We all want to be more productive. More efficient. But how do we do it? Something I’ve been struggling with for quite a while (in fact, I’m struggling with it right this very second) is focus. How many times have you started to do something, only to remember something else, or to see something out of the corner of your eye, or to hear something that brings back so many memories… How much quicker would things get done if you could just cut out distractions and concentrate on the task at hand?
Let me share a story that I think ties in quite nicely with this topic: my husband is a huge American football fan. Of course, with each game being approximately three hours long, you can imagine how much time it takes up for him. Which is why I was intrigued to hear that, when someone he knows records a game, he edits out all the stoppages. The result? He can watch the game in less than half the time.
That’s what learning to focus can do for our lives – it can cut out all the breaks and help us get the job done in half the time, without skipping any essentials. So how do you eliminate distractions?
This is something I’ve become more and more aware of recently. I try to read a book, and then I notice a Facebook notification. Before I know it, I’ve spent an hour online. Then I wonder why I have to keep renewing my library loans. Or I sit down to write something, and all of a sudden I’m totally engrossed in what’s happening outside the window. Two hours later, when the job I started still isn’t done, I bemoan my life and start to dread what I’m supposed to be doing. From then on, every time I think about that task, I immediately start thinking of any excuse to get out of it, based on the false assumption that it will take me too much time.
Now I’m not saying you should go sit in a blank cube of a room or immerse yourself in a sensory deprivation tank – I’m simply suggesting that you take a few small steps to minimise distractions. Put your phone on silent, turn off the vibrate function, and even turn it upside down so you’re not distracted by the screen lighting up. In fact, go put it in a different room so that you’re not tempted to check for messages at the mere sight of it sitting by your side.
Yes, it’s tough at first, but it becomes so much easier. Recently, my phone got wet and I had to leave it in a bag of rice for a few days. The first day, I went to check it on a fairly regular basis. The second day, I only checked it a handful of times. The third and final day, I barely even noticed that I didn’t have it with me. And even though the phone is now fully dry and functional again, I often just put it down and go about my business. Whereas once it was like my right arm and I didn’t even leave the room without first putting it in my pocket, now I frequently let it sit in a corner and only check it occasionally. What am I missing out on? Nothing!
So that’s the phone taken care of, but what about other devices? What about when you’re typing away on your computer and all of a sudden you see a notification pop up alerting you to a new email, or a new friend on Facebook, or a new tweet? Personally, I don’t like changing notifications settings because, sometimes, they’re useful. So what do I do instead? I just close down the browser tab. Or I don’t open it in the first place. I needed to finish writing something this morning, so I switched on the laptop. Normally, the first thing I’d do is boot up my browser. This time? I opened up the Word document I was working on and just got stuck in. It’s so much easier to concentrate on one thing when you don’t have other things open in the background, luring you away.
The same is true of the TV. How could you possibly concentrate fully on something when there’s all that noise and movement in the background? TV shows are designed to suck you in and hold your attention. Why would you want your brain to have to fight that when it’s trying to focus on something else? And why would you sit by the window when there’s all sorts of activity going on outside? Yes, it’s fine to sit by a window when the setting soothes you and a glimpse out at nature refreshes and inspires you, but that’s unlikely to happen if your window faces out over a busy street or a scene with a lot of hustle and bustle. Turn away!
Sometimes, it’s the people on your side of the window that distract you. In this case, you just have to make it clear that you’re not available, and you should ensure that you do it in advance if you can. It may take a while for this to sink in, but your family will soon get the message. Make it easy for them — don’t set up shop at the kitchen table or a busy family spot. Instead, pick a quiet corner and, if possible, close the door. Hang a ‘do not disturb’ sign if that’s what you need to do.
And one final tip. I recently watched a video that suggested that you’d increase productivity if you just stopped procrastinating and did things as soon as you thought of them. Sound advice, you might think, until you end up dropping the duster because you’ve just remembered you need milk. Doing things as we think of them isn’t increasing our productivity, it’s detracting from it. Even while writing this, I remembered something else I need to do. If I’d gone and done it, I’d most likely spot something else that needed doing. And so on, and this post would never get written.
So how do you ensure that, by just focusing on one thing, you don’t end up forgetting that second thing? Do what I do and write it down! That way you can go back to finishing what you’d started, without the second thing taking up valuable brain space, and without worrying that you’ll have forgotten what it was by the time you’re done with your current task.
Life will always throw obstacles in your way — your brain will always want to re-live a long-ago memory just when you want to get some writing done, your phone will always beep just when you were about to start in on the ironing, and your new email will seem infinitely more urgent just as you were about to go put on a wash load. But guess what? All those things will still be there when you’re done.
The dishwasher will get emptied in just a minute or two if you don’t keep stopping to reply to text messages. You’ll have the beds made in a jiffy if you don’t gaze out the window, wondering which direction those dark clouds are moving. You’ll have the table cleared in mere moments if you don’t keep your eyes fixed squarely on the nightly news.
We all lose focus at times. It’s only natural for our minds to stray, or for the doorbell to ring unexpectedly, or for the washing machine to suddenly spring a leak. Those things are inevitable and often unavoidable. But most things aren’t. The next time you go to do something, make a note of anything that distracts you. What can you do to ensure it doesn’t happen again?
By being mindful of what distracts you, you can start to put preventative measures in place. Pretty soon, that chore that used to take you a whole hour to get through is now done and dusted in ten minutes. And guess what? Knowing that you no longer have to find a whole hour in your schedule to do it means you don’t dread it, and it’s going to get done much more often. Your kitchen will be cleaner, you’ll have read so many more books, you won’t have a whole house full of half-finished jobs… All because you ditched the distractions for a few minutes.
What distracts you? And how are you going to deal with it?