Maddy Osman
I write about productivity, the future of work, and collaboration at the Planio Blog.
August 29, 2017 · 5 min read

How to Focus Better: Overcoming Distractions

How to Focus Better

Productivity wouldn't be so hard to achieve, except for the simple fact that we all have an enemy that constantly tries to lure us away from doing and completing our meaningful work. This enemy? None other than distraction.

Distraction isn't just a deterrent to your productivity, but represents a real business problem in the form of lost money. According to a 2006 survey, productivity losses cost companies $544 billion a year, as every employee wastes 2 hours a day to distraction on average.

According to a study by the University of California Irvine, the average worker achieves a period of focus that lasts 11 minutes, between a constant barrage of interruptions. According to Dr. Edward Hallowell (author of Driven to Distraction at Work), unlike stress or productivity, which comes in spurts, distraction is a disease.

Lost productivity costs $544 billion a year, as every employee wastes 2h/day to distraction on average.

Dr. Hallowell goes on to describe this as ADT (or attention deficit trait), which is different from ADHD or ADD. ADT is characterized by the feeling that you're always in a rush, multitasking, or bouncing from project to project. ADT is not genetic, but is instead a reaction to the demands of modern life.

Recognizing the problems that distraction creates is half the battle. The other half involves applying strategies to overcome it, and determining how to focus better.

Distractions: Identifying the Problem

The first step in overcoming distractions is to simply identify them. Conduct a time audit that can show you where your time goes, and what specifically is distracting you. By identifying the root of the problem, you can start to make necessary adjustments to block out time for your major time sucks (or work to get rid of them completely).

Conduct a time audit that can show you where your time goes, and what specifically is distracting you.

Here’s how to conduct the time audit:

For a week, log how you spend your time. For the most complete profile, do this both in and out of work. A program like RescueTime can record and categorize how you’re using your time, with insights as to which websites or categories (email, social media, etc.) are taking up the majority of your day.

Auditing and interpreting the results of your time log may seem like a time suck in and of itself. But knowing your productivity drains and distractions is vital in fighting them, and taking back control of your time. Like many other things in life, this upfront investment of time and interpretation will result in positive long-term results that will inform the rest of these strategies for how to focus better.

Schedule Everything

Once you've identified how you spend your time, you can make an informed strategy as to how to plan out your week. By planning your week ahead of time, you have a clear direction of how you want it to go, and you won’t have to scramble every morning to remember what you need to do.

When creating your weekly plan, schedule blocks of time for everything, including time spent reading and responding to emails. According to a report by the McKinsey Global Institute, people spend an average of 13 hours on email per week, or 28% of an entire work week.

To cut down on your time spent on email, and it’s power as a distractor:

While you’re planning your schedule for the week, make sure that it’s realistic. It’s easy to be idealistic in planning, and lax in execution, but don’t fall into that trap. Schedule in more time than expected to make room for unexpected occurrences, like a last minute project or meeting. If you don’t end up using that extra time, repurpose it for another project--or a break!

On that note, while creating your schedule, make sure to allow time for breaks. Use this time to indulge in your known distractions. As long as they have a specific time slot on your calendar (that doesn’t bleed into another), they won’t get in the way of your productivity. Allowing some planned time for breaks and indulgence will help you with how to focus better.

Allowing planned time for breaks and indulgence will help you with how to focus better.

Tackle the Small Stuff Later

It’s easy to get distracted by little tasks that come up throughout the course of the day. They may not be your most pressing tasks, but it’s tempting to stop what you’re doing and knock them out as they come up.

Big Tasks First

Taking care of tasks as they come up is a bad habit to get into, and will definitely get in the way of your goal regarding how to focus better. If you condition your colleagues or clients with an immediate response and resolution, they’ll come to expect it.

So instead of handling small tasks as they happen, acknowledge the request (if necessary), and give an expected date/time of completion based on your existing schedule. This will create a greater respect for your time, and will result in productivity gains over the long run in terms of your communications and their expectations.

Don’t let the new task take you away from what you’re currently working on, as it inevitably upsets your flow. According to Lifehacker, it takes us 25 minutes to refocus after being distracted. Besides the focusing/time issue, distractions also change your environment. Figuring out how to focus better ultimately comes down to the way you handle and prioritize tasks in real time.

For example, checking email requires you to open a new window on your browser. Not only is it harder to reconstruct the original environment (prior to the distraction), but there is also a cognitive cost to interruption, according to Gloria Mark (who spearheaded the study on digital distraction, the same one that said it takes 25 minutes to refocus).

So before you tackle any last minute requests, finish the task at hand. Or accomplish these small tasks during your break time, alternating between long periods of work focused on one big/planned task.

Remove Yourself from the Distraction

If checking email and social media sites is your Achilles Heel, remove them from your consciousness.

If it’s out of sight, it’ll be easier to keep it out of mind. If you’re constantly checking it, keep your phone far away from your workstation. You can check your messages during your break. You’ll find that these often aren't urgent, anyway.

Use tools like Cold Turkey to block out websites that are a known distraction for you, like email and social media. Turn off push notifications for email and social media sites, or keep your phone on silent when at work.

Sometimes avoiding distractions and learning how to focus better means avoiding other people. While this isn’t the perfect solution on it’s own, consider starting work earlier, or working later, to find your focus without the distraction of coworkers and incoming emails.

If you work from home and find yourself losing focus, re-finding it may be as simple as leaving the house, and going for a walk. A change in perspective and environment might itself seem like a distraction, but may be necessary for getting your head back in the right space to accomplish tasks.

Reward Yourself

Delayed gratification helps build your willpower. An easy method for how to focus better is the Pomodoro Technique, which gives you 5 minutes of break time for every 25 minutes of focused work. The break time increases over time, as your focus wanes throughout the day.

Reward Yourself

A method like the Pomodoro Technique makes time for rest, which refreshes your mind and can re-energize you. Not taking breaks can drain you, and is an unproductive practice that’s not recommended.

How to Focus Better by Overcoming Distractions

Don’t punish yourself if you allow distractions to take over from time to time. It happens to everyone and is impossible to avoid completely. But knowing your distractions can help you to avoid them. Identify your major problem areas, and create a strategy around how to focus better.

What are your best tips for overcoming distractions? Tweet your thoughts at @Planio, and we’ll share our favorites!