Updated on 09.22.14

How to Focus in a Heavily Distracting Time

Trent Hamm

YELLOW FOCUS JAUNE by mario_groleau on Flickr!If you’re anything like I am on this historic day in the United States, you’re probably sitting frenetically on the edge of your seat, looking for exit polls and waiting impatiently for the first election results to roll in. I know I’m certainly there – I’m such a big politics hound that the presidential race is just one of many, many things I’m following today. Today’s events are a big distraction right now for me, for you, and for millions and millions of other people on both sides of political discourse.

While it’s great that so many people are engaged in the future of this country, it’s also a gigantic distraction. A good chunk of America isn’t really working today – and that means many millions of hours of lost productivity – and lost opportunity.

Take me, for example. Even though I have a deep, passionate interest in this election, I also know I have several projects I need to be working on right now and, even though I’d rather be following the news, I know I need to keep my nose to the grindstone.

Today is a great day to get ahead of the “competition” because so many people are focused on other things.

Here are seven great tactics for focusing on the task at hand, useful today and any other day when distractions abound.

Seven Tactics for Staying Focused

1. Clear a workspace

If you’re in an environment where things are chaotic and you have no real clear place to focus on your work, it’ll be very hard to focus. Your mind will find ways to distract itself using whatever is at hand.

The best way to combat this kind of distraction is to clear your work area of distractions. Move all of the things that aren’t related to the task at hand far away from the space where you intend to work.

2. Cut off external communications

Communications devices are another form of distraction. That includes cell phones, the internet, your landline phone – even your office door. Close your web browser. Shut down your email program. Turn off that cell phone. Unplug your landline phone. Close your office door and stick up a “do not disturb” sign.

Even better – put a little blank piece of paper on your desk, along with a pen. If you’re in the middle of a task and something important pops into your mind, jot it down on that piece of paper and keep on going. You can deal with the contents of that note later.

3. Set a clear goal

Come up with something realistic that you can actually accomplish in the time you have. Don’t bite off more than you can chew. In fact, you’re often better off picking two or three smaller pieces instead, then working through those one at a time.

What if you’re just facing one singular gigantic project that you won’t get done today no matter what? Identify some smaller elements within that big project that you can complete today. Writing a book? Make it your goal to add 1,500 words today. Find that little piece you can do and set it as a clear goal.

4. Visualize what you need to get done

Once you know your goal, visualize the steps you’ll need to work through in order to get it done. What will you do first? What follows that? Jot it down – it helps you to make your plan clear. Just a bit of visualization up front can help you quite a bit when executing your task.

5. Plan for breaks every ninety minutes to two hours – but don’t interrupt “flow”

Regular breaks to re-fuel with food, drink, and a bathroom break are essential – without them, you can quickly lose mental acuity. Plus, these breaks allow you to catch up on any important news you might be following.

Of course, if you’ve managed to slip into a “flow” state – when you get deeply engrossed in a project and lose all track of time – don’t interrupt that flow state just to take a break. Instead, ride that wave for as long as it lasts and then break when you’ve lost that focus. The time you spend in a “flow” state is invaluable – don’t break it because of something arbitrary.

6. Use a timer

I find it quite useful to use an online timer to help me with scheduling regular breaks and managing my time throughout the day. I often use the “countdown” mode and set it at two hours. Sometimes it can go off and I barely notice it – I just quickly turn it off and keep going. But if I’m not really focused, this alarm tells me just when to go take a break, reload with a nutritious snack, catch up on the news, and so on.

7. Have a small (reasonable) reward at the end of the day

My reward is usually pretty straightforward. If I meet my work goals for the day, I allow myself fifteen minutes or so to meditate, followed by thirty minutes in a quiet room where I either read or play a strategy game on my Nintendo DS. It’s a very simple reward that doesn’t cost me anything, but the thought of that peaceful time really helps me keep focus throughout the day.

Without such a reward, I find it very easy to let down my guard during the day – and when I do that, I find myself browsing political news and wondering where all the time has gone, lamenting the things that I should have done.

Good luck!

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  1. Matt says:

    And after today it wont make sense to invest in stocks because capital gains tax will go up and even worse taxes on dividends will double.

    So much for being able to use dividend investing as a retirement tool.

  2. Anna says:

    If my schedule permits, I find that the best way to get something–anything–done on a day of distractions is to attack a very physical job, one that leaves the mind relatively free to ponder politics, a friend’s crisis, whatever. This approach enabled me to clear out a very cluttered mudroom once while I was waiting for the vet to come put down a sheep with tetanus. Sad for the sheep, good for the mudroom. Lacking sheep and mudrooms now, I still have plenty of grubby jobs waiting for me that will be very satisfying to tackle and finish. I’d better get going before the returns start coming in….

