In the age of distraction, one thing that every company, human and device are vying for is our attention.
It is more difficult than ever to sit alone with our thoughts, to take time for true relaxation and perhaps most frustratingly, to sit down with one task and to give it our full attention.
Distractions are everywhere, shiny objects are flashed in front of our face and we get addicted to being busy.
It doesn’t have to be that way though, and there are plenty of ways to reclaim your focus and start producing your best work again. Here are 6 ways that you can learn to focus on one task at a time and not get easily distracted by your surroundings and life itself…
Perhaps one of the most obvious and effective ways to focus on one task at a time is to stop your addiction to any distractions that are stopping you from doing your work.
In his book “Deep Work”, Cal Newport discusses the dependence on distraction that many of us have and how it is the main thing holding us back from doing our best work:
"Once your brain has become accustomed to on-demand distraction, Nass discovered, it’s hard to shake the addiction even when you want to concentrate. To put this more concretely: If every moment of potential boredom in your life—say, having to wait five minutes in line or sit alone in a restaurant until a friend arrives—is relieved with a quick glance at your smartphone, then your brain has likely been rewired to a point where, like the “mental wrecks” in Nass’s research, it’s not ready for deep work—even if you regularly schedule time to practice this concentration."
This is an important point that we don’t always recognise. You might ask yourself “Why am I still getting distracted when I know that this is work time?” Well, as it turns out, if you spend all of your spare moments in other parts of the day filled with distraction, then your brain becomes wired to crave these distractions in moments of quiet and space. It doesn’t care if it’s worktime.
The only way to rewire your brain is to seek out moments of boredom, space and stillness. Don’t reach for your phone in those few spare minutes and instead, let your mind wander or focus on your breath. Then as if by magic, your brain won’t feel the compulsion for distraction when the time comes to sit down and work.
In his book Atomic Habits, James Clear talks about the importance of “cues” and how they are the first steps to either creating a new positive habit or eliminating an old negative habit. These cues also apply to distractions and focus, as they both fall under the umbrella of bad and good habits.
To create a good habit, you make the cue obvious. To kick a bad habit, you make the cue invisible.
In the context of focusing on one task at a time, it is usually the case that you are trying to kick a bad one – namely sort of distraction. So the solution? Make it invisible.
Take your phone out of the room. Work as far away from the fridge as possible. Keep your snacks in the cupboard, not in eyesight. Close any tabs that you might be tempted to look at. Create an environment for success.
In essence, make every conceivable distraction completely invisible, and it will be that much harder to succumb to it.
On the flip side, you make good working habits obvious. Have your notebook and computer screen open when you start the day. Place your first task in front of you, nothing else. Make sure you don’t have to expend a load of willpower just to get started.
Make the good cues obvious and the bad cues invisible and you will have a much easier time focusing on the task at hand.
Sometimes, our inability to focus on one task at a time comes from the fact that we see or conceive of shiny objects that we would rather pursue.
This is especially true for people working on larger projects or some sort of work that takes months or even years to come to fruition.
The time before the project is exciting because you think of all of the possibilities of what it might become and how it might turn out. The start is arguably even more exciting when things start to come together and ideas start to take-off. However, there is always a point in any project, work or creative endeavour where you encounter what Seth Godin calls “The Dip”.
“At the beginning, when you first start something, it’s fun. Over the next few days and weeks, the rapid learning you experience keeps you going. Whatever your new thing is, it’s easy to stay engaged in it. And then the Dip happens. The Dip is the long slog between starting and mastery. A long slog that’s actually a shortcut, because it gets you where you want to go faster than any other path.”
When you are in the Dip, every other thing in the world apart from what you are doing will seem much shinier and the grass will seem much greener. Sometimes it might be, but the Dip makes everything feel that way.
Survive the dip. Focus on the one task that you set out to do. Then make an informed decision when you are over the hill.
Sometimes, the easiest path is also the quickest and most effective. Sometimes, we don’t need to overcomplicate things.
We can choose to forget about all of the things that we need to complete and do in the future and problems that will inevitably arise – those things will come when they come.
We can choose to forget about what went well or wrong in the past, those things are written in the history books and can’t be changed or controlled anymore.
Instead, we can choose to focus on this task right now. Whether it’s writing the article, doing the laundry, researching a potential market, ringing a client or making a cup of coffee. One task. Then the next. Then the next. This is how extraordinary things are built.
Another one of my favourite Seth Godin quotes is “Transferring your passion to your job is far easier than finding a job that happens to match your passion.”
If you could spend your morning, day or week injecting all of your passion and energy into one task and then the next task, what would your life start to look like?
That’s right, apparently the brain is incapable of multi-tasking. What we think that we are doing when we ‘multitask’ is actually flicking our attention between one thing and then another thing and then back very quickly.
As many people are starting to realise, doing more doesn’t necessarily mean that you produce more, it just means that you are busier – which itself can become mildly addictive.
According to an article on A Life of Productivity:
"When we try doing multiple things at the same time, the brain is more stimulated, and it releases more dopamine (a main pleasure chemical). But study after study has shown that while multitasking can be stimulating, and may even make us feel more productive, it invariably makes us less productive."
The busyness and the dopamine hits make people feel great about doing ‘lots of work’ in a short period of time. However, much like the distraction addiction or a simple phone addiction, busyness can also lead you down a similar road where a lot seems to be going on but nothing much is actually getting done.
Focusing on just one task will help you to avoid this trap, and the quality of your work will probably be better too.
Taking all of these previous steps into account, it might be a good idea to simply take note of everything that you do in any given hour, on any given morning or on any given day. Note down what you do when you wake up, what you do during/after you make breakfast, how you fill blocks of time, what you do whilst you wait for food to cook, what you do when you get stuck with work…
If you can commit to something like this for just one (admittedly intense examination) time-frame, you will see plenty of benefits and a spotlight that shines down on all things good and bad in your routines. From there, you can see what is distracting you, when you are most productive, where you are being unproductive, what is keeping you from your main task and what unnecessary tasks that you add to your day (a cleaning of your bedroom mid-blog post, anyone?).
Toni Karaza outlined a similar process in an article he did for Medium:
"I start working on an article, then scroll my phone, answer e-mails, scroll through Instagram, grab something to eat, back to the article again(what was the topic?), phone again, answer Quora questions, get another epiphany and think about it for ten minutes before I write it down, article again(have to finish what I started), walk around the apartment for no obvious reason, call my mother, article(I’m almost done), get my dogs out for a walk and viola, my 800 words unreadable-piece-of-first-draft is ready 8 hours after I started — mad productive, right?"
Toni represents many of us, and it can be useful to see just where you are going wrong. Cut out one phone check here and answering emails there and all of a sudden, focusing on the task at hand and simply doing your work is that much easier.