How to avoid distractions, get better focus and get things done

Image of distracting cat

Do you know how to avoid distractions?

The problem

If you don’t know how to avoid distractions, you will struggle to keep your focus when you are doing something important.

Of course, that statement applies to… well… everybody.

Let’s face it. There are a lot of things that compete for our attention every second of every day. You get to work in the morning, switch on your computer and check your emails before your first coffee is finished. While you’re reading a funny email from a friend – it was about cats; cats are always funny – your smart phone beeps and vibrates with a text message/BBM/iMessage/WhatsApp/WhatEver from your wife. So you read that… as you open up your Facebook Newsfeed to see the latest pictures of your cousin’s first few days in New Zealand/India/Brakpan. Then the phone rings…

Before you know it, it is 10:00 already and you haven’t done a single productive thing.

The culprit

A 2005 study by the University of London, UK, found that the bombardment of information caused by modern technology and communication devices substantially reduces a person’s IQ and their ability to focus on tasks while they’re being bombarded. An office worker who is constantly interrupted can lose as much mental sharpness as a person who loses a full night’s sleep. Alarmingly, while the smoking of marijuana reduced people’s IQ by 5 points on average, the constant barrage of information slashed their IQ on average by 10 points.

(On the plus side, information overload cannot get you arrested. Also, it doesn’t cause munchies.)

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How to avoid distractions

Ironically, to avoid distractions, you have to focus on avoiding distractions.

More specifically, you have to get into the habit of turning off the devices and attention stealers that fumble your focus. David Rock of the NeuroLeadership Institute says the best way to avoid distractions is to simply switch off all communication devices while you are doing work that requires focus. Remove the temptation.

It sounds easy in theory. It is hard in practice. Not impossible. Just hard. A little discipline and a lot of bravery are required.

Take your email, for example. Because you often get emails from people like your friends and family, your brain is hardwired to want to focus on it immediately. Conversely, when you are doing work that requires more focus, your brain has a tendency to wander off like a 4-year old in a shopping mall. In other words, where your brain finds it easy to focus on funny emails about cats, it struggles to focus on things like important financial reports.

The problem is that it can take as much as 25 minutes to regain your focus on an important task after you were interrupted by something like, say, a funny email about cats from a friend. These distractions eat away an average of 2.1 hours per day. That’s almost 11 hours a week just daydreaming.

This begs the question, when is it…

… the best time to read funny emails about cats?

Not surprisingly, early in the morning is often the best time of the day to do the things that require a lot of focus. Your mind is still quiet and relaxed.

This means that you will do very well if you read the financial reports – or anything else you need to concentrate on – first thing in the morning. Funny emails are best left for later in the day when you are getting tired. Your mind will have no trouble concentrating on them even if you are tired already. Unfortunately most people have this the wrong way around.

In summary

You’ll get so much more done if you switch off your cellphone and email for a while each morning while you focus on important tasks. After that, you have the rest of the day for funny cat emails.

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2 Responses to “How to avoid distractions, get better focus and get things done”

  1. Etienne January 6, 2013 at 18:03 #

    Great insight! I will apply this in my own business immediately

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