I bet you’ve been distracted at work at least one time today. Notifications, Facebook, phone calls, a random google search… the world today is so full of distractions that most of us can relate to the feeling of not being able to concentrate at work. If you’re easily distracted, here you’ll find 10 tips and apps that will help you stay focused at work.
Why do we get distracted?
According to CBS News researchers, the average American employee gets distracted once every 11 minutes. Even more, it takes an average of 25 minutes to return to the original task. With these numbers, it is no wonder that productivity can get a little low at the workplace. It’s likely that you’ve felt distracted very recently too. Maybe you’re feeling unable to focus on any task. Or maybe you suddenly find out that your 5-minute Facebook break turned out to be a 30-minute long Social Media rampage (we’ve all been there).
The use of the internet and smartphones has great advantages in our everyday life: we are more connected and more informed. But it also comes with some serious disadvantages. We’re pretty much addicted to the constant flow of information and input that we receive every constantly. And it is very hard to disconnect yourself and focus on what you actually have to do.
From the beginning of humanity’s history, our brains have evolved according to our necessities. Sounds, smells, visual input… All this is information our brain has learned to classify between relevant and no-relevant in order to survive. The problem is there’s just too much information nowadays! And it comes directly to our hands and our eyes at every moment, though our digital devices. We no longer need that information for our survival. Without that drive, it is harder for our brains to distinguish between relevant or not.
Hardware vs Executive vs Reward System
In his TED Talk, the neuroscientist Jean-Philippe Lachaux gives a great explanation of why it is so easy for us to get distracted nowadays. He explains that at every second, our brains are making decisions on where to look next and where to pick information from. It creates a “priority map” that guides the way we determine the value of the input around us. The problem is, that to make these decisions, the brain follows three different systems.
First, we have the hardware system. This corresponds to the parietal lobe. This works as an “archive” of sorts: it has information on what to do with familiar objects. Ever wonder why sometimes you do things without really thinking about it? For example, doodling when given a pen and paper. Or when we’re given a cup, sipping from it even if we’re not really thirsty. That is the hardware system taking control. It acts according to fixed rules, associating the perception of the environment to certain actions.
This kind of automatic behavior can be a distraction sometimes (think about the example of doodling). That is why there is also an executive system. This is the one that allows us to retain attention voluntarily and stay focused on whatever we choose. This system works based on intention. To keep the executive system working, the intention of focusing has to be present constantly. That is why it is so easy to get distracted since our own brain is constantly juggling different intentions (short, mid and long term-wise).
We have so many intentions because our brain also follows a reward system. This one is extremely reactive to novelty and information, and it always looks for them. That is why phone notifications are so difficult to ignore. They satisfy directly our reward system since they offer both novelty and information. Think of this system as an overexcited puppy.
External and Internal distractions
Since your executive system has to fight constantly your hardware and reward systems, it can be very difficult for it to take control. Attention is a limited resource. It is tiring and energy-consuming. Giving in to the automated responses of the hardware system, or the satisfaction-driven reward system is much easier (and tempting).
It has probably happened to you that you sat down very determined to stay focused and work. But as soon as you start, you find yourself easily distracted by a coworker walking by, or by a notification on your phone. That is because the hardware system is designed to answer some very specific input instinctively, like movement or sounds. External distractions can trigger your hardware system and make you lose focus.
Or on the other hand, you might be in a completely quiet and peaceful space. Still, when you try to focus on your task at hand, you realize your mind is starting to wander.This is because we’re now used to constant overstimulation. The itch of taking your phone and browsing through your social media every 10 minutes is just the reward system doing its job. In a stable environment, with no novelty, your brain will start feeling bored and have the knee-jerk reaction of looking for something new and exciting. Even when external distractions are removed, internal distractions can also make you shift your attention.
Train your attention
So, how to fight this? It’s easier said than done, but the solution is simple: train your executive system. Try to focus on one intention at a time and to eliminate external distractions that could trigger your hardware system. Remember that focusing your attention demands effort and energy, so make sure to be well-rested.