  3. Anne says:

    All are great ideas. And I won’t use a single one because I am more than a little obsessed with this election and praying that shenanigans will be kept to a minimum.

    In anticipation of overwhelming voter turnout and very long days for everyone I’ve already baked various goodies and dropped them at two precincts. And depending upon what the local news reports about local voter turnout I may deliver more tonight. Since I can’t volunteer, this is my way of thanking workers and encouraging tired voters to stay and cast their vote.

  4. Jenn says:

    Oh yes, this is very well-timed. I keep telling myself that there will not be any substantive information about the elections until 8pm – and then I trot over to CNN to try to distract myself with other news. Fool! Aliens could land on the White House lawn and the only reports would be to reference the effect on lines at the voting booth.

  5. Derek says:

    I needed this to come out earlier in the day, Trent… :)

    Just kidding. Another handy, tip-filled article. Kudos.

  6. Your Friendly Neighborhood Computer Guy says:

    While I think it is a great concept to minimize distractions and focus on tasks, taking one day out of every four years(or two years if you’re REALLY into it) to be distracted while watching the democratic process unfold before you, is one of the better distractions one could sucumb to. Great tips though!

  7. Johanna says:

    On election day 2004 I was busy preparing and practicing my PhD thesis defense (which I presented the next day). This year I have no such focus for my attention. I did get a good amount of work done today, but this evening I’ll be glued to the election returns, I suppose.

  8. Dave says:

    Good post, and great suggestions – but this would have been helpful as your morning post instead of your afternoon post, since then we could REALLY utilize the whole day!

  9. Des says:

    “and for millions and millions of other people on both sides of political discourse.”

    Both sides? Are there only two?

  10. Carrie says:

    Have you ever tried using an AlphaSmart for your writing? I adore mine because it does only one thing: process words. No e-mail, internet, iTunes, or anything else to distract me. It makes reaching my daily word quota much easier.

  11. Anna says:

    I second the AlphaSmart. It goes anywhere, runs for hours and hours on AA batteries, and holds several files at once. You can sit up in bed and type, type, type — and then run the file(s) into your computer or printer.

  12. doctor S says:

    I really enjoyed this post and agrree with Dave about seeing this in the AM. I am going to just have to read it first thing when I get into work tomrrow morning

  13. beth says:

    But… I *am* working! Really! *cough*

    A well-timed afternoon post for me, to remind to to step away from the Internet for a few moments and concentrate on some of my projects that are feeling neglected (especially before my boss notices).

    The polls aren’t closing yet anyway, and the entire household will be glued to the TV all night, so there’s no need to refresh the headlines every 10 minutes on all of the national and local web sites. …yet.

  14. Some people can work and listen to music at the same time. I need absolute quiet environment to work and perform my best. Also, my workstation has to be neat and tidy.
    A Dawn Journal

  15. KJ says:

    Great post, Trent, and good timing for those of us on the west coast! My afternoon was _tons_ more productive, thanks to this helpful reminder. Now back to the map…

  16. Kevin says:

    I guess my company did it right today, then. We moved offices so I was off half the day while the movers packed up, then went in in the P.M. to make sure all my stuff was put away correctly. Tomorrow I get to organize my new office and help others as needed.

  17. Excellent suggestions, Trent. I had never thought about scheduling predetermined breaks before. That’s smart.

    Nice job.

  18. J says:

    Of course, you could also take a step back and know that you want to spend the day following the election results and make sure you get all of your stuff done so you can do what you want.

    Life’s not all about being productive and processing checklists. Are you going to be worried that you aren’t getting work done while you are having Thanksgiving dinner with your family or watching your kids open Christmas presents? Of course not. If you really, really want to watch election returns you should probably work a little extra beforehand and sit back and enjoy your leisure. It’s not like election day is something that comes up as a surprise.

  19. There will always be distractions in life. Being able to accomplish goals amongst all the distractions is a powerful skill, and it identifies the achievers who are destined for success. I enjoyed this article, keep inspiring others.

    Best regards,
    Dan Malone

  20. deepali says:

    Lighten up, Trent. A person doesn’t have to work ALL the time. :) This was a historic election, and let’s not forget the sacrifices people have made so that it could be possible (from revolutions to suffrage to civil rights). The world doesn’t end because we put down our burdens for a few hours.

  21. Dee says:

    I look forward to reading The Simple Dollar each morning and have mentioned various posts to my husband from time to time. He is the politics addict in our home, so I couldn’t help but forward this post to him. He’s a creative professional and found your tips very helpful – election or no.

    Thanks for posting great, quality content! It’s excellent, and I look forward to reading more from you in the future!

  22. Olanesti Cazare

    Hi there mates, nice article and good urging commented at this place,
    I am really enjoying by these.

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