By Kim Soko Schaefer
Focus is the act of concentrating your attention or activity on something. One thing. It means you’ve chosen one thing, and said ‘no thank you’ to everything else in this moment.
But that is easier said than done. what happens when you can’t focus on that one thing, because you get distracted?
Digital distractions are real. Even with the best intentions, we can find ourselves loosing our entire work day to things that are really nonessential, that don’t move the needle at all, that make zero to little impact on our really important goals in work, life and beyond.
So what’s a girl to do? Choose to remove digital distractions from your day.
But it won’t be easy. So to start, figure out ‘why’ it’s worth the struggle. Because fighting against distraction is going to be tough. You’ll be fighting against the latest science, research and best ideas money can buy. So let’s get motivated. (Then I’ll tell you how to do it).
Why it's important to remove digital distractions while you work
You'll be more productive
Obviously. Think of all the time you waste checking your email, text messages, social feeds and favorite blogs?
A common denominator among Americans is our ability to be ‘busy.’ Everyone is always busy. But are we, really?
If you’re writing an article then stop to check a text message, you lose the amount of time it takes to read and respond to that text message, but you also lose the time it takes to recover from the switching cost, or the energy you lose from switching between one activity and another. Switching between tasks KILLS productivity.
One study shows it takes 64 seconds to recover from checking an email, and that we check our email on average, every 5 minutes. If you work an 8 hour day, that’s an hour and a half or 18% of your day, LOST, just on checking to see if you have mail (excluding the time it takes to actually read and respond!).
And it’s worse if the distraction happens when you’re in the middle of deep, focused work like writing, brainstorming, strategizing, etc. One study estimates it will take you 11 minutes to get back to that ‘flow’ state per distraction. No thank you.
You'll make fewer errors
Your brain loses processing power when it’s constantly on the look out for a digital distraction. Scientists call this ‘brain drain’ and even the SIGHT of your phone, even if it’s turned off, can reduce the available cognitive capacity of your brain.
Similarly, ‘attention residue’ results when we’re unable to stop focusing on one task when asked to begin focusing on something new, resulting in impaired performance for both tasks.
If you’re doing something simple like data entry, a distraction of just 2 seconds can double the amount of errors you make in your work once your return–about the amount of time it takes to glance at your phone.
Being in this mode of constant lookout means you’re always on. Having to pay attention to everything, means you’re not paying attention to anything, resulting in more errors.
You'll be more creative
You are your most creative self when your brain is the default mode or when you activate your parasympathetic nervous system. But the default mode requires a calm mind. Experienced meditators are found to have strong default mode networks. And digital distractions rip us right out of this mode and into ‘alert’ mode.
When you take time away from your screen, and from the digital distractions they create, you can regain a sense of peace and tranquility. Doing so will turn on the parts of your brain that help you form connections, find meaning, and inspire great ideas.
You'll listen and learn better
Do you bring your laptop to meetings or lectures? Don’t! Studies now show that doing so prevents you from absorbing the information you hear (in part due to digital distractions). More surprising is that this was also true if someone near you brought a laptop, even if you didn’t! The mere proximity of the device impairs our cognitive ability.
So if you like to take digital notes, go old school and bring a pad and paper. Then type up your notes afterward. The repetition will help you remember more anyway and you won’t have to worry about being distracted and not listening.
You'll be a better parent
It’s not just at work where digital distractions are getting in the way. Studies now show that parents with a screen in their face all day are disrupting the social and emotional development of their infants. No surprise here, and also, NO JUDGEMENT. I’m actually typing these words right now, while staring at a screen, with my 2 month old newborn in my arms (she’s sleeping).
But the reality is, all the focus on ‘screen time’ and ‘parenting’ has to do with how much time we put our kids in front of a screen. But let’s be real. Why do you think they want more screen time? They’re just mirroring their parents’ behavior. I’m 100% guilty of this and I absolutely don’t have an answer. All I can do is be more mindful of it, and I recommend you do as well.
You'll be calmer
Habitual distractions result in a brain that constantly feels like it has to be on alert. This is why studies also show that people that switch tasks more often are shown to have higher rates of stress.
When you give yourself the gift of peace and quiet away from your screen, your brain can return to it’s default mode and your body can finally relax. So in addition to being more productive, more effective, less stressed, more creative, and more present in your daily life…you’ll also be more calm.
Sounds nice doesn’t it? So let’s give it a try, here’s how…
Tips to help you avoid digital distractions
I’ve scoured the internet, asked all my followers, friends and fellow community members what their best tips are for avoiding digital distractions at work, and rounded them up below.
The bottom line: make it difficult to be distracted or to search for digital distractions.
We do want is obvious, easy, attractive and satisfying. If you make it difficult, you’re less likely to continue the habit of checking and wasting time and more likely to stay focused. Bonus points if you can figure out how to take away the joy of the notification and you’ll discover the joy in getting your work done.
Turn off all notifications
Start here. Go to your phone, right now, and click on SETTINGS > NOTIFICATIONS > AND TURN OFF ALL NOTIFICATIONS. ALL OF THEM.
