The Betterment Project
How To Regain Focus When You're Feeling Distracted

How To Regain Focus When You're Feeling Distracted

When you’re trying to accomplish the tasks on your to-do list, you probably know just how frustrating it can be to get distracted. 


Whether the distractions are external or internal, it’s typically important to regain our focus and get back on task. Knowing we should avoid distractions and actually overcoming distractions are two very different things.


Understanding what’s distracting you can help you manage distractions better. Then, you can learn how to regain your focus and be the productive person you set out to be before you start getting distracted. 


When you know how to regain your focus, you can formulate a strategy to implement when you encounter distractions in the future. Just like you know you’ll have more tasks that need your attention in the future, you can anticipate that there will be distractions again in the future. However, you can be prepared for them.


What’s Got You Feeling Distracted? 

A distraction is anything that keeps you from giving full attention to something else. That means that just because something is a distraction doesn’t mean it doesn’t need your attention. It just happens to be what’s dividing your attention away from what you need to be doing. 


For example, if you’re preparing dinner for your family, you need to pay attention to what you’re doing to make sure the food is cooked properly. Your kids or spouse may need your help with something at the same time. Both tasks are important to you, but they’re also distractions that keep you from fully focusing on the other. 


Depending on the task, getting distracted can even be dangerous. When you’re driving, for example, distracted driving is very unsafe. According to the CDC, there are three main types of distraction:


  • Visual - Taking your eyes off the task
  • Manual - When you physically stop doing the task
  • Cognitive - When your mind wanders away from doing the task

With these types of distractions in mind, think about the common distractions in your life. Can you think of distractions that fall into those categories? Here are some common distractions that people encounter:


Chats or Conversations 

Building your relationships with other people is certainly important, but they can be very distracting when you need to focus on a task. You don’t want to be rude or impersonal, but you can end up seriously distracted by a conversation you didn't intend to have when you started working on a task.


You can try to politely end the conversations if you notice that they’re causing a problem for you, or you can offer to get back in touch when you’re done with what you’re currently working on. 


Noise

When you’re trying to concentrate, noise can be a major distraction. Think about when you’re trying to find something while driving; many of us turn down the radio. We don’t turn the radio down to help us see better. We turn it down to help us focus our attention. 


Science suggests that background noise activates the same region of our brain as noises we’re trying to hear or choosing to listen to, so it’s very easy for noise to redirect our attention away from what we want to be focusing on. 


When you need to focus without getting distracted, it’s best to find a quiet space to do your work, but if you can’t change locations and still need to overcome the noise distraction, you may want to consider some noise-canceling headphones. 


Notifications 

Our world is full of amazing technology, but it’s also full of distractions. One of the most common distractions comes through the phones in our hands. 


We get notifications for everything. It seems that every app, text, or email wants to be seen and heard immediately upon arrival. 


While it may be important to stay up-to-date on events, it’s probably not necessary to interrupt your thoughts quite so frequently, especially when you’re trying to focus. If you think notifications are a big distraction for you, consider turning some of them off, silencing your devices while you’re working, or designating a specific time for them.


Smartphones 

The tiny computers we tote around with us that can make phone calls are a big distraction. In fact, the average smartphone user, that’s most of us, checks their phone an average of 47 times per day. Assuming you sleep eight hours each night, that would mean we check our phone almost three times per hour. 


How long you stay on the phone when you check may vary, but even if you only got distracted for five minutes each time, that would be a total of almost two hours lost to your smartphone every day during an eight-hour workday. Almost four hours on your phone throughout the day. 


What could you do with that kind of time? If the phone is a distraction for you, you might want to consider putting it away when you need to focus. Turning notifications and sounds off will also help protect you from the siren’s call of your smartphone.


How Can You Regain Focus?

When you realize you’re getting distracted, it’s time to take control and take back your focus. However, regaining your focus takes practice and a little effort. Remember, just because it’s a distraction doesn’t mean it’s not important, but regaining your focus can be easier than it seems.


Jot Down Distractions 

Sometimes avoiding distractions just isn’t possible. Instead, try writing distractions down as they come. Keeping a running list of distractions can help you address them later or dismiss them if they don’t really need your attention. 


Recognize The Cost 

Sometimes we welcome distractions. When a friend calls to check-in, we may want to devote time to that distraction. When this happens, accept the distraction and recognize what it costs you. This is known as an opportunity cost. 


When you acknowledge what a distraction is costing you,  you can more accurately weigh if it’s worth allowing the distraction.


Time Blocks

One great way to gain control of your ability to focus is to implement time blocks. Time blocks can help you break up your day and focus on similar items all at once. 


Grouping like tasks and devoting a segment of your day to only that work can help you zero in on each task and devote your total focus. You may realize that you don’t need as much time as you thought because you’re wholly devoted to the task during its time block.


Between each time block, take a break. Take a walk, calm your mind, and prepare yourself for the next time block. This will let you reset yourself and be ready to focus on the next task.


Set a timer for the allotted time block to keep yourself from getting distracted by checking the time. Work until your timer goes off, and see just how much you’ve accomplished. 


Give Up Multitasking 

Multitasking is a myth. Multitasking is like giving yourself a distraction while you’re trying to do something. Remember, a distraction is anything that divides your attention from what you’re trying to pay attention to. If you’re multitasking, your attention is already being divided.


Instead, focus on one task at a time. This allows you to devote the proper attention to each task without sacrificing any attention to detail. You’ll be surprised by how much you actually get done when you stop trying to do multiple things at once.

Supplement Your Focus 

Sometimes we need a little help to maintain our focus. Most of us get a little boost to our focus every morning with a cup of tea or coffee. We turn to caffeine as a natural way to improve our focus and sharpen our minds. 


If you turn to caffeine again and again throughout the day, you may notice that it’s difficult to calm back down. While stimulants can help you stay sharp and on task, they can also make you feel jittery and make it difficult to sleep later on. Use them with caution.


Summary 

Distractions are bound to happen to all of us from time to time. The key to managing distractions is taking control of how long they are allowed to take our focus off what we’re doing and learning to redirect ourselves when we get sidetracked. 

 

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Sources:

Distracted Driving | Motor Vehicle Safety | cdc.gov 

Why background noise can be so distracting | eLife Science Digests 

Guess how often you use your phone every day | journalofaccountancy.com

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This article has been reviewed by members of our Scientific Advisory Board.