In a culture that seems designed for multitasking and attention-splitting activities, distraction has quickly become the norm for many people. Simply standing in line for coffee can be a roller coaster of email replies, social media updates, eavesdropping, to-do list creation and text messages. It’s no wonder you need a boost of java to keep going.
Although handling multiple tasks is an everyday part of life, that doesn’t mean the brain has evolved to keep up. According to the University of Southern California, multitasking studies note that when we take on numerous tasks simultaneously, we tend to make more mistakes, retain less information and even make our brain less efficient.
When distraction becomes chronic, you could see other effects as well, such as lackluster athletic performance, less-than-ideal eating habits, interrupted sleep and higher stress levels.
“We’ve bought into this idea that if you can fit it all in, then you can have it all,” says Greg McKeown, author of “Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less.” “And when that happens, you’ll be happy. But how’s that working out for you?”
Fortunately, there are ways to turn the firehose of distractions into a more manageable stream of productivity. Here are five tips to get started:
1. SET A TIMER
If you’re taking on a certain task — for instance, doing a weight set at the gym, tackling a work project or making dinner from scratch — you can lessen distractions by estimating how long the task should take and setting a timer.
Because you know you only have a set amount of time, it tends to keep you on task instead of floating from one distraction to another, McKeown says.
Stop for a moment and sit back, perhaps close your eyes and focus only on what you hear, suggests Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, a former Microsoft Research fellow, business consultant and author of “The Distraction Addiction.”
Giving yourself an opportunity to have these moments of mindfulness strips down your experience to a bare minimum, he notes. It lets you hear what’s going on in your head, too.
“Even just a few minutes of active listening can be very informative,” he says. “Take some deep breaths while you’re at it, and it’s likely that you’ll feel more relaxed and focused when you ‘come back’ from the exercise.”
3. DEVELOP ROUTINES
For some, even the word “routine” makes them bristle, thinking they’ll have to endure the boredom of the same schedule, every day, forever and ever. But establishing a routine can have the opposite effect, McKeown believes.
“When you turn habits into an automatic routine, you’re actually freeing up your mind to some degree,” he says. An extreme example is Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, who wore the exact same outfit — a mock turtleneck and jeans — every single day, so he wouldn’t waste time or focus on choosing clothes every morning.
You don’t have to skew to that degree (unless you love mock turtlenecks), but the concept of being more aware of what distracts you can be helpful. From there, you can build a routine that cuts down on those focus slayers.
4. DRINK WATER
When focusing is particularly difficult, it might be possible that there’s a physiological as well as a mental component at work. For example, you might just need a little more hydration.
In a study, published in the Journal of Nutrition, participants struggled with concentration and mental skills when they were even mildly dehydrated. It might be because neurons in your brain can detect dehydration, and that can throw off certain functions that are deemed non-essential, such as the ability to focus.
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Another advantage to drinking a glass of water is it forces you to stop your scurrying and pause for a moment. Sometimes, even that short reset can be helpful.
5. TAKE YOUR TIME
In general, think about focus in the same way you would any new habit. You’re learning a fresh skill, and that takes time to build up and master.
You may get frazzled and overwhelmed when your focus seems gone for good, but if you can gently bring your attention back — even for a few seconds at a time — you’ll be increasing your ability to focus for longer periods of time.
“We’ve become programmed to some degree to want more, more, more,” says McKeown. “That type of thinking can increase your number of distractions and make it very difficult to focus. The trick is to pursue less, less, less, so that you’re mainly paying attention to what’s most important to you.”