Drastic Solutions to Regaining Your Attention in a World of Distraction
In the new age of work, working with deep focus is one of the most coveted, yet hardest to attain, abilities
We live in a world of distraction. For at least a decade, cell phones have made us accessible at all times, to anyone. While at first we only had to contend with texts from close friends, today every application fights for our attention — from Facebook Messenger to Apple News. After all, these sites only get paid when you give them your eyeballs.
What this amounts to is very little time for focused work — the type of work that really moves your goals forward. Doing market research, thinking about customer acquisition, designing an interface, making a pitch deck — these are all things that require intense periods of uninterrupted work.
But how do we disconnect? How do we regain the focus that is desperately needed to be productive? It’s not an easy task; our modern technological world has literally been designed to steal our attention. And it has worked — we are more distracted than ever.
So how do we fight back? Simple tips and tricks won’t cut it, so here are three drastic solutions to regaining your focus in a world of distraction:
1. Turn off all notifications
No, not just your sounds. No, not just Push Notifications. And No, not just turning on do Not Disturb. Turn them all off, both Banners, which appear on your lockscreen, and Badges, those little anxiety-provoking red bubbles that let you know when you’ve left something unacknowledged.
This might seem excessive, but it’s backed by science. Merely receiving a notification, even if we don’t respond to it, is enough to sap our attention and derail us from work. Apple’s signature red Badges have been shown to increase anxiety levels — they are red for a reason. They indicate urgency.
So why isn’t Do Not Disturb enough? Because many of us our distracted even by the prospect of receiving a notification. Even when we’re supposed to be working, and even if DnD is on, we are still tempted to turn over our phone and check to see if anyone has tried to contact us.
The best way to prevent this pathologic checking is knowing that you will never receive a notification. We get much less satisfaction out of constantly checking an empty screen; eventually, we’ll stop checking it altogether.
But how will people contact you? It’s simple:
- Leave Notifications on for phone calls
- Tell important people to call you if they really need you
- Periodically check each app individually
This way, if something is urgent, someone can get your attention.
For all of the things that are important but non-urgent, you’ll be able to address them every hour or so, at times when you want to.
And for all of the unimportant things (yes, like social media), you’ll slowly realize that you really don’t need those notifications after all.
Trust me — the prospect of turning off my email badges was horrifying. But after a month of having zero notifications (except for phone calls), I’m more productive than ever. And no, I have not missed a super-important-need-to-reply-now email (and if someone is emailing you about something that needs to be addressed in an hour or less, they are using email wrong).
2. Stop Wearing Headphones Everywhere
It’s nearly impossible to walk through a city or college campus without being inundated with the sight of Airpods hanging out of everyone’s ears. If it’s not Airpods, it’s some other type of headphone — really, try it for yourself. Go out into the streets and count the number of people walking with headphones in. It’s shocking.
What does this have to do with focus? It has less to do with focus and more with mental space. Your brain is constantly thinking through problems, even when your mind is wandering aimlessly. That’s why we get Ah-Ha! moments at mundane times, like when we’re cleaning or showering.
Especially for students, your brain is constantly switching between demanding tasks. Classes. Meetings. Homework. Venture Work. In any given day, it’s rare that you have an hour of uninterrupted thinking time.
But the time you spend walking between commitments is perfect for this. It’s time to really think hard about your work, or to let your mind wander so it can work through a tough problem in the background.
The problem isn’t with headphones — it’s what’s on the headphones. Some people can think clearly when listening to lyrical music, others cannot. And while podcasts are great, by their very nature they demand our attention.
So if you’re feeling frazzled, mentally foggy, or otherwise burnt out from constant stimulation, give your brain some space as you walk. If you use headphones primarily as a means to avoid talking to other people, that’s fine, wear them with nothing playing.
While at first it may seem impossible to walk 10 minutes without your favorite soundtrack, you soon come to appreciate the sounds around you. And you’ll find yourself looking forward to these brief moments where nothing is fighting for your attention (and no, don’t use this time to check your phone).
3. Work Towards Days with Zero Commitments
This is the most drastic of the three solutions, but it’s also the one with the biggest return. The end goal is to have an entire workday where you do not have any meetings or obligations with other people. You simply have uninterrupted time to focus on the tasks at hand.
For professionals, this can be challenging. But many modern workplaces are realizing the need for their employees to have focused work time that isn’t interrupted with meetings and calls. For students, whose work extends into the weekend, they can either make a class schedule with a day off, or can block a weekend day.
Ask your boss if you can work remotely one day a week (or every two weeks, or every month — see what you can get). If this can’t happen, actively defend a single day from all meetings. If you are trying to schedule something, insist that nothing on Friday will work. Don’t let even one meeting get on your calendar. If your peers can see your calendar, block off the whole day with the name of your task at hand, or some other cryptic title that conveys Sorry, Friday Doesn’t Work.
The point of this day is for you to deep-dive into important tasks, and meetings are proven focus killers. Plus, if you can swing working from a different location (whether it’s your apartment, a café, or a coworking space), you’ll likely be more productive with the change of scenery.
If you are balking at these suggestions, that’s good. This is not meant to be “The Simple Three Tricks To Focusing.” They require some pretty drastic measures and fundamental behavioral changes, which are often the hardest to implement. But if you can manage to do these three things, you are one step closer to differentiating yourself.
The rarest skill in a world built to steal your attention is the ability to shun it, to focus on what matters, and to get real work done.