Staying focused is haaarrrddd. Our modern world is intentionally crafted to be filled with distractions. There are lots of people making lots of money off of you picking up your phone 307 times a day. To stay focused, we have to fight against not only ourselves and our wandering minds, but also thousands of hours of research done for the sole purpose of figuring out how best to make people look away from what they’re doing and at something that someone is trying to sell us. With a little practice, it is possible to stay focused, and I’ve got some tips to help you out.
We’ll start big. Literally throw your phone across the room. Disclaimer: I have an Otterbox on my phone, and I mean a gentle toss onto a soft surface, not a 95 mph baseball pitch. Be careful with your phone; I’m not responsible for broken phones.
That said, whenever I find myself picking up my phone yet again instead of working on whatever I need to be doing, I’ll toss it away from me and onto the other side of the couch. We all know that my lazy ass isn’t getting up to go get it. Even when I’m doing a decent job staying focused, I’ll put my phone screen side down so that I don’t see notifications and feel tempted to check them. I want to be in control of when I’m picking up my phone, rather than having Instagram’s algorithm tell me what I need to be doing.
More broadly, if there’s a way to put some distance between yourself and whatever is distracting you, do it. Phones are the big culprit, but maybe you need to move your keyboard-sitting cat to another room, or work in a different room than your significant other. Get away from whatever is breaking your focus.
If you’re being distracted by what is probably the most common distractor (i.e. the internet) and you can’t physically move yourself away from it because your work lives on your laptop, find a browser extension that will block specific sites. Personally, I use the Focus Mode extension for Chrome. Whenever I activate “Focus Mode”, the extension prevents me from reaching the websites I blocked.
I have the ability to turn Focus Mode off easily if I do want to go to those sites, but often, that few seconds of extra effort makes me rethink my decision and go back to the thing I was working on. If that wouldn’t work for you, there are a plethora of other browser extensions that make it much more difficult to get distracted. Google can tell you all about them.
In a similar vein to the first two tips, keep anything you need within arms reach. Spend five minutes getting yourself something to drink, a snack, a blanket, your laptop charger, and anything else that you know you might need before you sit down to work. Sure, it will delay you starting to work by a bit, but it’ll make you less likely to get up and get distracted, thus wasting more time. Too often we get into a good flow, and then suddenly find our laptop battery is at 6%, and getting up to get the charger breaks that flow. Plan ahead.
Break it up. Don’t expect yourself to focus for four or five straight hours unless you’re doing something you love, in which case you wouldn’t be worried about how to focus. It’s much easier to focus for one hour than it is for four.
Manage your time well, and you’ll have the ability to work on tasks in one to two hour chunks of time before switching to the next thing. This gives your mind a rest from the first task, instead of struggling to stay focused on one thing for several hours. With careful planning, it’s easy to spread out your work and prevent having to ever pull an all nighter in order to attempt a paper writing marathon.
Keep your space clean. Procrasticleaning is a killer. Whether you genuinely find your mess distracting, or currently only feel the urge to clean when you need to be focused on something else, keeping your space clean will prevent you from deciding to clean instead of doing the thing you actually should be doing. If your space is clean, you can’t get distracted by the mess.
Set a timer. Around here, we want things to be as unintimidating as possible. Cleaning your apartment for twenty minutes sounds much less daunting than just “Clean my apartment”, doesn’t it? When you set a timer, you give yourself a finish line. It’s much less scary and much easier to focus if you know the end is in sight.
If you need to write a paper, start with a forty-five minute timer, and work until it goes off, then go do something else. I guarantee you’ll be way more focused and get more done in forty-five minutes than you would’ve been if you had sat down with a free afternoon intending to write without any structure.
Along the same line, set a deadline. If I let it, writing a blog post will take me all day. I can stretch 2000 words into an eight hour writing marathon. But if I find a way to focus, I can have a post written, with cover image and links, saved as a draft and ready to publish in less than two hours, so I set a deadline. If I know that I have a firm deadline— e.g. this post needs to be finished by 11 a.m., and then I can move on— I’ll focus and get it done.
Be smart about where you work (and when). I’m terrible at working in places with other people. I have to be alone, otherwise I get distracted and start people watching. During college, I rarely did homework in the library because it was always full of people. If I needed to do work in a shared space, like a studio or computer lab, I got up early to do it. No one else is awake at 7 a.m. on a Saturday in college, so you’ll get the entire space to yourself, free from distractions. If you keep getting distracted by the things around you, find somewhere else to work.
One of the few things I push more than meditation is that you need to know your Why. Figure out why you’re doing the thing you’re doing. Write it down. Get excited about it. Think about it as you’re falling asleep at night. If you have a strong Why, you can remind yourself of it each time you get distracted.
My desktop background is a slow slide show of all the places I want to go, and it reminds me several times a day to focus on my goal of building a life where I have the ability to travel. If you need to focus on writing your paper because you’re trying to get a 4.0, whenever your mind wanders off, remind yourself of why you want that 4.0.
Figure out why you can’t stay focused. Sometimes, there’s nothing specific going on and it’s just hard to focus, but other times, it’s hard to focus because we have something on our mind. Ask yourself if there’s something going on that’s preventing you from focusing. Could you take care of it? Is there a larger issue? Address the cause, not the symptoms.
Do what you can to take care of the things running through your mind so you can have clear room to think. Write things down. It may help to do a few pages of stream of conscious journaling. Don’t worry about proper grammar and punctuation, just spend fifteen or twenty minutes writing down anything that comes to mind. You might be surprised by what you learn.
In general, the more you are able to get your life in order, clear your mind, and live a life you love, the easier it will be to stay focused on the task at hand, because you’ll have fewer distractions running around your brain.
In a world designed to distract us, staying focused is difficult. Don’t expect perfection. These tips can help you to spend more time working on the things that need to get done and less time lost in space (or the Instagram explore page), but you’ll always have moments where your mind just will not focus. Don’t be afraid to take some time to go do something else. A few minutes walking around or meditating can reset your brain and make it easier to pay attention when you come back.
These tips really do work though. I set that 11 a.m. deadline and I’m now wrapping up this post at 10:42. If there’s something you need to be doing, don’t let my blog be a distraction. Go do it. Otherwise, leave your best tips on staying focused in a comment below. I want to know how you get things done.