We live in a hyper-connected world. We’re just a few clicks away from our friends and colleagues on the other side of the globe. We know what our favorite celebrities are up to with a few taps on our phones. We can pretty much learn everything we want to know about in a matter of seconds.
And that’s great. We can all agree that technology and connectivity have brought us a lot of good. We can also agree, however, that it’s given us plenty of ways to get distracted. Picture the scene (you all know it well, no doubt)—you’re sitting at your computer, trying to complete a work task you’re not all that excited about. The next thing you know, it’s 40 minutes later, and you’re down the rabbit hole of YouTube videos, “where are they now” articles, and cake recipes.
Sound familiar? Thought so.
Hyper this / hyper that. All made to distract.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the average adult spent 13 of their 17 waking hours staring at a screen (EHC). It makes total sense—we were mostly in lockdown and needed entertainment. The truth is, though, that although technology makes our lives easier, it also has an incredible capacity to distract us. Think about it. You have everything that piques your interest on-demand, probably sitting right next to you in a tiny, flat rectangle. It’s hard not to engage with that.
The temptation to allow yourself to give in to procrastination doesn’t go away at work or on a business trip. We spend our workday on a computer. Usually with multiple open tabs. Are we really claiming that every one of those tabs is related to the task we’re working on? Or is even work-related at all? Back in 2010, Google’s then-CEO Eric Schmidt said that “every two days, we create as much information as we did from the dawn of civilization until 2003” (TechCrunch). With so much data and stimulus out there, it’s no wonder that we find it difficult to focus. In fact, since the outbreak of the global health crisis last March, Google searches for “how to focus better” rose by 110% (NS)!
Buzz… Buzz… Pay attention to me!
Before you can figure out how to get your brain to focus, you need to understand the “what” and the “why”. What is “focus”? What does it really mean?
“Focus is the ability to concentrate on cues inside or outside of you in a deliberate way.”Anne-Laure Le Cunff
“Focus is a matter of deciding what things you’re not going to do”John Carmack
What these quotes are trying to tell us is that focus is about prioritization. It’s about choosing what to hone in on—and, importantly, what to ignore. You can’t be focused on everything, nor can you be focused 100% of the time. It’s all about finding the right balance between focus and distraction and using that for your own benefit.
It’s not fair to say that technology is the driving force behind distraction. There are so many reasons you can’t focus beyond technology, like:
- Your thoughts and emotions
- Your physical sensations
- Background noise from your house, office, or the street
- Other people going about their lives
- Pets coming to say hello
- Your mind wandering
But technology does also have a part to play. Think about it. You can get notifications from a million different places like text messages, WhatsApp, Instagram, Slack, email, and phone calls, to name a few. Each one with its own unique sound, buzzing noise, or melody. In the workplace, specifically, there’s also the added tension of needing to show people that you’re present and working by responding to these instant messages.
The secret recipe to concentrate better
Alright, so it’s not exactly a secret recipe per se. It’s just a compilation of research and tips by the likes of Harvard, Forbes, and the BBC among others. If you’re having trouble focusing at work because there’s so much going on around you, try to follow the tips below.
So, here goes:
Instant messaging doesn’t require an instant response
Your dedication and commitment to your job should not be measured in how quickly you respond to an I.M. Turn off those notifications and give yourself the chance to concentrate. You’ll see, you’ll be less distracted with fewer pings, pongs, buzzes, and rings. You might even have the chance to, well, work. Oh, and I shouldn’t have to say this. But turn off social media notifications. You don’t need to get back to your friend Becky and the video she sent you of French Bulldog in a tutu right away.
Not all who wander are lost
Yes, daydreaming and allowing your mind to wander are actually good things. Concentration uses a network of brain regions, and that requires a lot of energy. Part of this network is your prefrontal cortex, which helps you resist distractions and the temptation to do something more fun. Yeah, that’s a pretty tough job. Your mind wandering is a way for that network to relax, unwind, and recharge. So, let your mind wander! If you’re big on time management, why not fit in a few short breaks to allow yourself to think about anything? There is a difference between accidental and intentional mind wandering— and only one is actually bad for your productivity. You can guess which.
Breathe in and “oommmmm”
Neuropsychologist Kim Willment says that “practicing mindfulness has been shown to rewire the brain so that attention is stronger in everyday life” (Harvard). Mindfulness meditation, wellness, and deep breathing have a lot to do with focusing your mind and attention on the present moment. If you’ve been struggling with an attention deficit for a while, a little bit of brain training to focus through activities like these could be greatly beneficial. Not to mention that it's great for your mental health! Think about downloading apps like Headspace or Calm to help get you started.
This meeting could have been an email
We’ve all thought that before. It’s pretty inevitable that you get called into a meeting that you don’t really see the point of. But try to limit the number of meetings you attend that you can afford to miss and build your meeting schedule around when works for you. Do you usually get more done in the morning? Then organize your meetings for the afternoon, and block your morning off for important tasks and focused work. At TravelPerk, we call that “makers mode”. It’s a time where we limit distractions for ourselves and put all our energy into “making something”.
Give me a break!
If you have a tendency not to take breaks for long periods of time, think again. "Decision fatigue" is a real thing—it's when your ability to reason gets worn down due to frequent decision-making throughout your day. Short breaks can help you with that! In fact, studies show that by pushing our attention span to its limit in this way, your "mental fuel gets burned up" (APA). Take the day one thing at a time, and don't forget to take the breaks you so rightfully deserve. Leave your workspace, do something not-work related. You'll see how quickly you can get back into things.
Eat, sleep, and exercise
Did you know that your brain is made up of 60% fat? Funnily enough, adding more healthy fats to your diet will help you focus better. Things like nuts and avocados for lunch or a snack could really help you buckle down and get things done. You should also think about introducing a 20-30 minute workout routine into your day. Exercise can improve your thinking and boost your memory significantly. Moderate-intensity workouts, like power walking or yoga, are a great way to get the blood pumping so you can refocus. Getting a good night’s sleep is the last piece of the healthy living for focus puzzle. Allowing your mind and body to rest and recuperate from a long day is the most sure-fire way for you to be productive the next day.
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