Start small at first. If you plan to stay focused for over 45 minutes, you’re setting yourself to fail. Try staying focused for 10 minutes at first. Then, when you feel comfortable with it, you can keep on increasing the amount. Don’t forget that you need breaks too. Since staying focused on just one thing is so tiring, the longer you go without a break, the more tired you’ll be and the harder and harder it will be focused afterward. Also, be realistic with your breaks. Don’t tell yourself you’re going to rest for just 5 minutes if you know it isn’t going to be enough. Doing this will only invite you to break your goals more often.
Here you’ll find some tips and apps that will help you deal with both external and internal distractions to stay focused.
A phone ringing, coworkers doing small talk, music… There are hundreds of little things that can break your concentration. Even more nowadays. If your work on a computer, you’ll probably know very well how much of a distraction your very tool of work can become. Internet and smartphones have made the temptation too big to resist. Even if you probably will never be able to eliminate external distractions completely, having a more focus-friendly space can help you boost your concentration.
Here are some tips to tackle the most common external distractions in the workplace.
Even if social interaction is a great, necessary part of office life, most of us also need some quiet time to get work done. If this is an issue for you, consider making clear when it’s okay to interact with you and when it is not. If you have an office or a personal closed space, make sure the differences between these two are clear. Maybe having the door opened or closed could help you signal this. Or having a “Do not disturb” sign outside your office when you need peace and quiet to work.
Even if you don’t have a closed space for yourself, it’s important that people know when it’s okay to interrupt you, and when you’re trying to concentrate. Headphones can work pretty well as a sign of “do not interrupt me, please”. You don’t even have to listen to anything. In general, headphones, especially big, noticeable ones are a very clear sign that you need space. If the message is not clear enough, consider making it explicit to your coworkers in an assertive but friendly way. It can definitely make a difference when you’re trying to stay focused.
As much as we might like to work in complete silence, it is practically impossible. Even if it’s just the sounds of the keyboard or the clicking noises from the mouse, you’ll always find a distracting noise. In these cases where the background noises are too distracting, the only option is to fight fire with fire. Pick your own background sounds that will help block all the others. Even if you’re easily distracted by “normal” music, you can try out no-vocals playlists.
Spotify is a good option for background music. You can find thousands of songs and playlists and it is completely free. However, its free version includes ads that can be very annoying and even more distracting. Premium accounts start at $9.99. It has a lot of no-vocals playlists great for concentration.
8tracks is another nice music playlist website. There you can also find both vocals and no-vocals music. Even if Spotify is more intuitive, 8tracks is a good option for those not planning to spend in a music service. Its free version doesn’t have ads.
If music (even the one without vocals) is not working for you, you might consider “white noise”. Noisli.fm and Noises.online are both great sites of white noise. They offer a wide range of background noises, like the sounds of a river, a forest, a coffee shop, or rain, among others. And they let you mix sounds to make the combination more appealing to you.
If those sounds are too distracting, you can always try this White Noise Generator. It plays stochastic noise and lets you edit the frequencies to find a noise more to your liking. They also have a more “natural” white noise generator, so it’s definitely worth taking a look.
Internal distractions can be even more difficult to fight than external ones. It takes a lot of will power to force ourselves to stay focused when our mind starts wandering. Or when we have to resist the temptation to check Facebook 5 more minutes. There is no one big answer to fight internal distractions, but here are some tips that might help.
Social Media and Online browsing
Even if smartphone notifications are external distractions, nowadays our dependency on technology is so high that most of us check our devices and social media even if we haven’t heard any alarm. The need to check constantly our social media is then an internal one, and it demands a lot of willpower not to give in to it.
Concerning this issue, software such as Freedom can be extremely useful. Freedom blocks websites and apps so you can’t distract yourself with them even if your will power fails. The great thing about Freedom is that it can sync different devices. You can even make customized blocklists and block schedules so you don’t have the temptation of not blocking one thing. Their pricing starts at $2.42 per month.
Free options similar to Freedom are Self Control (for Mac) and Focus Me (Chrome extension). The great thing about these is that they work on a timer. The sites you block will be unavailable for whatever time you chose. Nothing will make you able to get in the blocked sites before the determined time, not even restarting your computer. They also allow you to block subdomains in case you need a specific part of a website but do not want to get distracted with the rest.
