Imagine the following scenario:

You walk into work in the morning. You greet your co-workers, maybe fill up your cup of coffee, and settle down at your computer, ready to get to work. Your task list is daunting, and you really need to get stuff done. But only minutes after you sit down, you’re suddenly distracted. Perhaps your phone buzzes with a notification or a text. Or, your co-worker knocks on the door. Or, an unfinished task pops up in your mind, and just you can’t concentrate on the task before you.

Sound familiar?

If you’re like most people, you struggle to focus and concentrate at work. According to Gloria Mark, a professor who studies digital distraction at the University of California Irvine, most workers concentrate for only three minutes before they get distracted, and it can take up to 23 minutes to bring your attention fully back to task. Studies vary as to how often the average worker gets distracted. But whether it’s three minutes or twelve, the numbers are dismal. Distraction is at epidemic proportions in the modern workplace.

Distractions not only lead to lower effectiveness and productivity at work. They can also have a major impact on work-life balance. For example, the human resource firm, BambooHR did a survey of 1,000 US-based full-time workers which showed that more than half of workers make up for time spent on distractions at work by working after hours. When you improve your concentration at work, you can also become more present with your family and friends and have more time for self-care.

The good news is, there are many steps you can take to improve your concentration.

In this article, I’ll share with you six tools for reducing distractions and focusing your attention at work.  Before we get started, however, if you’re serious about improving your concentration, I’m going to ask you to first do three things. First, put your phone on silent (yes, no buzzing!). Next, grab a piece of paper where you can jot down any thoughts that pop up as you read. And, finally, set a timer for ten minutes and focus your attention for this time.

Ready? Congratulations! You’ve just set yourself for focus and success. Now, let’s go!

Tool #1: The Off Button

One of the simplest ways to improve your concentration is to eliminate electronic interruptions. Here are some steps to help you do this:

  • Turn off all notifications on your phone.
  • Keep your phone on silent and only return calls.
  • Don’t answer the phone when you’re in the middle of important tasks.
  • For about $3 per month, purchase visual voicemail so you don’t need to listen to voicemail recordings but instead can quickly read them.
  • Don’t check emails first thing after waking up.
  • Only check social media at specific and limited times.
  • Schedule regular, screen-free downtime.
  • Use an internet blocker such as Freedom or Self Control.

Tool #2: A Timer

Digital multi-tasking—having several emails, social media streams, websites, or text messages open at the same time—leads to massive distraction. Researchers at Stanford studied 100 students in an attempt to discover what gave digital multi-taskers their edge. Instead, they found that digital multi-taskers had no extra edge. According to one of the researchers, Eyal Ophir, “We kept looking at what they’re better at, and we didn’t find it.” Another researcher said, “They’re suckers for irrelevancy. Everything distracts them.”

The good news is that improving your concentration can be as simple as setting a timer. Fans have been using the so-called “Pomodoro technique” for decades by setting a timer for twenty-five minute and focusing, then taking a five-minute break, and then focusing again. You don’t need a tomato-shaped timer (which is how the technique got its name), just simply use the timer on your phone or computer.

Tool #3: Paper and a Pen

From now on, whenever a random thought or unfinished task pops up in your mind, don’t try to play whackamole by pushing it back down. Instead, see this as your unconscious mind asking your conscious mind to make a plan, and take a moment to write the task down immediately.

You don’t need to create a lengthy plan or carry it out right away. All you need is to write a verb and a complete thought. This way, you can rest assured that you won’t forget the task and refocus your attention on the task at hand. Then, when you finish the task you’re working on and are ready to pay attention to the new task, you know exactly where to begin. Writing down your to-do list may be a very simple and mundane step toward mental clarity, but if you’re not already doing it, it could potentially be the most profound.

Tool #4: Your Voice

I hope you’re forgive me for equating your voice with technology, but I think you’ll get my point here. Sometimes, we over-complicate things in search of easy answers. If your co-worker or family member is constantly interrupting you, one of the most important steps you can take to improve your concentration is to simply ask them to stop.

To do this, plan a neutral time to talk so that neither of you feels caught off-guard. Then, ask them to please stop interrupting you. If a family member interrupts you frequently at work, let them know that from now on, unless there’s a dire emergency (and define what emergency means to you), you’ll only be able about to talk after work hours. If co-workers interrupt you, create “open office hours” every day or several times per week during which they can feel free to bring you any concerns, questions, or thoughts.

Then, stick to your boundaries. If they call, let it go to voicemail. If they knock on your door and ask “Have you got a minute?” ask if it’s an emergency. If it’s not, say no. If they insist on talking to you and it’s not an emergency, have another clear conversation letting them know your boundaries. I realize that in many places, this may entail shifting workplace culture. Indeed, culture change is what’s needed in many workplaces if we’re to be as effective as we want to be.

Tool #5: A Well-Organized Calendar and Schedule

You can rearrange your calendar in many ways to make it easier for you to concentrate at work. Here are just a few ideas to help you do this:

Have just one calendar: Avoid needing to transfer activities from an online calendar to a paper one. Google Calendars is great because you can sync it across devices.

Cluster Like-Activities: It takes mental energy and brainpower to switch from one type of task to another—writing emails to supervising staff to networking. You waste your time and are less efficient when you have to prepare yourself to jump between several different types of activities in the same day. When you schedule like-activities together throughout the day and week, you save time and energy.

Create “Admin Time”: If you answer email all day long, your week will quickly end without you feeling like you’ve accomplished much of anything. At the same time, being responsive and timely is key to developing positive relationships with staff, colleagues, and clients, as well as friends and family. In order to safeguard time to accomplish your most important goals, I encourage you to plan one or two short time periods each day to respond to emails and make phone calls.

Create routines you can count on: Scheduling the same activities at the same time on the same days of the week eliminates the guesswork and reduces the energy it takes to begin new tasks. Creating daily and weekly rhythms and routines for repeat tasks is one of the most powerful ways to create habits that help you reach your goals.

Tool #6: A Guiding Question—”What is truly most important right now?”

The last tool to help you stay focused on what’s most important is a question to help you consciously choose your response when you’re distracted. Reacting unconsciously looks like complaining there’s never enough time and following whatever distractions come your way. Choosing consciously, on the other hand, looks like accepting responsibility for the choices you make. Steven Covey, author of First Things First, called this “exercising integrity in the moment of choice.”

When an interruption or opportunity comes up that you hadn’t anticipated and you’re not sure how to respond, take a moment to pause, remember you have a choice, and get curious. Then, ask yourself, “What’s truly most important right now?” Allow yourself to return to this question whenever you’re trying to figure out how to respond to an interruption, either at work and outside of work. This will help you navigate through the distractions of life, some you simple cannot avoid beforehand.

So, how do you improve your concentration?

The answer to this question is ultimately up to you. You can allow yourself to be the victim of a non-stop onslaught of distractions and waste hours each day as a result. Or, you can use these simple tools to help you stay focused and reach your goals.

While it may take some practice to form new, more productive habits, it’s worth it. When you consciously deal with the distractions that come your way, you will greatly increase your ability to fulfill your most important callings in life.

I invite you to learn more about business coaching or apply for a discovery session today.

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