7 Strategies to Reduce Distractions & Stay Focused During Turbulent Times

By Joelle Klein

As if we don’t already have enough things to distract us, living in this unpredictable time of COVID-19 lockdown, it’s a wonder any of us can get anything done. Now that many of us are working from home, it’s important to develop strategies that will help us block out those distractions.

With cell phones, tablets and wearable devices like smartwatches at our fingertips (or closer), we face the constant pull of reading emails, sending texts and scrolling through social media apps. According to a 2018 Global Mobile Consumer Study, the average American checks their phone 52 times a day, or almost double that if you’re under the age of 25, and then spends 3-4 hours each day glued to their device.

Think of all the things you could accomplish in those 3-4 hours! Also, with all of this connectivity, expectations of being available and responsive 24/7 are not uncommon in this work culture. “People feel this urgency to respond right now, and there’s a thin line between responsiveness and disruptiveness in terms of productivity and focus,” says Aaron Smith, LCSW, a Denver-based life coach specializing in ADHD and Executive Functioning.

Being able to focus your attention on a specific task and get things done is vital to our sense of self and well-being. How do you feel at the end of the day when you’ve spent too much time surfing the internet, texting friends or chatting with a coworker, and your work tasks are unfinished? Probably not that great.

Fortunately, you can develop habits that will help you block out distractions, boost your concentration and get all the things on your to-do list checked off. But, remember, like any skill, you need to practice.

1. Take an Inventory of What Distracts You.

The first step in preventing distraction is figuring out what distracts you. Is it your email? Facebook? Google search? Do you go down a rabbit hole looking up who won last year’s Academy Award for Best Picture? While many of these digital distractions may be easy to avoid when you’re working on a project you enjoy, they can be an easy out for a task you’re dreading.

Awareness is the first step, says Smith. According to Entrepreneur Magazine, three top distractions are smartphones, email and background noise.

2. Make a Strategy.

“Even though a lot of us feel like we should have self-control through sheer will, it’s better to have a strategy, which can include employing certain blocking programs,” says Smith. He recommends computer blocking programs that allow you to choose distracting websites like email, Twitter or Facebook, and setting a timer for how long you want them blocked, meaning you can’t access them – at all.

While blocking apps can stop you from tweeting on your computer, we all know your cell phone is within reach if you get the urge to check your social media accounts. What to do? Put it away, far away.

A study from the University of Texas at Austin found that your cell phone, even turned off or placed on silent mode, is a huge attention-stealer if it’s within reach. Study participants who put their cell phones in another room far outperformed their cohorts who had their phones turned upside down beside them on cognitive tests.

3. Tune In to Tune Out.

To minimize the disruption of chit chat and other environmental noise, try listening to music with headphones. Classical music or new age music, or any music without lyrics, are good choices. Relaxing music can help reduce stress and anxiety, which can make focusing easier. Some people find that listening to sounds of nature such as wind or a babbling brook can help boost productivity by blocking out ambient noise.

4. Set Your Intentions.

What is the activity or task you want to accomplish? Is it making doctors’ appointments for your family? Reading a report? Writing an article on how to focus better? Whatever it is you want to do, set it as your intention. “The precursor to focus is having a strong intention,” says Smith.

You may create a daily to-do list, but you need to tackle the items one at a time. Thinking about having to get everything done can feel so overwhelming that you avoid doing any of it. Instead of trying to do it all, set an intention of what you want to accomplish when you sit down at your desk. And then, do it.

5. Break Large Tasks into Smaller Tasks.

Still feeling overwhelmed by your intention? Break up a large task into smaller parts. For example, if your goal is to get your taxes done, start with gathering all the documents you need. If you accomplish one task, it motivates you to start the next one. “Once you experience success in getting started or making progress, that success will beget more success,” says Smith.

6. Breathe Away Your fears & Anxiety.

Check in with your emotions. If you’re feeling stressed, overwhelmed or anxious about your project or what you need to accomplish that day, you will do anything to avoid those negative feelings. Instead of avoidance, try taking deep breaths as you think about them, says Smith.

“If we feel overwhelmed, we’ll avoid that task as well as that negative feeling. Instead of running away from it, tune in to the emotion, observing it, sitting with it. Calmly breathe into that emotion. Just by recognizing it and breathing into it, that emotional state will start to dissipate on its own,” he says.

7. Eat & Drink These Things to Keep You Motivated.

Smith recommends eating foods that are crunchy, like carrots, celery or crackers. Crunchy foods stimulate the brain, he explains. Pairing a tedious task with crunchy foods can help keep the mind engaged and stimulated when it wants to wander.

Caffeine, as we all know, is a stimulant. It can help keep us alert. Furthermore, studies have shown that caffeine not only improves verbal memory and attention, but it may have long-term benefits in preserving cognition as we age. But, it’s important to use caffeine in moderation. Too much can leave us feeling jittery and nervous.

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