So … many … distractions. From environmental distractions (that colleague talking loudly on the phone) to digital distractions (that Tweet you made before lunch that you can’t stop checking on) to social distractions (the person at the next desk who wants to tell you all about her weekend), there’s always something to drag us away from our work. Some reports suggest we’re distracted every 40 seconds from our work, while others point out that it can take us nearly half an hour to settle back to work again after an interruption. In the Finding Your Focus series, we’ll look at a different kind of distraction each month, and give you tips on how to block out the background noise, and find your flow at work.
Beating your distraction habit
Are you a day-dreamer? A serial social-media checker? Or maybe you think you’re one of those rare unicorns who are actually good at multitasking. Mental distractions are those little thoughts and tasks that pull us away from what we’re supposed to be doing. For me, it’s the endless to-do list – pay that bill, set up a playdate for the kids, answer some emails, jot down some meal plans. These things feel important, so it’s easy to forget they’re not urgent. Before you know it, you’ve broken focus “just for a moment”, only to return to your work with your concentration shattered. Ex-Apple and Microsoft consultant Linda Stone calls it continuous partial attention. But fortunately, there are ways to beat it.
Set the agenda
Meetings are a classic time for people’s minds to wander. If you’ve called the meeting, start with a clear, shared agenda, and don’t let people derail it! Make it clear that you will be sticking to the agenda. During any open discussion, let people know immediately if their talking point is outside of the scope of the meeting.
Check-in before you start
Start meetings with the practice of checking in. Give each participant in the meeting a few moments to share what they are thinking about and what their current mindset is. This brief opportunity to reflect can help people clear personal distractions out of the way, and focus on the job at hand.
Keep yourself on track
As a meeting participant, it can be even easier to find your mind drifting. To avoid mental distractions, start by declining to attend meetings that are not really relevant to you (if you possibly can). Resist the temptation to check your email by placing devices out of sight, and if you bring a notepad, place the pen on the table unless you’re taking notes. Try to maintain eye contact with the person speaking, as a cue to keep yourself focused.
For people who find they generally struggle with attention, such as adults with ADD or ADHD, Monster suggests a number of tactics for staying focused, from making sure you’ve had a snack, to doing some physical exercise before the meeting starts.
Meditate for a minute
Even when you’re on your own in front of a desk, it can be difficult to concentrate. If you find your mind jumping around, do some deep breathing or mediation, in order to refresh and refocus your mind.
Ask yourself to commit
When some new task or to-do comes into mind, find some mental clarity by asking yourself “Where should my focus be?” Whenever you realise you’re getting distracted, use the question to recommit to the task you need to concentrate on.
Stop the tickle
But what about those little distractions that tickle away at your brain? If you’re constantly thinking of other things you could be doing, promise yourself to make time for it later. Whether it’s writing your shopping list or checking your social media, setting aside a specific time to do it later will help your brain to focus on the here and now.
In the next part of Finding Your Focus, we’ll be looking at all the ways you can beat digital distractions, from those ever-open browser tabs, to the siren song of your smartphone.
Erin O’Loughlin is an Australian writer and translator, currently living in Berlin