4 ways you can sustain attention in a distracted world

Wisdom is the art of knowing what to overlook,” William James.

In the time it took me to draft an outline for this blog I found myself distracted a multitude of times.

For someone who values awareness and attention as a vital ingredient to my mindful way of life it’s very disconcerting.

 Instagram, facebook, emails and a conversation with my wife over coffee, all played their part in distracting my focus and attention.

Every distraction costs me time.

But the big question worth considering is time the precious resource I am wasting or is it my lack of focus and attention?

The author Tim Ferriss addresses this very issue in his great book “The 4-Hour Work Week”. He says ‘Time without attention is worthless, so value attention over time.’

So what can we do to ensure we gain the most value out of the 24 hours available to us all every day of our living lives?

The price we pay in a distracted world

The massive growth of available distractions in the 21st century has greatly impacted our ability to stay focused and attentive.

When I consider the cost of constant disruptions I realise the real price paid:

• They distracted my flow of thinking,

• They impacted the quality and flow of my writing,

• They created unnecessary anxiety and stress around the fact I wasn’t working  productively to the time line I had set,

• They made an enjoyable creative process feel challenging and laboured.

When it comes to time we all have 24 hours a day to get things done. Yet if we all have the same amount of this needed resource, why do some people achieve so much, and others so little? 

We all have the choice how we invest our energy into the 24 hours we have available.

In my quest to produce insightful blogs about the human condition I sometimes find the investment of time does not always equal the reward.

Often, I have little to show for my efforts. Yet other times, I can get an amazing amount of work done in a very limit time. 

What influences that productivity in the time we have?

The challenge of focus and attention

Maintaining our focus and attention has become one of greatest challenges in our lives. With so many distractions fighting for attention the job doesn’t get any easier.

So why do we get so easily distracted?

And is it even possible to rebuild our attention in a world that is full of distraction?

Ask anyone about what distracts them and they’ll most likely respond with some combination of their phone, social media, and the people around them.

And while those are certainly distractions, we need to look deeper if we want to truly understand what’s taking our attention.

Types of Distractions

According to Daniel Goleman, author of ‘Focus: The Hidden Power of Excellence’ there are actually only two types of distraction:

Sensory distractions (External). These are things that we pick up from the world around us through our senses.

These are the things that we see, hear, smell, taste, and touch.

These are the things happening around us like colleagues talking, phones ringing, people moving around us, email notifications or music playing.

The more sensory input we get, the higher the chance is that we get distracted and lose our focus.

Emotional distractions (Internal).  These are the things that bounce around in our brain like random thoughts, memories or dreams. They cause our attention to drift away from what we’re doing.

For example, remembering a phone call you need to return or thinking about an upcoming meeting.

The problem is that most of us only focus on external distractions. Taking care of the external input is much easier than the internal one.

It’s easy to blame your lack of focus on notifications and interruptions.

Internal distractions are more difficult to treat as they can’t be fixed by turning off notifications.

 While part of your mind is struggling to maintain 100% focus, another part is craving some form of distraction.

The Prime Robber of our attention

According to a 2010 Harvard study, we spend 46.9% of our waking hours thinking about something other than what we’re doing.

It’s our thinking mind that hijacks the vast majority of our attention and focus. 

It’s an escapable truth about being a human. The mind constantly wanders throughout the day from one thought to another.

Thoughts jump from one to another so rapidly and seamlessly that time just disappears.

In your head you played out stories about:

  • Deadlines,
  • Perceived opinions about you,
  • Your future,
  • Worries and concerns about life,
  • Fantasies about getting rich.

 Then, through this mental fantasy land, you suddenly realise you should be working.  This makes you feel restless and you distract this energy by going to grab a coffee.

20-30 minutes have passed and in that time there’s nothing of value to hang your hat on. Basically, you’ve done nothing.

That’s just a simple example.  A real-life wandering mind is usually very more complex.

In addition to the substantial mental drain these focus-stealing thoughts place on your time, they can lead to niggling, negative thoughts about yourself or your situation. 

The outcome can be doubt, procrastination and limited productivity.

Ultimately, you need to develop the habit of being able to switch your attention and focus back on to the task at hand.

Most people are totally unaware when their attention or focus has been distracted.

If we want to rebuild our attention and focus to its maximum potential we need to invest some time exploring 3 key areas.

How our schedules, habits, and routines allow us to be easily distracted

Increasing our attention and focus in our day requires a new approach to the way we work.