I promise, you don’t need them. You already have VERY strong habits for checking the apps you need to check. You will still feel drawn to checking them all.the.time. The notifications are like the extra whipped cream and sugar coated cherry on top of an extra large banana split. You’ll still get your sugar high without them.
For me personally, turning off the little red notice in my mail app was a game changer! As I’m sure you all know, those little red notices are particularly designed to grab our attention, keep it, hold it, and reward our brains. Do yourself a favor and get rid of them all.
Limit how often you check social and email
This is probably the #1 response I received from others. Figure out some sort of schedule or ‘budget’ for checking your biggest distractions, and stick to it. Easier said than done.
I’ve tried using the Inbox When Ready extension for Chrome, and it works pretty well to start with. It keeps track of how many minutes you spend in your inbox and will ‘lock you out’ when you’re reached your limit. Don’t worry, you can easily still access it in reality, but the extra step at least forces you to think, and be mindful about what you’re really doing in there.
You can also put time limits on your apps using your phone’s setting. Check your screen time analysis and limit the apps that are sucking up all your time. Better yet, delete the game apps that provide virtually no REAL value to your life. Replace that time with meditation, reading, writing or practicing gratitude. You’ll feel much better.
Other people recommended setting a timer and limiting your inbox or social media time. 30 minutes to an hour for your inbox and 10-20 minutes for social. You can set another timer to let you know when you can check again next in an hour or so.
If you’re thinking ‘there’s no way I can limit emails to 30 minutes, I have too many!’ I recommend prioritizing them and just focusing on the 3-5 emails that are most critical, ignoring the rest.
Whatever you do, schedule your email and social breaks, and stop checking in whenever your eye wanders to those tabs or your boredom inspires you to pick up your phone.
Unsubscribe, unfriend, unfollow
If you want less notifications (assuming you haven’t turned them off) or less temptation to check, clean out your digital life. I’m ruthless when it comes to unsubscribing from unnecessary emails, unfollowing people that no longer bring me value, and unfriending people and organizations (digitally, that is) that don’t bring me joy.
Marie Kondo has inspired us to clean out every drawer in our homes. Take that same advice and clean out your digital junk drawers as well. This should minimize the time you need to check email and social feeds and give you more time to focus on everything you SHOULD be doing.
Keep your phone out of sight and arm's reach
They say it’s best to put your phone in another room, but I find all I really need to do is keep it out of arm’s reach. If I have to physically stand up and go get my phone, I won’t. Unless it’s ringing persistently (I have kids, it could be an emergency).
I work from home so this is pretty easy for me. If you work at an office, give your phone to a friend a few desks over or put it a basket or something in front of your desk (so that people walking by don’t accidentally step on it).
Bonus points if you can put your phone on airplane mode and set the timer for an hour or two so you really don’t get distracted!
When you go to bed, leave your phone in another room. It includes all the anxieties of the work day: your to do list, your inbox, your social status, etc. By not taking your phone with you to bed, you’re also leaving your work behind. This should allow you to sleep better and wake up with more energy and more focus for the day’s tasks.
Minimize all other tabs and work in full screen mode
Regardless of what I’m doing I ALWAYS keep my inbox, social and any other ‘trigger’ sites on their own set of tabs and minimized throughout the day. I only open them when I need to, but if they’re easily accessible, or if I see I have new messages, I’ll check them constantly.
When I need to do deep or focused work, I work in full screen mode with only that single tab or screen visible. Again, out of sight, out of mind. This helps me to focus on the task at hand and not get distracted by an article I started reading an hour ago but never finished because I was interrupted by a ping from somewhere else 🙂
Move all time-siucking apps to the last page on your phone screen
I had to delete all the games from my smart phone, and I’ve moved all the time-sucking apps like Pinterest and Instagram to the last app screen on my phone. You can go a step further and hide them in a folder and name it something like ‘WASTE OF TIME’. The more difficult and undesirable it is for you to find and access them, the less likely it is you’ll reach for them.
We often go to these apps out of habit. And we often place them on our phone’s home screen within easy striking distance of our thumb. Moving them even a few swipes away can drastically reduce the time you spend on them.
In their place, move forward your meditation app, your fitness app, a photo of what matters most in your life. If you want to write more, move your notes or google docs app. If you want to read more, your kindle app. Make the habits you want to focus on more obvious and easy.
Schedule your day
This should help with limiting how often you check your emails and social. But it’s also important to block out large sections of your day when you know you have an important task that requires your undivided attention.
When you schedule for it, you can go beyond your normal tactics to avoid digital distractions and enter ‘max indistractable mode.’ Let anyone know in advance that may be trying to get a hole of you, put your phone in airplane mode, or turn it off, or lock it away. Put your timer on and get to work. Nothing can stop you if you remove all obstacles to focus.
I put my top 1-3 priorities on TOP of my to do list every week so I can stay mindful of what I’m SUPPOSED to be working on. It’s a reminder of how I SHOULD be spending my time, regardless of what I’m actually doing.
When you set an intention to focus on what matters most, and stay mindful of your intention, you’ll be amazed at how focused you can stay. Mantras help here. “I stay focused on my priority” helps me. I repeat it every time I hear a ding or ping or a buzz. The more often you repeat it, the more clearly your mind will hear you and listen.
