How To Stay Focused: 4 Steps To Pacify Distractions
What’s wrong with us?
Sometimes we find ourselves solving office tasks in our minds during dinner while listening to our son telling a story about school. Then the other day at a business meeting we find ourselves feeling a sense of guilt when thinking back to yesterday evening, and we realize we were so occupied by our work that now we don’t remember that story.
Sometimes we find ourselves running three other issues to solve in our head while one of our colleagues is trying to give us a feedback. Other times we find ourselves being in hero mode and writing an email while reading a report while sitting in a business plan meeting while trying to have some snack for lunch.
And sometimes we are tired of it all.
And that’s normal. I mean the tired part.
As our mind is unable to focus on more than one thing at a time, we are constantly switching between tasks. And we get tired, because our brain uses a lot of energy to switch from one thing to another. So, we use up our energy for switching, instead of focusing and solving one thing at a time.
“Yes, we know.”
You must have read a thousand times among time management tips and heard when attending assertiveness trainings that saying no to others sometimes is a must if you want to be effective. It helps you stick to your priorities and keep your focus on important things.
That’s ok. You’re good at this.
You say no politely when somebody comes to your desk during your Einstein window and bring some level six priority question.
But do you say no to yourself too?
Distractions are inside
Imagine, you’re left alone with your tasks, you turned off all the devices (phone, emails, messages etc.), you prepared your coffee at hand, and in this silence you realize that… distractions are coming.
They are coming from the inside.
Unfinished tasks come up in your mind, tasks that have been waiting for so long, plans that are ready to get started, ideas that want to come alive. So many things you could do instead of this task… And they all run in the background using up your energy.
How to stay focused?
After you’ve noticed that this is happening, and observed consciously what’s going on in your mind, you can turn your self-awareness into action. If you can successfully catch yourself being distracted from the inside, you can choose to leave that situation behind and start to deal with it differently.
To support your transformation, we offer these 4 small, easy-to-follow steps.
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1. Say yes
In order to set your focus, you can start with a definite choice. You might say:
“Yes, I want to finish this report this afternoon.”
“My coach has arrived. Yes, I go and get the most out of my coaching session.”
“Yes, I sit down and give my undivided attention to my son telling me how he spent his day.”
“Yes, today I will work from home.”
You say yes to something that is important, useful or interesting to you. It’s very helpful to realize that you have the freedom of choice. You don’t have to do anything. It’s you, who has the opportunity to decide what you focus on.
2. Make a commitment
When you say yes to something, it’s important to say it from your heart. This emotional commitment enables you to engage in the chosen activity and stay focused.
It’s like when children are playing.
They do not desire to play cards when they are engaged in building a Lego palace. They do not desire to do skateboard tricks when they are about to pass the ball at a basketball game. They do not wish to watch a cartoon when they’ve got involved in drawing a birthday present to their dad.
And if children have issues with emotional engagement in these kinds of situations, it can be so visible that anybody can tell there’s something wrong.
You can learn emotional commitment from children.
But how? The secret is to let yourself lose yourself in your actual activity. You can give yourself the permission of letting everything else go for a short period of time and focus only on the one thing you decided to deal with.
This commitment is crucial in the creation of real values. It can skyrocket your productivity and may lead to exceptional performances. It’s no surprise, as emotionally engaging in something means you put your true capabilities in it, not just some of your abilities on the surface.
And you don’t need to have goals like saving mankind to commit yourself to. You can let yourself engaged in the activity of replying your emails for 30 minutes to make sure you will write the proper messages. And you will notice replying 5 times more emails than you would do without true involvement.
Emotional commitment has a key role when we want to stay focused.
3. Say no
When you say yes to something, it comes with saying no to everything else in that moment. That’s simple logic, as you cannot do more than one thing at a time. In economics they call it alternative or opportunity cost.
It is the “cost” referring to a benefit that you could have received (by another choice), but you gave up, to take this action. You cannot focus on everything, as focus is always about selecting something instead of the others.
Often we try to live in that illusion that we can say ‘yes’ to everything, and then somehow we will be able to fulfill our promises. But the truth is that even if you don’t say no out loud, you always say it when you say yes to something. With this small ‘yes’ you immediately say no to another activity you were actually doing, as you stop it and start paying attention to something new.
There are two problems with these kinds of ‘silent nos’.
First, you don’t really say them, so people who expect things from you, won’t know that you won’t deliver soon (or ever). Second, there’s a lack of self-awareness when you silently say no to something.
That means you don’t say them consciously, you are just drifting from one situation to another, without truly considering what you really want to do. That’s why you should be aware of your nos, and say them in a conscious and confident way to all the things you don’t want to pay attention in the given moment.
Accepting that you can say yes to only one thing at a time can be truly liberating.
And that is also right for the distractions from the inside. If you really want to stay focused on your activity, handling inner distractions is essential. You need self-awareness to catch the moment when inner distractions are coming.
