Most of us live in a world filled with sources of distraction. We divide our attention between devices and screens, each repeatedly delivering interactions designed to capture our minds with addictive reward patterns. And we live and work in distracting environments, where the people around us ask for (or demand) our attention.
So how do we regain control? How do we do what’s important to us in a world that continuously interrupts?
Prioritize and Create Space
Getting beyond distraction starts with prioritizing focus. Psychology research confirms that our ability to do focused or routine tasks varies over the course of the day, and that the pattern can vary between people (although we tend to share the “post-lunch dip”). Usually deep focus—or being in “the flow”—takes a solid, uninterrupted chunk of time. It may take as little as an hour or it may take half a day to drop into a state of focus, and it helps if we do it at the right time of day.
Start by paying attention to your own mind, and learning when you find focus, even if accidentally. Once you can identify what that feels like and when you have that opportunity, you can create space where focus is more likely to occur.
For me, I tend to more easily find focus early in the morning. Creating that space for my most focus-dependent work means going to bed early enough that I awake naturally before anybody else in my house (I started this blog post at 5:30 am).
Once you’ve identified your patterns, there are some tricks you can use to create the appropriate space, if you are willing to prioritize focus. Start with your calendar.
You most likely have a digital calendar you share with your coworkers, and maybe even your family, that allows people to schedule up any time where you are marked as “free.” You can harness the power of that calendar by blocking out times you are most likely to find focus. One of my all-time favorite to-do apps was created by psychology professor Dan Ariely. The app allowed you to assign your to-dos to a time in your calendar, so that you could commit to spending time on important tasks, and use your calendar as a reminder. The app was shut down after it was acquired by Google, but some of those features have made their way into Google Calendar. The principle behind the system is simple, however, and you can apply it to your favorite calendar system by manually adding time on your calendar for tasks that require focus.
In order to honor that time and space you are creating for focus, you need to cut yourself off from distraction. Luckily, a lot of attention has been paid to the costs of distraction lately, and the same folks who helped connect us with each other throughout the day through software and technology are working to give us control of those distractions.
The first tool is Do Not Disturb mode. This is a setting on your phone, and likely your computer, that mutes notifications so you can respond to them later.
In the latest version of iOS, you can easily set Do Not Disturb for an hour, or until the end of the “meeting” you scheduled with yourself to find focus. Android’s latest version offers similar contextual control. Does your office use Slack? You can set a status and a snooze so that team members know you’re going offline for a bit and you’ll be able to respond to their messages later. When snooze ends, Slackbot helpfully lets you know if you’ve missed messages. With the new Shortcuts app, I’ve created a single command that turns off all my notifications and updates my status and snooze in Slack, giving me two hours where I can disappear into the flow.
One of the key tenets of mindful meditation is practicing acceptance and kindness to oneself.
You aren’t always going to find focus, and focus can be used up easily. Luckily, it is a renewable resource and if you are patient and aware, you will recognize when your focus is restored.
I’ve mentioned intentional things you can do to create the space and the opportunity to find focus. But even when you do everything you can, focus is something you can invite but can’t force. It’s a little like sleep, and trying harder sometimes makes it less likely to happen.
So if you take two hours to write a blog post and somehow you don’t get settled in and the focus doesn’t come, don’t punish yourself. Accept that focus is not something you can control and look for other times and ways you can once again invite focus. Or, practice awareness and be ready to seize focus when the opportunity appears. When you find yourself entering “the flow,” hit that Do Not Disturb button and dive in, because focus is your most precious resource. By using it wisely, you can make sure you’re doing the things that are most important to you.