Ping! Ding! You have a new message (or email, social media notification, etc.) interrupting your train of thought.
Being able to focus on the most important things has always been a challenge; it just seems to be getting harder these days. The truth is that you and I live in an era of distraction. The proliferation of technologies and platforms that vie for our attention, that are increasingly finding their way into the rhythms of the way we work, wear us down and we often end up caught up in the maelstrom of jumping from one task to the next, getting to the end of our day wondering what we actually achieved.
Or maybe that’s just me.
We know that moving towards our long-term goals happens as we make small progress in our day-to-day; and our day-to-day is often the problem because that is where we get distracted. So, what are some things that can help nudge our minds into a more focused state? Here is some advice from the social sciences that have helped me.
You are not welcome…at this time
Georgetown University professor Cal Newport, has been researching productivity and focus for many years, and he argues that to “produce at your peak level you need to work for extended periods with full concentration on a single task free from distraction.” He argues that creating spaces where you are available and periods where you are uninterruptable will boost your performance. This is simply about structuring your environment so that you are not available, for the time being. As I write this, my emails are not open and my phone is on DND to give me the space to focus on this task. Another action that I have found helpful is to tell my colleagues that I need space; working in an open office environment, I put up a physical sign above my desk and tell the team around me, “I’m putting up my sign because I have task X to do, so for the next hour (or the rest of the morning), could you please take note of that and we can chat once I’m done.” Most people are very respectful of this. Sometimes I even put, either noise cancelling headphones or play music that helps me focus.
Plan to encounter the enemy
No, not the devil this time – me. I am often my own worst enemy, and therefore need to plan my day to counteract my tendency to get distracted by conversations with colleagues, or washing dishes, or making coffee. Therefore, planning ahead what I will and won’t do, and when, sharpens my focus. For example, if there are dishes to wash, I’ll do it at lunch time while I’m waiting for my food to heat in the microwave rather than doing it when the thought first occurs to me; or I’ll make my coffee whilst I make that important phone call.
Furthermore, I try to structure my most important work in the period of the day where I have the highest energy. Carey Nieuwhof writes that not all hours in the day are created equal and that we need to recognize we all have green zones (where we are at our most productive), yellow zones (where we are still productive but not at our peak), and red zones (where we struggle to focus – these times should be set aside for our most routine and mundane work). Structure the day so that you can focus on what is most important in your most energetic zone.
Exercise that hard-to-reach muscle
Australian productivity consultant, Daniel Sih, in his excellent book Space Maker, discusses the ramifications of our constant engagement with technology, and argues that the smart phone leads to a weakened ability to stay focused: “Constant partial attention is the expected consequence of using a device built on the idea of multitasking.” But attention can improve. Focus is a muscle, metaphorically speaking; you need to work at it if you want it to grow. Here’s a few exercises that will help “workout” this hard-to-get-at muscle:
- Pay attention to your attention in a conversation, and if you find your focus slipping, intentionally bring it back.
- Create space in your schedule to sit, without technology, and direct your thoughts on one thing, such as an organisational problem or a biblical text.
- Consider redefining your relationship to technology through a technological Sabbath. Attempting to not engage with technology such as your phone or emails for 24 hours increases your capacity to say no to intrusion.
Bonus: For more outstanding practical thoughts on increasing your focus and using technology wisely, check out AC’s interview with Daniel Sih.
Hit pause…for five minutes
This may seem counterintuitive, but much research, and personal practice, has shown that this improves focus. Because the brain operates on such low power, it can get taxed pretty quickly. The short break can recharge it and keep your focus muscle fresh. Short 5-minute walks, preferably outside with fresh air, and even with other people, work great. I often use the pomodoro method (20-30 min work, 5 min complete break) when I am working on a sermon, or studying, or when I need to think deeply about strategy and execution. This enables me to stay fresh and focused on the most important tasks. However, I encourage you to use an actual timer, otherwise your break can easily extend beyond what is beneficial.
One more thought on this though, if you find yourself in what Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls flow, where you lose track of time because you are so absorbed in the task, then run with it until you sense the flow begin to wane, then take a break.
These are but a sample of ideas that can help you remain focused in a world of distraction. I’d love to hear some of your thoughts experimenting with some of this, or your ideas on practices that have helped you increase your productivity. Reach out here.
With intentionality and practice, you just might find yourself at the end of the year looking back with surprise at how much less distracted, more productive, and increasingly present you are, actually enjoying the important work God has called you to (Ecc 2:24).
 Newport, Cal. (2016). Deep Work. NY: Grand Central Publishing.
 Though my taste in music can be eclectic, when I need to focus I lean towards classical/instrumental/choral works. I would highly recommend Norwegian composer Ola Gjeilo, Icelandic Olafur Arnalds, or Italian Ludovico Einaudi. They produce some stunningly beautiful music.
 Nieuwhof, Carey. (2021). At Your Best. Colorado Springs, CO: Waterbrook.
 Sih, Daniel. (2021). Space Maker. Cody, Wyoming: 100 Movements.