How to overcome distractions and do what matters to you
We’re living in a paradox.
Technology has transcended our lives. Self-driving cars, personal assistance apps like Siri and Alexa, Social Media algorithms showing us more of what we like — the list goes on.
And this is just the beginning.
In Zero to One, Peter Thiel wrote that globalization without advancement in technology will cause more harm than good. This means that in times to come, tech will play an even greater role in improving the quality of our lives. It won’t take long before Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot becomes a reality.
We’re the creators of a whole new world using technology. But, we’ve become slaves to what we created.
Ask most people what technology means to them and they’ll instantly talk about smartphones. Yes, some may loosely mention the colonization of Mars, VR, self-driving cars and so on.
But that’s it. For most of us, technology means the five-inch touch-screen slot machines in our pockets which govern our lives.
One notification is enough to throw our routine into disarray. And we touch our phones an average of 2,617 times a day, according to research. Can you imagine how many times we get distracted?
We can’t Focus on any task for long, even the task is watching an entire episode of Game of Thrones. We multitask like our lives depend on it. The result? We might do nine tasks in a day but accomplishing nothing meaningful in any of them.
This culture has made us regress as a civilization rather than move forward.
“The smartphones that distract us from our surroundings also distract us from the fact that our surroundings are strangely old.” — Peter Thiel
We’ve lost the delightful skill of focusing on something for extended durations and seeing it through to a meaningful end.
The Hidden Advantages of Focus
Did I mention before that we’re living in a paradox?
Well, here’s another one.
We’re losing the ability to do Deep work. At the same time deep work is becoming an increasingly valuable asset in our zero-sum attention economy.
According to Cal Newport, deep work is ability to perform cognitively demanding tasks that are hard to replicate.
Deep work makes you improve your skills and push your limits. It puts you in control of how you use your time. Through deep work, you enjoy the elusive feeling of satisfaction when you do something meaningful. Through deep work, you strengthen your willpower.
At the core of this asset lies a distraction-free state of mind.
You know this, don’t you? You try hard to focus on an important task. Yet, you often succumb to the temptations of distractions. It’s like smoking — people know it’s bad but they just can’t stop.
But don’t feel alone. You and I are sailing in the same boat. Just like everyone else.
While doing deep work, if I touch my smartphone, I end up browsing social media for around fifteen minutes.
Or, if I have to refer to my diary and find my smartphone beside it, I forget my notebook and waste time on my phone.
I cannot blame technology. If I want to improve my focus, I cannot demand external circumstances to change. Instead, I must rely on my internal locus on control.
How I’ve Learned to Sharpen My Focus
I’ve noticed an interesting phenomenon.
The more I train my mind to focus, the more I strengthen my willpower.
Research psychiatrist George Ainslie defines willpower thus:
“[A] bargaining situation with your expected future self, in which the present choice is a test case for a whole category of probable choices in the future.”
In other words, willpower is the ability to choose a course of actions and stick to them despite obstacles.
According to stoicism, willpower is the only aspect under your control apart from your perceptions and actions.
This willpower is like a muscle, which gets fatigued each time you use it. That’s why you feel drained at the end of a day when you’ve taken many decisions.
To strengthen it, you must train your mind to focus, just like you train your body at the gym. The stronger your willpower, the better you can steer clear of distractions.
I’m not a focus guru. But in the last four years, I’ve come a long way in strengthening my focus and willpower.
Here are six steps I’ve followed (and still do) to get to where I am and to stretch my limits to the next level.
We keep wondering what we must do to become productive. We read self-help posts and try a little bit of this and a little bit of that. In the end though, we have no idea about what works and what doesn’t. If anything, we’re in an even worse condition than before.
There’s an alternative. It’s called not waiting for the ‘right time’ to start taking action.
If you want to start now but don’t know how, here’s a proven technique — inversion.
Inversion is a mental model that makes you think backwards. It involves anticipating that everything has gone wrong, and then taking steps to prevent it from occurring. This works well for Homo Sapiens since negative thinking comes easily to us. It’s easier to think about what you should avoid instead of what you should do.
Here’s how I use inversion to maintain my focus: once every few weeks, I ask myself, “what can I do to distract myself and lose focus completely?”
The answers come flowing in. Working in a noisy place, keeping my phone within reach, checking notifications and emails, being interested in what others do, and so on. Once I’ve identified these toxic actions, I make plans on how I’ll avoid them.
For instance, I’ll keep my phone in another room on silent. I’ll block social media during deep work hours. I’ll work in a quiet place. And so on.
As a result, I’m more productive than I would be if I guzzled mugs of coffee or listened to music.
Takeaway: Instead of trying to improve your focus, ask yourself, “How can I get distracted?” Then take steps to avoid those pitfalls.
2. Turn Off Notifications
Until recently, notifications were my Achilles’ heel. An IM or a Twitter mention were enough to throw me off course for hours.
