every moment and do not reply to messages;
- track your work time and analyze how much you actually worked and what distracted you – using TimesheetKiller. For more: TimesheetKiller – AI-Based automatic free time tracking software.
Of course, distraction can also result from professional activities, such as checking mail or attending meetings. When these kinds of activities are a necessary part of your work, include them in your to-do list and schedule so they don’t take up more time than required.
Conversely, if they are not work-related, block them. Consider installing applications on your phone, tablet or computer that can help you. They can block social media, online games and websites such as YouTube, Netflix, Amazon, Twitter, text messages and even e-mails. Some of the most popular social media blockers are Freedom, AppBlock, FocusMe, and Focus.
3. Make a to-do list
The worst enemy of concentration is ignoring the things you need to focus on, so start by making a list of tasks. Creating such a list is a “start” to the state of maximum concentration, and it is best if it becomes your ritual.
After making your list, select two or three key tasks and place them at the top. Then rank the rest of the items according to their importance.
It allows you to cope with urgent tasks when your brain is fresh and has high energy levels. It can be like a table of contents: chapter headings (defining a general job towards a broader topic, e.g. learning English) and subsections (breaking it down into specific activities, e.g. write down and remember 30 words).
Finally, check off completed tasks – this activity allows you to assess the scope of the work done at a glance, gives a lot of satisfaction and “closes the topic”.
4. Create mind maps and visual notes
When drawing a mind map or making a visual note while working/studying, we focus on activities and with doubled strength.
Visualizing thoughts with maps containing keywords and their interconnections and simple schematic drawings helps acquire, associate, and organize work/learning and later recreate all the knowledge.
It is also a great way not only to focus your attention but also for individual creative brainstorming. If you want to know more about mind mapping, check out this article.
5. Focus on similar tasks and avoid multitasking
When you have trouble staying focused, multitasking (jumping from one type of thinking to another) is not advisable. It doesn’t make your work any more effective or productive. Instead of dealing with several tasks at once, focus on just one.
You can also try to group them by selecting ones that are similar to each other. In doing so, you will only think about the task at hand: how to do it, what resources you ned, and when the deadline is. It makes the transitions between tasks smoother, and you may find yourself doing a lot more. Your concentration will also improve.
Even if you are distracted by the outside world while performing one task, it will be easier for you to redirect your focus than when you are multitasking. If you tend to multitask, read more on the topic in this article.
6. Be aware of your emotional state
It is worth considering what emotions we are experiencing at a given moment and accepting them as they are. Then focus on feelings that should be relevant to your current job.
Finally, you can answer the question: what I achieved up to now and what will I achieve in the future thanks to keeping my full concentration from this point on.
By being aware of where you are going, you will have the right motivation and a positive outlook on what you are doing. Visualizing the effect of the completed work may help your motivation and willingness to act.
7. Make yourself calm
As David Rock, mentioned below, notes: We need to quiet down the brain overall to be able to notice quiet insights.
So, when you have trouble concentrating, change something or do something you enjoy. Rock says refreshing your mind not only improves your concentration but also helps you make better decisions.
Ways to quiet down:
- changing your surrounding;
- closing the door to your office;
- informing others about the time of total concentration;
- breaks between blocks of work/study sessions;
Like blocks or sessions, you should also plan the breaks. During this time, you can eat a meal, do light exercise (warming up, stretching), listen to music, go for a short walk or a quick nap. A break must fulfill two conditions: to relieve the mind and strengthen the body.
- wearing noise-blocking headphones;
Even when we try not to pay attention to background noises, such as colleagues talking loudly, ringing phones or noises from the street, it is easy to get distracted. Stocking up on a pair of headphones helps to reduce noise. You can listen to the sounds of white noise or peaceful music – whatever keeps you focused.
Nowadays, without the ability to concentrate, you won’t be efficient, productive or successful. That’s why it’s important to master the ability to focus. Follow the simple tips and tricks like the ones we’ve outlined above and you will always be at the top of your game. Knowing what distracts you during work or studying will help you focus on the most important tasks each day, week and month.