10 Surprising Ways You Can Work with Focus & Avoid Distraction

Focus & Distraction

Think about a time at work you are most proud of. A difficult project successfully delivered, or a paper that received a good grade, or a difficult conversation that went well. Each of those moments will have required your undivided attention.

When we wake up and get ready for the day, producing our best work is something we all aspire to. But, with distractions on the rise, and the limits of our attention seemingly reached, how do we make sure, more often than not, we do the best work we’re capable of and avoid the inevitable digital distraction?

To understand this, we first have to understand the impact attention switching has on us.

How Does Attention Switching Affect Us?

The immense amount of work on the impact of attention switching on human performance can be overwhelming. Sophie Leroy’s seminal work on the Attention Residue is one of the best and most accessible pieces on digital wellness and responsibility. Leroy claims “it is difficult for people to transition their attention away from an unfinished task and their subsequent task performance suffers”.

Gloria Mark also writes regularly about the impact of repeated interruptions, particularly email, on the quality of our work lives, and how a single interruption can take us up to 20 minutes to get back into the same level of focus we were in previously.

So what are some of the benefits of maintaining focus and attention in a digitised environment?

Benefits of a focused digital environment

When digital environments are created to actually serve what we, as human beings not just as employees, need to achieve, rather than compete for our limited attention, then the quality of your work increases, your negative stress levels decrease, and you become fully present to the task or the people around us. In short, with a focused digital environment, we give ourselves the space to become our best selves, both in the workplace and in our personal lives.

Here are 10 ways you can become more focused and less distracted:

  1. Mindful devices: By making our devices more mindful, we take more control over the way they behave, rather than being at the mercy of incessant notifications and other attempts to engage with our attention. Whether personally or professionally, being more mindful about way you like to use your devices (such as the selection of apps on our home page) will ultimately help design a digital life that serves you, and not the other way around.
  2. Know the impact of the platforms – understand digital platforms are designed to make you feel a certain way. There is a growing community of people who are creating great content on the way technologies impact the quality of our lives. Understanding how technologies are designed to manipulate how we feel helps you make different choices when it comes to creating your digital experiences. Understanding how the limitless scroll mimics slot machines, or the potential for social media to act as a social contagion helps you to intentionally design your digital world
  3. Manage notifications: Unwanted notifications are one of the biggest culprits of digital distraction. Learn to understand which notifications are the most important to you and silence the ones that aren’t. The potential for people working in jobs that require a high degree of concentration, to suffer from notification fatigue – where we think every single buzz or ‘ding’ is important, is on the rise and decreases our ability to make good choices.
  4. Establish digital boundaries: Establishing boundaries on our digital lives is essential in this hyperconnected age. Knowing when to put your professional self on the back burner and then connecting with friends is incredibly important. The alternative is the blurring of the office and home, of the professional and the personal.
  5. Use technology intentionally: The intentional use of technology is such a deceptively simple concept but has massive benefits. How often do you work while leaving other apps open in the background? How often do you check your email during work? Intentionally using technology means that we understand what we’re trying to do and the best tools that help us to do it. What tools help you to do your best work? What combinations don’t?
  6. Fullscreen: Going full screen is a fabulous way to restrict your peripheral vision when working and lessen the chances of you being distracted by other apps that want your attention
  7. Internet blockers: Internet blockers intentionally block your access to the online world and minimise distractions for those who need a serene period of time.
  8. Know your limits – understand the way you work and when you crash: David Kadavy spoke eloquently about the importance of understanding your patterns of work – when is your best time to do concentrated creative work, or work in groups? Learning your particular patterns will help you greatly to design your technology use around you and not the other way around.
  9. White noise: One of the single best tools to help get you in the ‘zone’, focus@will, has plenty of science-backed sounds that helps your brain to get into the right frame of mind for working
  10. Single use apps: Single use apps can be incredibly helpful for some people. For some people using apps with multiple functions distracts them from what they are actually trying to do. Calendar apps, Kindles, specific email apps, help you to really focus and write that great email, or to read without going down digital rabbit holes.

Honorable Mentions

  1. Trackers: Having devices that can reflect our data back to ourselves can be an incredibly useful way to give us greater insight into the different peaks and troughs of our performance during the day. How stressed were you today? How much did you move? While these trackers can be imperfect, they’re a useful barometer to understand our optimal times of the day to do certain tasks
  2. Breathing / meditation apps: meditation and similar stress reduction apps have been on the market for a while now and are becoming increasingly mature. Headspace, Calm.com, Whil.com and more are bringing the benefits of breathing practices and meditation to the masses and helping people become more focused and less distracted in the process.

So here are some ways to be more focused and less stressed. What are some ways you shape your digital environment to be less distracted and more focused?

Buchanan, J., Kelley, B. & Hatch, A., 2016. Digital workplace and culture: How digital technologies are changing the workforce and how enterprises can adapt and evolve, London. Available at: https://www2.deloitte.com/content/dam/Deloitte/us/Documents/human-capital/us-cons-digital-workplace-and-culture.pdf [Accessed May 1, 2017].

Cox, A.L., Gould, S., Cecchinato, M.E., Iacovides, I., Renfree, I. (2016). Design Frictions for Mindful Interactions: The Case for Microboundaries. Proceedings CHI ’16 Extended Abstracts on Human Factors in Computing Systems. San Jose, CA. Download pdf

Leroy, S., 2009. Why is it so hard to do my work? The challenge of attention residue when switching between work tasks. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 109(2), pp.168-181.

Lawrence Ampofo
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Lawrence Ampofo

Lawrence Ampofo is a thought leader on the impact of digital technologies on humans and society. Lawrence is a political scientist, strategic communications expert, author, trainer and speaker who focuses on the impact of emerging digital technologies on the geopolitical system and global business.
Lawrence Ampofo
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