So I turned off ALL my notifications. Social media, IM, email, apps… all of them.
Now I open the app which I need, complete a task and put the phone away. I still get distracted if I open an app I shouldn’t, but those instances are far lesser.
It felt frightening at first. I wouldn’t know if I received a message, or got tagged on Facebook.
But within two days, I noticed that the world didn’t stop spinning. Life went on just the same for everyone. For me, it became calmer. And more focused.
Takeaway: Turning off notifications might sound alarming. But with time, you’ll become less distracted and more focused. If you want to be productive in the true sense, take this step now.
3. First Things First
I know. This is one of the rules in Stephen Covey’s book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.
But not following it is a crime. One that I get punished for pretty badly.
If I pick up my smartphone during work to message a client (bad, bad idea), I get sucked into — press the green button when you get the right answer — notifications.
I’m human after all. A notification quietly tells my brain that I’m important. I want to know what others say about me, or to me.
This lust for self-importance pulls me away from my task. Before I know it, I’ve wasted thirty minutes reading forwarded messages and browsing through status updates.
So, I made a pact with myself. I became more mindful while using my smartphone and complete the task first.
God knows I’m still working on this. But each time I succeed, I enjoy a small win. The cumulative result of these small wins is mind-blowing in the long run.
Takeaway: When you pick a task, finish it first. You can cave into distractions later. They’ll stay right there, patiently waiting for your attention.
4. Use the 5-Second Rule
Distractions don’t end with a task.
Whether you’re doing deep, shallow or no work, distractions are always around, stalking you, waiting for you to slip up. When you do, they pounce and take control.
I’m not immune to distractions any more than my next-door neighbor’s son. But I’ve learned a nifty hack to counter it.
Enter Mel Robbins’ Five-Second Rule. This is how it goes.
When you don’t feel like doing something important, or when you must pull yourself away from a harmful activity, tell yourself, ‘I’ll [insert activity] in 5, 4, 3, 2, 1.’ When the countdown ends, start doing your important task.
When I don’t feel like getting out of bed in the morning, I say, “I’ll stand up in 5, 4, 3, 2, 1.” Then I gingerly keep my feet on the floor and stand up.
When I become aware of wasting time on my smartphone, I say, “I’ll put this phone away in 5, 4, 3, 2, 1.” Then I turn off the internet and put the phone away.
The more you practice this rule, the easier it becomes to follow.
Takeaway: Become aware of your actions. When you do unproductive work, tell yourself, “I’ll start [insert deep work activity] in 5, 4, 3, 2, 1.” Then stop what you’re doing and return to your task.
Common wisdom states that exercise, coupled with a good diet, helps you lead a healthier life.
But the effects are much larger than just a healthy life. They cascade into every aspect of your life, including your productivity. Research shows that exercise releases endorphins, the happiness chemical, in the brain, which enhances your state of mind. It also makes you eat healthier and become less impulsive while spending.
But here’s a lesser known benefit: Exercise trains you to push yourself. It strengthens your mind along with your body. Unbeknownst, you improve your ability to focus.
Exercise doesn’t have to include heavy lifting or rigorous strength training. It can range from a brisk walk to training for a marathon.
Takeaway: Physical exercise trains your mind to push itself to the next level. Exercise for three days a week and you’ll see a proportional rise in your ability to focus.
6. Switch Off
We love staying connected 24/7. It makes us feel like we’re on top of things. In reality though, it slows us down.
Staying involved in one activity or another sucks you into tactical issues. It keeps you mired in tiny (often petty) aspects. This messes up with your ability to focus on the larger aspects of life. You’re like a hamster on the wheel — running hard but barely moving forward.
According to late psychologist Amos Tversky, “You waste years by not wasting hours.”
You have to give your mind time off to let it rejuvenate. Just like soil which should be left barren after cultivation to become fertile for the next season.
So once a day, put all your entertainment devices, books and work, away. For ten minutes, just be. Observe your thoughts. Ponder over tasks you’ve put off since long. ‘Wasting’ an hour a week will save you years.
Takeaway: Being hour-foolish can make you year-wise. Switch off for some time every day. It’ll give your mind the breathing space it desperately needs.
Successful people are no different from you. They just work on what’s important and ignore what isn’t. They know that they cannot do everything, so they don’t even try.
You can do the same.
You don’t have to do “so much in such less time.” You don’t have to keep complaining how you’re stretched to the limit. Because, admit it — you’re not. You’re stretched far less than you’re capable of. You’re merely wasting a lot (and I mean A LOT) of time on what doesn’t matter.
Don’t let technology make you feel like a hamster on a wheel. Use it to become productive, and push your abilities to the next level.
Run hard, but make sure you move forward.
A version of this post originally appeared on the Aha! Now Community.
6 Proven Ways to Sharpen Your Focus in a Distracted World was originally published in The Ascent on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.