Over the past few years, I’ve come to understand that all of us are living in a time of great distraction, and reduced focus. Just look around.
Our smartphones inundate us with notifications, both chats from our friends and family, as well as notifications from apps, including games, news and entertainment. Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and Twitter are ever-present features of so many of our lives. When you head to the gym, airport, or many restaurants, you’ll see a television playing in the background. Most Americans (including yours truly) sleep with their smartphone close by.
We are more connected than ever. Yet, there are serious consequences to our connectivity. Younger adults display a reduced ability to focus, and a lower attention span, compared to older adults, who did not spend as much of their lives using smartphones. Even the mere presence (not usage) of a cell phone, affects our ability to concentrate, and can damage the quality of our social interactions as well.
In order to change this situation, and achieve deeper levels of focus, clarity and concentration, I have tried a variety of tactics. Without further adieu, here is what I’ve learned.
1.Create A Schedule, & Track Your Time
It’s easy for the day to get away from us. Emails rain down on your inbox. Meetings of questionable value are scheduled. Your phone rings. It isn’t always possible to prevent these distractions from occurring. However, you can limit their impact.
Inspired by Cal Newport’s Deep Work, in early 2017, I decided to start planning my day ahead, the day before. I would write down what time I planned to get up, and how I would spend each 20 to 30 minute increment of my day, during my working hours. I would then track, in considerable detail, how I actually spent my time.
This brought a great deal of clarity, to what I was hoping to accomplish, and allowed me to see where my time was going. If I spent too long checking email, or on the phone, I had to make a note of that. Was this an effective use of my time? If I didn’t complete certain tasks, why was this?
As a result, I cut certain things out of my schedule. For example,I went from checking Facebook daily, to just once per week. I used to view the news a few times during working hours, then in the evenings, and now, just once every three days or so (we’ll talk more about that later).
Did planning ahead, and tracking my schedule, make me more efficient? Definitely. I still have a long ways to go. My schedule during working hours still shows a fair number of times marked “this and that” or “distracted” where I didn’t get much done (although taking breaks is an important part of working well). However, seeing how my time is spent, has allowed me to reduce unnecessary distractions, and achieve greater focus. I am more productive than I have been in a long time.
Of course, creating a schedule doesn’t mean you’ll always stick to it. Other priorities arise during the day, and demand your attention. A schedule isn’t meant to hold you in a vise grip, but rather, to provide you with a well-defined structure, and goals to aspire to. Variations will be required.
2. Put Your Phone Somewhere Else — And On Silent If Possible
This one has been much tougher. In part, since I run my own business, I need to be accessible by phone. At the same time, I recognize that having a smartphone close at hand is a habit — which has proven hard to break.
With that said, I have made some progress. While working, I often make a deliberate effort to put my phone in a location where I can’t easily access it. This forces me to make a conscious choice.
If the phone rings, I know I should probably stand up and get it — this could be a work call, of some urgency. However, if it buzzes or beeps with a text message, I will usually ignore the message, until I have completed a set block of work. This approach isn’t perfect, since my mind is primed to listen for the phone (which in itself is a form of distraction), but it does allow me to maintain greater focus.
3. Limit How Often You Follow News
Entrepreneur and futurist Peter Diamandis warns of the dangers of constantly following the news, describing CNN as the “Crisis News Network.” Diamandis is not speaking from a partisan perspective — it isn’t only CNN he is referring to.
Rather, Diamandis observes, we are wired to pay attention to negative news, and so, by constantly engaging, we shift our focus towards the darker side of things. This is called negativity bias. Following the news obsessively also leads to greater mental clutter and distraction, which can increase levels of anxiety.
I witnessed the effects of this phenomenon in my own life. When I lived in New York, I used to check the news each morning, before leaving for work, several more times during the day, and again after coming home. Both consciously and more subtly, I was impacted by what I read and saw. I felt as if I was reacting to what was happening in the world, instead of being proactive, and getting ahead of what I was exposing myself to.
A few years later, after moving back to Los Angeles, I started to believe that this behavior was having a negative impact on me, so I decided to only follow the news in the evenings, after I had finished all important work for the day.
Even that wasn’t enough. Earlier this year, I chose to limit my deliberate news intake, during weekdays, to just once every four days. This means that, if I am at the gym or airport, and a television is playing, I often cannot avoid seeing/hearing the news. Yet, on my own, I do my best not to seek it out.
Since I recently implemented this level of news avoidance, I don’t yet know what it’s long-term impact will be. I already feel a greater sense of focus and calm. If you limit intake of a particular type of stimulus, I have found, it reduces the chances it will occupy your brain. I find myself less concerned with what Donald Trump said, or where the US economy is headed. As a result, I am able to focus more on what actually matters.
This process hasn’t always been easy. I had fallen into the habit of consuming content, on a daily basis. When I first decided to reduce my news intake, I’d find myself randomly clicking the New York Times, Bloomberg and other tabs saved at the top of my Google Chrome browser. It was reflexive. Over time, I’ve (somewhat) tempered that response.
4. Meditate In The Morning (Or Evening)
I was fortunate enough to grow up in a family where I learned to meditate early on. However, as an adult, at least through much of my college and law school years, it wasn’t something I actively pursued. Yet, as with so many habits, we sometimes lose track of what we learned, only to return to it later.
In 2013, I began meditating once again. At first, I was lacking in focus, and my mind often wandered. Still, I decided I should persist. I made modest progress, at best, in my feeling a greater sense of calm and focus. Finally, I made use of the most vast informational resource in our world: The Internet.
YouTube is filled with guided meditations, of different lengths, and focused on varied topics. Some stress the power of calm and acceptance, while others focus on affirmations of health, wealth and more. What’s more, the Headspace app features a variety of meditations for different situations and mindsets, and offers the convenience of access on your mobile phone.