Often we seek out distractions when we get bored. Instead of mindlessly losing an hour down a YouTube hole, consciously walk around the block for 15 minutes when you’re feeling you need to be re-energized. Research shows that taking a break every few hours is one of the best ways to help you focus.
The Pomodoro method is a common way to increase productivity. It’s simple
The idea is that you never get bored, and you’re constantly getting rewarded for completing your task of working for 25 minutes (which is a relatively EASY task to complete). The constant rewards motivate you to keep going and it’s easier to resist the temptation for digital distractions because you know you can do that during your break anyway.
Establishing a morning routine for the first hour of the day can give you more energy, make you more productive and keep you more positive throughout the day. It sets the tone and puts you in the right mindset to be able to avoid digital distractions and stay focused.
Be sure to include breakfast in that routine, as researches show that those who eat breakfast have more energy throughout the day than those who wait till lunch. And do you know what requires a lot of energy: your brain. If you want to stay focused, eat breakfast.
This is ESPECIALLY important if you work from home. It can be so easy to just roll out of bed whenever and start working in your PJs. DON’T DO THIS. You’ll be less productive, more easily distracted, and probably end up working way more hours than if you worked at an office. Boundaries people, boundaries.
My best advice with a morning routine, delay checking your phone for as long as possible! I used to be part of 46% of Americans that checked their phone first thing in the morning. Now I meditate and it’s changed my life for the better. You do whatever will inspire you to have a great day, just don’t let it be checking your phone.
If you’re used to reaching for your phone on your nightstand, move it somewhere out of reach and replace it with something to remind you of the habit you want to replace it with. Try a book, or sticky note that says ‘meditate’ or ‘yoga’ or whatever you’re trying to add to your morning routine.
If you have contacts that bombard you with texts, direct messages, and emails 24/7, you should set expectations with those people that you’re not always going to respond immediately. And more importantly, that it’s not personal. If that doesn’t work, you can always turn on the ‘do not disturb’ feature on your iPhone for your focused work time.
This might be more difficult with your boss or colleagues, but it is possible. Especially, if you’re also expected to do focused work throughout the day. Maybe you have to alert your people in advance with a quick message “Hey, just a heads up I’m turning off all notifications for the next hour or two to get some work done. I’ll respond when I get back.” People will understand, more so than you think.
After a while of setting expectations, people will stop wondering where you are. They’ll know. And maybe you’ll even inspire them to do the same.
This is a bit more drastic, but I like it. It comes from one of my favorite sources on staying focused, productive and mindful of what matters most: James Clear. Here’s what he has to say
“Every Monday, my assistant would reset the passwords on all my social media accounts, which logged me out on each device. All week I worked without distraction. On Friday, she would send me the new passwords. I had the entire weekend to enjoy what social media had to offer until Monday morning when she would do it again. (If you don’t have an assistant, team up with a friend or family member and reset each other’s passwords each week.)” (from Atomic Habits).
Sometimes you just need to go cold turkey. I’ve never done it, but many people swear by a digital detox: no computer, no phone, no tv for whatever period of time you think is necessary…usually a week, sometimes a month.
This might not be possible if you, like almost every single American, rely on technology for our livelihoods. But you can contain your digital footprint to work…try a digital detox at home.
If that doesn’t work for you, try a social media detox.
Knowing is half the battle. Just by reading this article you’re getting closer to helping yourself be ‘indistractible’ (to quote Greg McKeown in Essentialism). When you’re done with this article, open your phone’s settings and check your usage. What apps are sucking up most of your time? Can you delete them? If not, move them. Set a goal to reduce your screen time by just 1% per week.
Try using a free time tracking app to track your behaviors during the work day for a day, a week, a month. Are you staying ‘busy’ or ‘productive’? What can you do to change?
Or use a sort of habit journal instead. This can be as simple as having a sticky note or piece of paper, and putting down a tick, or line, every time you get digitally distracted.
Lastly, don’t forget to reward yourself for sticking with your intentions and staying focused. Our brain acts very much like a puppy learning new tricks. The more often we complete a behavior, the better we get at it. The better the reward at the end of the behavior, the more likely we are to do that behavior again.
Rewards can be things like checking non essential emails, reading interesting articles, checking social feeds, going for a walk, doing some yoga or watching your favorite show. I try to let my rewards coincide with lunch, or running errands, or waiting for something. This is why the pomodoro method works so well. 25 minutes of productivity, 5 minutes of reward, repeat.
If you enjoyed this article, you might also enjoy these that I looked to for inspiration and information:
- It’s time to prioritize our mental health in our everyday lives by Arriana Huffington in Thrive Global
- Parenting while distracted by Arriana Huffington in Thrive Global
- Hide your phone when you’re trying to work. Seriously. By Tim Herrera in the New York Times
- If you want to use your phone less, figure out why by Marcello Russo, Ariane Ollier-Malaterre and Gabriele Morandin in Harvard Business Review
- Stop letting modern distractions steal your attention by Erik Winkowski in the New York Times
- Deep Work by Cal Newport