How to Stop Being Distracted

10 Ways to Help Calm the Monkey Mind

Nilambe Meditation Centre, Kandy, Sri Lanka

I refer to it as the F word. The one thing that every entrepreneur or creative craves and needs. In fact, the one thing we could all do with more of. That’s F for Focus. Sometimes the idea of really being able to focus can seem so elusive with so many distractions. When was the last time you really focussed and felt yourself in the zone and got some great work or other activity done?

As I write I can see 3 Apple screens and at any point they’re probably going to notify me of something that’s so urgent that they all chime in with a chorus of shrill notifications. And that’s just the screen distractions! Our busy minds, our surroundings, our whole world is now finely tuned to distract us for doing one thing and encourage us to try and do many things at once. How can one be mindful of your place and purpose when there’s always something to pull you out of it?

We’ve all noticed the problem. One in three UK web users has tried to cut down on digital distractions. Some of us have even gone as far as taken ourselves offline for prolonged periods of time. A drastic response (although it does work!)

It’s not a trivial matter and indeed nothing new to the digital age. According to Buddhist teachings, distraction along with such things as laziness and inattentiveness, is one of the twenty destabilising factors of the mind. In Sanskrit it’s called vikshepa or “mental wandering”. For more on the Dharma of Distraction, read Judy Lief’s great article.

It’s not easy but there are a few ways to try and ease the distractions in your life and at least give yourself a better chance of staying focussed on the task in hand. Here are some of the digital tools and tricks that work for me:

  1. Turn off notifications - To cease that cacophony of alarms when an email arrives or you’re tagged in a photo online, just turn the lot off. I have almost no notifications on my iPhone except telephone and SMS. Everything else I check in my own time. You should check email when you're ready, not every time it arrives. It takes some time to even find and turn the notifications off. But it’s worth exploring System Preferences on your Mac or Settings on your iPhone and turn all the bloody things off. Seriously, life suddenly gets a lot quieter. If you use Slack, try the /mute command too. Suddenly you only get notified when someone @ mentions you. Bliss.

BTW Slack is a great way to stop email dependency and just check the channels relevant to you and your projects. Once you turn most of the notifications off, obviously. In our office, the only emails are external so are usually from clients and usually worth reading. When you’re ready, of course.

2. Unsubscribe from email lists - This one is so easy and has such a profound impact. So many times that email that demands your attention is trying to sell you something you don’t need or can’t afford or is from a list you subscribed to and never got around to unsubscribing. Every time that email pops up and distracts you, you just close it or delete it. Next time, hit the unsubscribe button. There’s even a great service called Unroll Me that can do it for you. I do have a few emails lists that I subscribe to that I really like including Jocelyn K. Glei, Austin Kleon, Unmistakable Creative and Lenny. Oh and also never unsubscribe from anything from Telegraph Hill, obviously. Everything else is out!

3. Get a watch and an alarm clock - Did you know we touch our phones over 2000 times a day? How often is that to check the time and then we get sucked into another app or distraction? Solution: Get a watch. No, not an Apple Watch. Just a simple watch. Mine is a £29.99 Timex and I love it. Also stop bringing your phone or tablet into the bedroom as an alarm. Invest in a clock (Muji have great ones) and then leave that distracting mobile device outside the bedroom. Really, you’re not THAT important that people need to reach you all the time.

4. Delete Apps from Your Mobile - For those times when you do look at your phone, try and notice what’s sucking up your time and distracting your mind. If you’re anything like me, it’s probably Facebook. Delete it from your phone. You can always check via a browser and that pause in launching the browser allows you to ask yourself whether you really need the distraction. I love Facebook and use it a lot but usually from my iMac at home. While you’re deleting Facebook from your phone, what else could go? A simple, calmer home screen can do a lot to ease distraction. For more on this read Tristan Harris’s great post on How to Reboot Your Phone with Mindfulness

5. Clear Your Desktop — Is your computer desktop covered in documents and images that are all too important to be filed away? Bite the bullet and clear that desktop. I drag all mine to a folder called WIP that’s an alias to a Dropbox folder. It’s on the desktop of all my devices and means I can just dump everything there. You’ll be surprised how little you actually need. Turning on your computer and not seeing all that crap on your desktop is a great way to start the day. Also if your computer is just filled with useless files and other digital debris try a spring clean with CCleaner or Clean My Mac (worth paying for the full version). Release gigabytes of free space — and clear out all the crap in the meantime.

6. Focus while you work — We all reach for our headphones when we need to focus on computer-based work. But what do you listen to? As well as curated lists for focussing which you can find on Spotify or Apple Music (some of which are actually really good), there’s a number of other options. Some people like to listen white noise or ambient noise or even coffee shop noise. Kayla Minguez pulled together a great list here. My favourite though is Brain.fm. A mixture of ambient noise and slow music definitely works for me. There are a number of free plays but you have to pay for the full service. I found it worth it and the effects remain even after listening.

7. Careful what you click on - Think of all those Donald Trump news stories that pollute our feeds. You click on them and give them prominence. They wind you up and make you feel nothing but despair for the world or just plain angry. What if you never clicked on them? Or no one did. I’m not saying it’s good to be uninformed but do you really need all the gory details? On an extreme level, I worry about those who go as far as watching ISIS propaganda videos. There’s irreversible damage to be done there by watching that crap. So think before you click, and think again before you share. Less Donald Trump in your timeline can only be a good thing.

8. Schedule downtime and you time - Calendars are a powerful thing. Most of us are seldom late for appointments and meetings because they’re in the calendar. How about scheduling other things too? An afternoon break, a phone call with a friend, an evening reading session, exercise or meditation. Here’s the one time when reminders can do you good!

9. Save now and read later — The web is full of wonderful things to consume and I love the trend towards long reads and platforms such as Medium. But there’s so much to read that it can be distracting. It’s like that Portlandia sketch Did You Read it? “Did you read that fortune cookie from last night? Did you? Did you?”. If you do want to keep on reading, try and use a service like Pocket or Instapaper to save articles for reading later. IOS even has a read later function built it. It means you always have a great list of things to read when YOU decide you have the time.

10. Download a meditation app - learning to meditate is one of the most powerful changes you can make in your life and luckily there’s a whole range of great apps that make it easier, more accessible and can ease you into something that otherwise may seem intimidating. I use the Calm app for guided meditations. It’s similar to Headspace with a choice of meditations of various lengths and subjects. If you want to try fitting an even less formal meditating practice into a busy day, the Buddhify app is the one for you. There are short meditations for when you’re walking, commuting, waiting or you can choose by your mood. They’re lighthearted but surprisingly effective. I also recommend the latest book from Buddhify founder Rohan Gunatillake, This is Happening. It’s a great guide to a modern type of meditation for our every day lives.

Learning to observe your mind through meditation or other techniques allows you to see these distractions and maybe respond differently. We’re lucky to have busy, inquisitive minds and should celebrate that. However a mixture of some of these tricks and tips above and an awareness of when and how you’re distracted can be a huge step forward. Once you can focus, you’ll be calmer, more productive and have more time. Even if it’s for just staring out the window

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