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How to Manage Your Attention and Ignore Distractions

Attention - what are you paying attention to. White & red bullhorn on a blue background

What are you paying attention to? Let's say you are working on a budget project. It’s 9:00 AM. Your email notification lets you know about a reply back from a recent email message. At 9:02, LinkedIn dings to let you know that a thought leader you follow has posted. At 9:03, Instagram notifications pop up to let you know someone is going live. At the same time, another email notification pops up. At 9:04, you hear the elevator ding as your colleague says “I’ll be back from my meeting a little after 10” to someone she is passing in the hall. At 9:05 your family group SnapChat lights up your phone.

There is some research that suggests that our brains receive millions of bits of information at any given second, yet we are only able to consciously process 40 - 50 bits per second. Even as early as 1971, prior to all of the digital distractions and instant access to information, psychologist Herbert A. Simon noted that “a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention”.

The ability to manage your attention helps ignore distractions and stay on task. We are able to get things done in less time. We are able to do what matters.

Your focus determines your reality. Qui-Gon Jinn, Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace

2 types of attention

Voluntary Attention vs. Involuntary Attention

  • If you are reading a book while someone in the rooom is watching a baseball game, you voluntarily choose what you are paying attention to: reading the book.

  • When someone scores a homerun and the crowd and the sportscasters joyfully and loudly react, you attention is taken away from your book. This is involuntary attention. You don’t have control over it. It interrupts your focus and flow.

Why we lose focus

  • Negative thoughts. If you are feeling stressed or sad or annoyed, your mind will be more attuned to these emotions. These are thoughts like “I’m too old to be doing this” or “I don’t feel like it”. You can learn to shift your thoughts.

  • Lack of clarity. If you have 10,000 things to work on, (which even though it may seem like it, you really don’t). Create a better to-do list and protect your calendar time. Sleep, and pay attention to your energy fluctuations through the day. If your brain and body are exhausted, chances are that you will have a difficult time focusing and directing your attention

  • External distractions. This can be the colleague who pops in to tell you about their weekend or the recent diagnosis of a parent. It can be the snow that has started outside your window. It can be the "That was easy" red button on your desk. It can be the email notification window. You can tame digital distractions.

Focus as a loop

It's not "bad" if you lose focus. We all do. It's a matter of regaining your focus. Ideally, it will happen like this:

  1. You are focusing on a task or project.

  2. Your mind experiences a distraction

  3. You become aware that your mind has wandered

  4. You shift focus back to the task or project that you were working on

Ways to manage your attention and ignore distractions

These steps help to eliminate busyness and get you to true productivity and doing what matters.

1: Become intentional about what you are thinking about

Ask yourself: what am I thinking about right now? Prepping for the week, polishing presentation, setting doctors appointment, kids activities, waiting for lab results, what’s for supper.

For now, notice your thoughts - say “thinking” and guide yourself back to what you were paying attention to. If you have difficulty readjusting your focus, step away for a few minutes and focus on something that doesn’t require a lot of thinking - maybe it’s bird watching or washing your coffee cup. The goal is to train yourself to refocus.

2: Pay attention to how your attention shifts

Checking our email makes us feel more productive—after all, we’re doing something. But just because we’re busier doesn’t mean we’re getting more accomplished. We're shifting our attention, not getting our more important stuff done.

Ask yourself "What's important now" (WIN)? Responding back to an email might be what's important now. Or it might be that finishing your budget project is what's important now.

3: Modify your environment

Turn off your email notifications. Make your texts vibrations rather than dings. Remove social media or shopping apps from your phone. Get curious about how your digital distractions are affecting your productivity and ask yourself if there are ways to tame these distractions.

Try music and sound for enhancing your productivity. Some days, I like no music. But there are other days when classical or disco or today top hits help my productivity.

There is also research that suggests that a tidy desk helps with your productivity. All of the stuff on your desk can distract from your focus. It can also become another to-do list item or thought that distracts you - "I really need to clean off my desk". In fact, this was one of the best tools in my productivity tool box. I worked for an orgniazation that required we cleaned off our desk when we left. At first I just threw everything into a drawer at night. Eventually, I became more intentional about what I kept. Now, I find that I work best in a non-cluttered environment.

Success and happiness belong to people who can control their attention Adam Grant, Organizational Psychologist

Busyness isn’t the goal and doesn’t make us more productive. Being intentional is what makes us productive. Paying attention and focusing is what makes us more productive. Doing what matters in any given moment is what makes us productive.


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