How To Eliminate Distractions and Reclaim Your Focus

Haris Mohammad

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Having wasted several years of my life in the service of endless distractions, I know exactly what it means to suffer from the poverty of attention. I have a huge stack of failures and disappointments and the accompanying guilt to show for it.

The thing is no matter what you want to achieve in your life — success, wealth, or happiness — the ability to focus is your greatest asset, and distractions are your greatest enemies.

But when you have quit your job to pursue a life of your dreams, you just can’t afford the luxury of being too distracted. Even if it takes you over 5 years to realize that (yeah, I really took my time). I had to find a way to eliminate distractions from my life and do some deep work.

Here are 5 ideas that helped me and that you can use to do exactly that.

Having a plan

If you don’t have a roadmap to guide you through your days and weeks, it’s only natural that you will gravitate towards activities that are easy or promise instant gratification.

For years, I had been looking at it the wrong way. I thought I was not doing the important things because I was distracted. But, in reality, I was distracted because I didn’t have a clear plan or schedule.

So, your fight against distractions begins with putting in place a good plan for each day. It doesn’t mean you must plan every minute or hour of your day. Start small, maybe with one or two hours a day, and then build on it going forward.

And it cannot be a vague plan like “I would work for two hours tomorrow.” That’s as good as not having a plan at all. Your plan must include specific time slots and intended activities.

The magic of doing nothing

But as I realized later, having a plan alone doesn’t solve the problem.

I was not used to long stretches (or even an hour) of focused effort. So when I sat down to work, within a few minutes I would feel the need for a short break. The problem? It was never a short break. One thing would lead to another and before I could realize, there was no desire or energy left to do the real stuff.

So, the next time you sit down for work and feel like taking a short unplanned break, it’s fine. But if you are not doing what you are supposed to do, do nothing. Sit idle, relax your eyes and mind a bit, or maybe, stand and stretch yourself for a while.

You will feel the urge to go for your phone. Or open up something interesting in your browser. Don’t give in to that craving unless you want to get distracted. If you need help with that, try leaving the phone in another room and using apps and browser extensions like Strict Workflow and Block Site.

Not allowing something else to capture your attention, makes it easier for you to return to your task with full attention. And that is the key to sustained focus over long durations.

“Do not disturb”

When you are focused on your work, the last thing you need is your phone beeping with a promise of some dopamine hit or someone stopping by for something trivial.

So even if you don’t put your phone away, turn it silent. And if you share your working space with others, put up a sign so that others know you do not wish to be disturbed. I place the book Deep Work (by Cal Newport) on my desk to let my wife know. Although sometimes I think it’s more to remind myself of what I am supposed to be doing.

The right environment

Any strategy to fight distractions won’t be successful if it does not address the need for a suitable environment.

James Clear says,

“In the long-run (and often in the short-run), your willpower will never beat your environment.”

Here are a few things you can do to create an environment that is perfect for focus and deep work.

  1. Eliminate or minimize potential sources of distractions. I have already mentioned how important it is to put your phone away and to let others know you are not to be disturbed. But maybe there’s a photo, a book, or anything that triggers distracting thoughts and draws your mind away from your task.
  2. Ideally, you should have a dedicated workspace — a place where you do nothing but work. Your mind is very responsive to environmental cues and so if you are in a place that you associate only with work, focus and motivation come naturally. And it doesn’t have to be a separate office or something. It could be a work desk or a corner of your room where you sit and work.
  3. It’s also important to have everything you will need to complete your tasks close to you when you sit down to work. Otherwise, you will need to get up and move around looking for things. And that will not only break the flow but can also lead to other distractions.

The current crisis has made it more difficult for some people, especially those with kids, to create a good environment. But hey, these times won’t last forever. At the same time, with so many people forced to work from home, it is more important than ever to use these ideas and to come up with creative ways to apply them.

Momentum

The thing that frustrated me the most was that every time I managed to settle into a routine and entered that state where I was getting things done and making progress, life would throw something at me to disrupt the flow.

It could be anything — issues with my computer, someone visiting us, sickness — just about anything that prevented me from focusing and working on my tasks for 2–3 days. And that was enough to mark the end of the good phase and often, the end of the project. I would find it difficult to start again, doubts would emerge from nowhere or other activities and projects would start to look better and more promising. And soon, I would be back to square one wondering what to do and how to do it.

The lesson I learned from the many repetitions of this cycle was that momentum is your much-needed friend when it comes to focus and productivity.

So, try to preserve the momentum as much as you can. If you don’t have much time, find at least 20–30 minutes to work on your tasks. It’s not about how long you work but that you keep the habit going. That you keep the chain unbroken.

“When it comes to momentum, frequency of execution is perhaps more important than the duration of execution. Even if you’re working on your project for just an hour a day that’s enough to keep your objectives and recent activities top of mind. Then, when you sit down to work on it again, you can slip quickly back into the flow,” writes Jocelyn K. Glei of 99U.

So if your computer has issues, try working from your mobile or tab, if you have one. If something’s critical to your workflow, have a spare one or some other back-up plan.

And if for some reason, you do come to a halt, be committed to starting again as soon as you can. Even if it is with small and easy tasks. Remember that all the different distractions are just a consequence of the loss of momentum and so, not to be taken seriously. They have a strong tendency to disappear once you get back in the groove.

It also explains why it’s so important to persist through the first 10–20 minutes every time you sit to work on something. Those few minutes are the most difficult with all kinds of things popping up in your head. But as you get past that phase and gain momentum, you enter the flow state.

To summarize

In an attention economy where being distracted is easier than ever, mastery over your attention is a superpower you must develop. To do that —

  1. Plan your days and weeks.
  2. During unscheduled breaks, relax but don’t let your attention shift to anything that can hook you.
  3. Put away your phone and let others know you are not to be disturbed.
  4. Creating a good environment to work in.
  5. Be committed to building and preserving your momentum.

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