We need to consider 3 key areas:

  • Our schedule. Distraction relating to schedule manifests in 2 distinct ways. Firstly, when our schedule is too full it can cause us to feel uncomfortable or overwhelmed. Our tendency in this situation is to shift our attention away to something less threatening. Alternatively, if our schedule is too empty we seek comfort in something that will keep our mind busy.

Our habits. Most of us have built habits of distraction through how we engage with our work tools like email or social media. How often do you find yourself distracted by a smartphone notification or incoming email bell? In our search for constant pleasure and gratification we are turning into a modern day version of Pavlov’s dog.

  • Our routines and rituals. There are unconscious actions we take throughout our day that cause us to easily get distracted.

Like most things that have a big impact on our focus, productivity, and time management, a few small changes can go a long way.

4 simple ways to maximize your attention and focus

1. ‘Time chunking’ your schedule creates sustained attention.

Bouncing between different tasks will always have a negative impact on your attention and focus. The outcome will be poor use of the time you have available.

Alternatively, time chunking is a concept of giving your day more structure. It’s setting a period of time solely on one project and not allowing any distractions.

Focusing on one task at a time helps you do a better job faster’. That means you have effectively managed your time by engaging the precious resource of attention and focus.

I found this focus approach more than useful then I had to write those long academic papers assignment papers during my study days. I still try to apply this scheduling approach when writing blogs. I block out 2-3 hour periods and just write.

Time chunking isn’t just about scheduling your most important work or setting aside an hour or two to focus. It’s about scheduling everything to enable you to get the most out of the day by making attention and focus the number one priority.

2. Build a habit of single-tasking during the day

Frequently switching between tasks overloads the brain and makes us less efficient and more prone to being distracted.

Single-tasking means doing one activity at a time with as few distractions and interruptions as possible’.

For this to become a habit you need to do a number of things to limit the distractions.

While the modern workplace has made it tough to focus on one thing at a time, you can rebuild your attention and focus muscle with a few habit changes. Essentially you need to remove as many distractions as possible that will compete for your focus and attention.

  • Silence your phone or turn it off.
  • Close your email.
  • Turn off notifications from phone apps and web apps.

Focusing on one task for a long period of time is difficult, especially with smartphones by our sides most of the time.

Nonetheless practicing single-tasking can help to rebuild your focus and attention.

3. Remove ‘attention residue’ by establishing routines and rituals

When you check your email, read your messages, answer the phone, or have a quick conversation, your attention stays with that task even after you’ve moved onto the next.

For a period of time, you’re unable to give the next task your full attention. Even if you finish a task you’ll probably still be thinking about it while trying to move onto the next one. This is known as ‘attention residue’.

I first came across this term in the great book by Cal Newport called “Deep Work”.

Attention residue’ describes the way our attention can be divided when we are juggling or transitioning between multiple tasks or obligations.

It affects our ability to be fully focused thereby impacting:

  • Work performance,
  • Probability of making errors
  • Decision making,
  • Processing of information.

There’s a few ways to reduce the attention residue.

You need to establish a routines or a ritual that signals to your mind a clear break when you are switching from one task to another.

As an example this could be achieved by grabbing a cup of coffee, closing your laptop, or meditating for 2 minutes.

Similarly, another option is scheduling To-do-lists that bundle chores into relevant groups. This could be focusing on replying to e-mails, paying bills or clearing a workspace.

When each task is complete the act of crossing the items of the list indicates it’s time to move on. There’s a clear break.

4. Establish breaks to recharge

While deep attention and focus is a vital tool in the fight against multitasking, too long spent on one task can be detrimental.

It’s impossible to be in a constant state of high-energy, high-focus all day long.

It’s natural for our energy levels to waiver throughout the day.  Nonetheless you can help yourself by taking short breaks throughout the day to recharge. Quick hits of focus can be achieved by using micro breaks.

These are short, deliberate breaks that you use to give your mind and body a chance to recover during the day.

Final thoughts

If you read this whole thing without getting distracted, you’re miles ahead of most.

If you didn’t, don’t stress – you are only human!

Our attention is limited, and valuable, making it a precious resource.

The world wants your attention. You have the control where it goes.

We need to find a way to resist the urge to get distracted by information that pulls our attention and focus away.

What are your favourite tips for avoiding distractions and keeping yourself focused and on-task? 

Share with us in the comments below!

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