Social media, online shopping, election news ... pick your poison. We’ve all been victims of the Internet’s endless options for distraction. But, even if you’re passionate about your job, are you really passionate about sitting in front of a computer or a phone? Probably not, which is why distractions can be so insidious. Think about it, the more time you spend avoiding what you need to do, the less time you have for your real passion, whether it’s camping, climbing, surfing, or all of the above.
Here are some tips, including innovative new tech tools, for beating distractions, so you can tackle that to-do list and get back to what you really love.
Visualize the Smart Way
Visualization is a powerful tool for sticking to your goals, especially if you learn to use it wisely. What does that mean? Visualizing yourself accomplishing large goals can be motivating, but it can also lead you to do more daydreaming than actual working.
Instead, visualize the process of achieving your goal: the smaller tasks you’ll complete along the way, and even the work you’ll do to get there. For instance, let’s say you want to solve a tough climbing problem that’s been eluding you. Don’t just visualize yourself at the top of the rock, take time to picture the process, almost in reverse. Imagine getting to the top, and the many practice attempts you’ll do to get there, slowly improving your skill and stamina with each one. Pretty soon, you’ll be standing in front of that rock ready to act it all out.
This technique might sound silly, but many top athletes have already been using visualization for years, and swear by the results. Visualization preps your mind for focus, so you won’t get distracted when your task gets tough.
Set the Timer
Ever heard of the Pomodoro Technique? It’s a simple concept: 25 minutes of focused work, followed by a five-minute break.
Breaks are critical to staying focused. Your mind needs rest between periods of intense activity to stay sharp. But instead of taking scheduled breaks, plenty of us are guilty of doing the opposite: trying to stay focused for hours on end, while allowing the constant background noise of distraction to slow us down at every step.
For example, how often do you keep your email browser open constantly, waiting for the “ding!” of a new message? This means you’re never completely focused on work, but just waiting for something to come along and pull your attention away.
Instead, set your timer for 25 minutes and remove all distractions during that time. Then, once your break comes, allow yourself to really take a break: step away from your work and stretch, breathe, have a glass of water, or do something else that will refresh and recharge you for five minutes. 25 minutes is an effective chunk of time, just enough to complete a task without getting overwhelmed or bored. However, if you find a shorter or longer period works for you, go for it. Just don’t work for more than say, an hour tops between breaks.
If you want to try the Pomodoro Technique, there are plenty of apps like Focus Booster that will help you get started.
Cut the Noise
We’ve mentioned email notifications, but what about Facebook, Twitter, or text messages? If you have a smartphone, chances are you’ve got endless tiny opportunities for distraction, all day long.
When it’s time to get down to business, silence your phone or even turn it off. Set your statuses to “away” or “busy,” and close whatever social media windows might be open in your desktop background.
Again, there are some great online tools to help you break free of constant notifications. For an extra jolt of motivation, you can even make productivity a game with Forest, an app that rewards you for ignoring your phone.
What if your distractions are in the real world, instead of just the cloud? If coworkers—or anyone else you share space with—are distracting you, a pair of noise-cancelling headphones can help you stay on track.
Respect Your Workspace
Speaking of space, an important step to beating distraction is to designate, and respect, the place where you do work.
There’s a lot of evidence that choosing certain spaces for certain activities helps people to build habits and stick to a healthy routine. We’ve all heard that you should eliminate distractions from the bedroom, but what about the workspace?
Choose a quiet, distraction-free spot and optimize it for work. Even if it’s just a corner of your dining room table, keep it organized, inviting, and primed for productivity. Don’t eat or take breaks in your workspace; instead get up and enjoy a change of scenery.
With this technique, you’re training your mind to associate a certain place with being focused and productive.
For freelancers or remote workers, this tip is even more important. Even if you’re a complete nomad, you can still seek out places with the same set of characteristics, wherever you are, for distraction-free work time. Quiet coffee shops or local libraries are a great choice, and can still physically prime you for staying focused and on-task.
Train Your Mind
Focus is a skill that takes daily practice to cultivate, like any other. If you feel like your attention is just wandering from one distraction to another, you may need to train your mind.
Daily meditation, even for only ten to fifteen minutes, has been shown to improve brain function, including your ability to concentrate and filter out distractions. You can meditate with guided mindfulness apps like Headspace, or simply on your own.
There are other ways to incorporate mindfulness training into your day as well. Practice the “ABC” technique of avoiding distraction. “A” stands for “awareness,” a reminder to stop and be fully aware of what’s distracting you. “B” is for “breathe;” take a few deep breaths and reflect on how you should respond to the distraction. Finally, “C” stands for “choice,” a reminder that you have a choice over whether a distraction should interfere with your focus or not. You can choose to stop what you’re doing and address the distraction with your full attention, or to ignore it until you’re finished with the task at hand.
And there’s good news for fitness junkies: physical exercise can also be extremely meditative, improving your concentration and helping you stay more mindful throughout your day. So don’t forget to train your body while you’re training your mind.
With all these techniques, the goal is to create “flow” in your work, the same feeling of contented concentration that you have when you’re doing something you enjoy. That way, you can be productive and focused at work, so you can devote your downtime to what you really love.