The Lost Art Of Focus.

How to regain concentration in a world filled with distractions.

Michelle Kessler
May 26, 2019 · 5 min read
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Photo by Luca Bravo on Unsplash

Bling, an email. Bling, your aunt just liked your latest Insta-post. Bling, your yoga-group added you to their WhatsApp group chat. Knock, knock. Your colleague came over to share the latest gossip fresh from the office kitchen. And bling again. Remember? You got an appointment at the dentist this afternoon, better not miss it.

Keeping a clear head and focusing on one single task can be a real challenge in our world full of distractions. Digital or real-life, our brains don’t understand the difference and treat them all the same. Research by the University of California has shown that distractions lead to more frustration, stress, and pressure at work. Furthermore, according to Gloria Mark, leader of the research team, it takes an average of 23 minutes to fully recover a concentrated state after being interrupted.

How many times does your phone buzz in a 23 minute period?

No surprise that this study found that our average attention span has decreased to a meager 8 seconds. For the sake of comparison: that is even less than a goldfish’s 9 seconds attention span.

In fact, on a subconscious level, we are always aware of what is going on around us. And while that might have been a useful skill during times of cave bears and saber-toothed tigers waiting around every corner for lunch, it sure makes focusing more challenging in today's digitalized world.

So the first step to reclaiming concentration? Becoming fully aware of what it is that hijacks our minds and then get rid of it. Eliminating the problem at its source. Lucky us, experts have done their jobs and now we can choose from a range of tried-and-tested methods while we attempt to limit distractions, regain focus, and increase overall concentration.


In one of her talks, Julia Roy mentions how no other than Ernest Hemingway performed something we would now call a work-hack. He didn’t eat at his desk, he didn’t read the paper at his desk, he didn’t chat with guests at his desk. His desk was for writing, and writing alone.

Assigning a specific task to every corner of our house speaks to our habit-loving minds. If all you do at your desk is work, your brain will soon associate that particular place with work and automatically put you into a focused state once you sit down. This simple trick can also be very helpful in other areas of life as James Clear discusses in his book Atomic Habits. He suggests that if you want to effortlessly develop new habits, make their cues obvious in your environment. For example, place a book on your bed if your goal is to finish your day by reading a couple of pages every night. On the other hand, if you want to break a habit, get rid of any visible triggers, i. e., don’t place your work desk in front of your TV if you want to give yourself a fair chance to focus.

Surely enough, not everyone has the space to create a sanctionary for good behavior in their own homes. Thus, little adjustments like room separators or a trick as simple as turning a table to face another way (and therefore away from possible distractions) can already go a long way.

You might have come across the idea that our outside world is a reflection of what is happening inside us and vice versa. A cluttered desk filled with useless items might manifest itself in a cluttered mind. Scattered all over the place, wandering from one daydream to the next. James Kwik, a famous learning expert and keynote speaker has a simple solution for this: DECLUTTER! Yes, it’s that easy. Don’t keep on your desk (and desktop!) what you don’t need. Keep your second, third, and fourth notepads in your drawer and limit yourself to one instead of fourteen different pens. Reorganize your laptop in such a way, it only depicts the most relevant items and folders for your work and studies. Now you get to enjoy a minimalistic work-environment for a clutter-free mind.

I hate to break it to you, but multitasking is dead. Buried long ago. Time to move on. It simply doesn't work. And no, I am not talking about making a sandwich while reading tweets. I mean reading tweets while getting actual work done. Studies have proven here, here, and here again that our brains are just not constructed to simultaneously run cognitive tasks. So, chose wisely what you spend your limited capacities of grey matter on.

One way to make the right pick more obvious, goal-oriented, and less painful is to limit your distractions. Out of sight, out of mind:

  • Move all your fun apps to the very last screen on all of your mobile devices. Or, if you dare, delete them entirely.
  • Then, head to settings and switch off all of your notifications. Trust me, you won’t miss them once they’re gone and when you actually get to check for new messages and likes, it will come as a surprise every time.
  • Go one step further. Turn off badges that indicate the numbers of notifications on your app icons.
  • If you have the resources at hand, you might want to go all out and get separate fun and work devices. A private and a work laptop, a tablet for entertainment purposes and one for serious reading alone. You get the idea.
  • If you didn’t happen to win the lottery, check out some of the free tools around that will allow you to block all the fun-websites on your browser for a pre-set amount of time. That way, you can’t access any of the good stuff before your time limit runs out. Some applications go even as far as turning your laptop into a distraction-free typewriter. A clean white page with the most basic text-editing options that won’t allow you to switch back to Netflix before you hit your word-count goal.

Aren’t we all a little lazy at times? Aiming for the route that comes with the smallest obstacles? Good news, this tendency finally comes in handy. Take James Clear’s advice and create friction between yourself and the source of distraction. For example, place your phone in another room while working, and even turn it off completely. When the desire to check for messages hits, you would have to go all the way to another room, switch on your phone, wait for it to reboot, enter your password before you finally get your kick. Is that really worth the hassle? Maybe the first few times but eventually, your motivation to jump over obstacles will vanish.

Getting your focus from zero to laser-sharp might take some time and dedication but in the end, it will be worth it. With those simple techniques at hand, you sure will be able to make some adjustments immediately and benefit from decreased anxiety, stress, and frustration, while enhancing a focused, concentrated state of mind.

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Michelle Kessler

Written by

Media enthusiast with a love for books, travel and a keen interest in behavioural sciences and habit building.

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +709K people. Follow to join our community.

Michelle Kessler

Written by

Media enthusiast with a love for books, travel and a keen interest in behavioural sciences and habit building.

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +709K people. Follow to join our community.

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