From YouTube, I selected meditations which matched the mood I hoped to achieve, to start the day off strong. I would conduct these meditations for 10 minutes each morning, after waking up. Beginning the day this way calms and centers your mind, setting an excellent foundation for the rest of the day.
Starting off your day in a focused manner does not guarantee you won’t be thrown off later. It happens to me all the time. However, it does increase the chances that you’ll be able to maintain focus, and if you get off track, recenter yourself. Maintaining control of your mental state, is crucial to your ultimate success.
5. Reduce How Often You Check Your Email & Social Media
I’ve written before about how reducing consumption of social media made my life better, both in terms of happiness, as well as focus and distraction. Since that time, I’ve reduced my Facebook consumption to just once per week. At least once per year, maybe twice, I will remove the app from my cell phone, along with Instagram, for a month or so, and completely unplug.
My experience has confirmed the findings of researchers, that social media increases levels of anxiety. Instagram, in particular, has been associated with higher feelings of depression and reduced self-esteem. Unplugging offers positive benefits.
Social media also functions as a form of escapism. We let ourselves get lost in what is on Instagram or Facebook or Snapchat, in what other people are doing, seeing, and saying.
In the process, we forget something far more important to focus on: ourselves. Each of us has more important directions, in which to focus our energies. There are people we care about, and goals, ideas and issues which matter to us. We all have a chance to contribute. Allocating attention to that over which we have little influence, doesn’t make much sense.
Email is a trickier issue. While social media has little direct relevance to our lives (outside of entertainment, and living vicariously), email often pertains directly to something we ought to know, or do. Depending on where you work, much of your daily communications are conducted via email, and in many cases, prompt responses are expected.
Personal emails are somewhat less urgent, but that doesn’t stop us from checking them frequently. I chose to allow myself a few minutes to check emails in the morning (typically ten minutes or less), but I was not allowed to check them again until 6 PM. If I needed to access my personal email for some reason, I would cover the screen, search for the exact email I needed to view, and find it. I forced myself to prioritize which emails were worthy of my attention.
This helped me to get my day moving at an even faster pace, and accomplish more during the peak work hours. I began to feel the effects almost immediately. I saw that I was getting more done in less time, and as if what I was doing mattered. What’s more, I didn’t really fall behind on responding to emails.
6. Develop A Journaling Habit
Several years ago, I started following Benjamin Hardy on Medium. Benjamin is a doctoral candidate in psychology, and writes extensively about personal development, offering numerous strategies to improve one’s life. Amongst the most powerful of these, is forming a daily journaling habit.
Hardy argues for using journaling as a means to “crystallize” your ideas and clarify insights, to review and repeat and affirm your goals, and to develop a deeper sense of gratitude. One of the times Hardy suggests for journaling, is soon after you wake up. Our brains are at or near their peak state.
Another part of Benjamin’s approach, is to write down a question, before you sleep. This could be a problem you want to solve, or a question you’ve been wrestling with. As Hardy explains, your subconscious mind engages with this question overnight. When you wake up, and are in a peak mental state, with your brain is better primed to address these sorts of questions.
Journaling in the morning allows you to face your fears, what you are grateful for, and your goals. My journaling routine begins the night before, when I write down a question, which I want my brain to address in the morning. I’ll also write down the three most important things I would like to accomplish the following day, as well as several of my long-term goals.
In the morning, I spend 4 to 5 minutes reflecting on the questions which I posed to myself, trying to flesh out my deeper thoughts. I write down whatever comes to mind, and attempt to dig one level beneath that, looking for something which I otherwise might not have figured out. Often, this requires asking myself “and what?” or “so what does that mean?”
Reviewing goals for the next day, as well as my long-term plans, also serves several important functions. First, it reminds me of where my energy and attention ought to be directed. As the upcoming day is quite likely to be busy, it is easy to get sidetracked. Being clear on what my objectives are, and where I hope to move my life, both today, as well as in the months and years to come, helps me to keep the big picture in mind, and keep moving forward.
7. Be Kind To Yourself
When we strive to make large changes in our lives, the odds are we will sometimes fall short. There are myriad reasons, and a voluminous body of psychological research, which strives to explain why this happens.
Don’t beat yourself up. I learned this the hard way. When I would fall short on a goal, I would repeatedly chastise myself, and get aggravated for falling short. I’d ask myself what I could have done differently. In one sense, this wasn’t bad. By being critical, and asking where there was room for improvement, I could get better.
At the same time, by speaking to myself negatively, I became somewhat averse to the process of personal growth. In order to break this cycle, and make sure that I was progressing, I stopped chastising myself, and instead affirmed “This happened. You fell short. But you’ll get there. You are going to improve.”
I continued to remind myself of this, even as I repeatedly fell short of goals. Sometimes, I would journal and write about why I fell short, and come up with strategies, which would allow me to perform better in the future. In short, I would acknowledge that I could do better, but I’d also affirm that I was human, and this wasn’t the end of the world.
My grandfather was fond of quoting John Milton’s observation in Paradise Lost: “The mind is in it’s own place, and can make a hell of heaven, and a heaven of hell.” (At the time, we thought he’d come up with the quote himself). Our minds are amazing machines, but in a world of hyperconnectivity and distraction, it can be hard to center ourselves.
The approaches I’ve discussed above have proven to be quite effective for me. They’ve allowed me to direct my energy towards the things that matter most, and set aside the rest. They’ve put my mind at greater ease, and given me a stronger sense of clarity and purpose.
I have a long ways to go — there is no question about it. However, there has also been considerable progress along the way, and for that, I’m grateful. I can’t emphasize enough, how rewarding this journey of personal progress has been. Give it a try. You’ll be glad that you did.