How can you do this?
From time to time check in to yourself with the question: What have I proceed in the past few minutes?
This is an important question, and has different effect when you are engaged in the activity to when you are not. If you are deeply involved in what you are doing, answering this question can give you a positive feedback and reinforce you to stay focused and keep going. A momentary stop to congratulate yourself.
But if you have been out of focus for some time, asking this question from yourself can make you aware of this. When answering the question you can realize that there’s something in your mind that’s distracting you from what you want to focus on.
In this latter case ask yourself the following questions: What’s in my mind? How am I feeling about this activity?
What would I prefer to do instead?
And as you answer these questions and manage to detect your distracting thoughts, feelings, desires, in the next step you can say no to them. But that’s not the easy part.
Because they express your needs, so they come again and again until they are ensured that they are noticed and taken care of.
4. Please your inner distractions
These unanswered needs and unfinished businesses create dissatisfaction, feeling of ineffectiveness and strong tension that stirs our mind. No surprise they distract our attention and we cannot stay focused on what we are doing.
The good news is that you can handle these unanswered needs as well.
Here are 4 ways about how to stay focused by pleasing your inner distractions.
Close them for now. You may try to close these open files. You can stop for a moment and think through the following:
“What can I do right here, right now to settle this issue till I get back to it later?”
For example, imagine that while you are working on a report, it comes to your mind that you plan to give a feedback to your subordinate as she provided super inputs for your work. Suddenly, you start to concentrate to hold it in your mind and not to forget till you give the feedback. In this case, you are free to jot down your feedbacks, close this issue till you meet your colleague, and turn your focus back to the report.
Find their place. It is harder to stay focused if a reasonable closure cannot be reached by a few-minute action. In this situation it’s worth to answer:
“When can I dedicate proper time and attention to this problem?”
You can open up your calendar and put this as a new task in the closest appropriate time or just take a note on a piece of paper. Either way, the most important thing is to write down the issue and get it out of your head.
Your mind is not designed to store bulleted lists in it.
You need space in your head to think, to solve problems, to calculate, to use your imagination and to create vision. Empty your head from tasks and open issues by simply writing them down and putting them into your calendar.
You can even do this with the tough ones that you can’t imagine right now how you will solve them later. You can simply note down that you plan to discuss this topic with your best friend, with your life coach or use an application like Symblify to work on it on your own.
Schedule the task, then turn your focus back to your current activity.
Connect them with your actual topic. Often it’s not a coincidence that something comes up from the inside and distracts you from your activity. So, instead of getting upset about it, you can ask yourself:
“What’s common in these topics?” “How can finishing one can get me one step ahead in the other?”
Sometimes you realize that if you complete one task properly, the other one will be half finished. Or by spending only a minute to think about it, you can find out how you could continue doing your current activity in a way it benefits the other issue that just came up in your mind.
For example, you are writing a long email to one of your colleague, and you need to focus, because you want to explain her a lot of details. But suddenly you realize that you forgot to get some package to another colleague who was expecting it from you yesterday. This is very frustrating and distracts your thoughts from the email.
However, you can ask yourself: “Why did this thing come up just now?” And in the next moment you find out the solution: these colleagues work in the same wing at the same level in the big office building you work at. You simply choose to get to them personally, giving the package to one of them and explaining the topic in person to the other.
Acknowledge and let go. There are situations when we should admit we cannot do anything with the issue running around in our head. In this case we can stop and acknowledge that the topic is important for us, and accept that we do not have resources to deal with it right now.
After that it is more comfortable to let it go with no question of its importance till we find a way to handle it.
How does staying focused improve my work-life balance?
A couple of years ago one of my colleagues with three kids said:
“Work-life balance? It’s really simple. When I’m home, I’m home and I’m involved in doing my family things. When I’m at work, I’m at work and I’m excited about my tasks.”
See? It is that simple.
Of course in our complex and sometimes complicated lives we cannot set such sharp boundaries. But we always have the choice to focus on one particular thing that we engage into, close it with a tangible result and then, and only then start something else.
The decision is up to us.
We can choose to lose ourselves in building a Lego farm with our kids in the evening after work. And when suddenly we realize we forgot to answer an important email at work, we can reassure ourselves that we’re going to do it when the kids will be doing their homework with their dad.
Till that time, we can gladly afford ourselves to forget it and get lost in playing.
Bringing it all together: how to stay focused?
Saying yes to one thing while saying no to all the others enables you to free your mind in order to deal with the one particular thing you said yes to. Maybe it is hard to accept, but these consistent decisions are the basis of our focus, engagement and dedication towards what we chose to do.
It is also useful to realize that the trickiest distractions comes from the inside.
And simply fighting with your inner self is rarely the best strategy. If you want to stay focused in the long run, sometimes it is wiser to pay a little bit of attention to these distractions, and try to find their place on your to-do list. That way they lose their power on your mind, and let you focus on the most important thing, that is right here, right now.
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