StayFocusd (a Chrome plug-in) is another option. It has a great feature that gives a determined amount of time to distracting websites. This way, you can still have your breaks when you need them, but you also have to ration them.
Multitasking and priority chaos
Many times when our thoughts start wandering it’s because we have too many things on our mind. We can’t focus our attention on just one thing because we have too many different intentions. Probably your executive system, which is trying to focus on your task at hand, is competing with your reward system, that is urging you to take a rest and scroll through Instagram, or to daydream about your upcoming vacations. The brain tends to focus easier in shorter-term, more concrete tasks, in which you can get the results almost immediately. This is why giving in to the reward system is so tempting.
To fight this, it is useful to divide tasks into more specific, short-term actions. This will not only make it easier to stay focused on them, but it will also give you a feel-good sensation. Crossing things off your to-do list is satisfying because you feel like you’re actually moving forward. If you write down one big task, it is probable that you will not cross it out in hours, maybe even days. But if you divide it into smaller tasks, your brain will process it as successes. This way you won’t feel so frustrated, but rather that you had a really successful session.
If you have many tasks on your hands, you can also be feeling overwhelmed. This is terrible for productivity since our brains tend to shut down when they don’t know where to start. It is important to organize your priorities. Management and planner apps like Any.do and Todoist are great for this. They allow you to make to-do lists, notes, reminders and so on.
Forcing your brain into its executive system takes effort and energy. If you want to stay focused, there is an actual, concrete energy investment you have to make. This is why it’s so important that you are well-rested. The more tired you are, the less energy you’ll have, and the harder it will be to collect your remaining energy and concentrate. It is not only important to rest well, but also to take breaks. As productive as you want to be, it is important to remember that you’re still human and not a machine. Relaxing and giving your mind a break will help you maintain a good and healthy productivity level.
The Pomodoro Technique is a great way to both improve focus and assure you have enough breaks. Its theory says that the best way to work is in blocks of 25 minutes. Every 25 minutes (or “pomodoro”) you should have a small, 5 minutes rest in order to relax. Then, after 4 pomodoros, you can take a long break, of 20 or 30 minutes. The Focus Booster app is based on this technique. It’s multiplatform and it offers you time and productivity tracking options.
All these are apps are great, but they are of no use if you don’t know yourself. Be honest with what distracts you and what could be a problem for you. For example, music apps. They are great, but if you’re going to spend time changing through playlists or picking different songs every 5 minutes, it’s unlikely that they will help you concentrate. You can have all the apps in the world, but if you can get distracted with them too, then they’re not good.
It’s trial and error since no two things work exactly the same way for two people. But certainly at least one of these apps will help you stay focused and increase your concentration. But since it is hard to know where to start, here you have 5 easy tips you can implement right now to stay focused at work.
5 easy tips to stay focused
1- Start every day doing a to-do list and order them according to priority. Don’t let it overwhelm you, you don’t have to do everything in one day. But try to make a comprehensible list of tasks to be done and how much time you think they will take. Over time, this will also help you estimate your working schedule better.
2- Do the most difficult or burdensome tasks as early as possible. Ideally, this would mean first thing in the morning, but not everyone starts the day with high energy. Since staying focused takes so much effort and energy, make sure you’re in a good moment to be able to concentrate on your task. Still, try to start it in the first half of your working day.
3- Make a list of what distracts you the most in your everyday work. Your phone? Your coworkers? Random internet browsing? The key to staying focused is to be aware of your own distractions. Only then you can do something about it.
4- Time yourself. Know how much time you usually can spend focused and set your goals accordingly. If you usually get distracted every 15 min, if you plan to stay focused for over 45, you’re setting yourself to fail. Train your attention little by little.
5- Try blocking social media. Nowadays where everyone is constantly connected, it can be quite stressful. But start little by little. If you are (as many of us are) addicted to social media, it is a constant exercise of will power. Removing the temptation is easier. If you can’t bring yourself to block them, try leaving your cell phone out of your reach. Do you have a locker? A backpack? Increasing the difficulty of checking your phone will force you to make it a conscious effort. And the more aware you are, the easier it will be to fight it.
Staying focus is a challenge for all of us. It’s a matter of training yourself little by little and not giving up. You can also check out this article on how to stay focused while giving a presentation.