For some people (myself included), the hardest part of focusing on a task that requires 100% of your attention, is the process of preparing to focus. Whether I’m sitting down to write, coach a client, or to focus on creating a client proposal, if the task at hand requires thoughtful attention, I need to be prepared.
The process of preparing myself to focus is a bit embarrassing to disclose. It seems ridiculous, however it really is what works for me. Before I am ready to dive into my work, everything has to be just right.
The preposterous preparation agenda looks a bit like this:
- I have a snack
- I use the bathroom
- I make sure to have a large glass of water or tea within arm’s reach
- My email has been checked
- My desk is cleared
- The temperature must be just right
- My phone goes on silent
- My notifications are turned off
I’m not exaggerating—my mind cannot focus if everything is not just right—this is how fussy I am when it comes to concentration. Everything must be in order.
(Yes, it probably took me 45 minutes just to prepare to write this article.)
I realize I sound like a child who gets easily distracted by shiny objects. But the truth is, I know myself, and I’ll have a much more productive work session if I am totally comfortable and without distraction. I don’t have much willpower, so I find it difficult to keep myself focused on a task when there are buzzes interrupting me or if I have to stop what I’m doing to get a sweater, a glass of water, or have to use the restroom. And if I’m in a place where people are interrupting me? Forget it. Removing distractions, even though it requires some preparation, actually saves me time.
And there is scientific research that says I’m not alone—distractions derail most people! Gloria Mark, a professor at the University of California, Irvine, has said that it takes an average of 23 minutes to get back to a task once distracted. Think of how much time you can save by avoiding these “ramp-back-up” minutes by preparing your mind for concentration.
While these are not all fool-proof ways to eliminate 100 percent of potential distractions, here are seven ways to minimize the interruptions you encounter when you’re sitting down to focus.
Put Your Phone on Silent
This is step one. I preemptively decide that nothing is more important than the task at hand—not my cousin’s Facebook message, a text from my significant other, or a call from my boss. If I’m sitting down to meditate, I’ll be back within 30 minutes. And if I’m focusing on an important task, that is my decided priority and I don’t want to be interrupted.
Clear Your Workspace
If I’m sitting down to write, coach, or work on something that requires focus, this is crucial to my concentration. Typically, I have my to-do list, piles of paper, and post-it reminders on my desk. But when I need to focus, I don’t want my wandering eye to rest on a different to-do. If it’s within eye-shot, it may distract me, or invite me to clean it up or put it away. I have a drawer where these things rest while I focus so I don’t have the excuse to wander to another task or clean my desk.
Be Well Fed
If you are hungry, or will get hungry in the next hour, you will be distracted by the desire to eat a sandwich or make a smoothie. Eat, then focus.
Make sure the temperature is right, you have a sweater nearby if you might need one, and you are seated or standing at your desk in a comfortable way. Get anything you need that may make you more comfortable. I light a candle and this helps to transport me into a comfortable zone.
If you can, put yourself in a location where you’re alone. If you sit in an office with others, or share a home with someone who may call your attention in the middle of your work session or meditation, let them know that you need a distraction-free zone for the next 30 minutes (or three hours). If someone expects you to return calls right away, you might also want to tell them that you won’t be responding for a while.
Make Sure to Pee
That’s right … if you don’t go before you sit down to focus, you’ll have to go once you’re in the zone. In which case when you’re on the way back from the bathroom, you could get distracted by any number of people or activities. Use the restroom, then focus.
Remove Physical Distractions
This is obviously a big one—it relates to people, noise, and anything that may interrupt your flow. This is especially important if you are surrounded by people and cannot control the activity of your home or office. In this case, you’ll need to create some non-verbal communication so they know not to interrupt you …
- Wear headphones. Tell your office mates or family that when you have your headphones on, it means that you don’t want to be interrupted. You don’t even have to listen to anything; it could simply serve as a cue for people to respect your focus time and leave you alone. Noise-cancelling headphones are great if you work in a loud environment and need quiet to focus.
- Listen to music: If you need quiet and your surroundings are not, try listening to music that boosts focus. For me, that would be classical music or ambient spa music. Some people (especially developers) say that techno music will keep them motivated to work. Learn more about the types of music that can enhance focus.
- Turn on ambient noise: If you can’t work to music, try ambient sounds, like white noise or nature sounds. My favorites are ocean waves, thunderstorms, or rainforest sounds.
- Turn off notifications: Close your email, social media, and other applications on your computer if you’re sitting down to work on a single task. If you’re meditating, hopefully your phone and computer will already be on silent.
The thing is, we live in the era of mass distraction, and it’s not easy to focus. Whether you need 20 minutes to meditate every day, two hours to write an article each week, or a full day of quiet to dive into a strategic project, you need to learn how to minimize distractions if you’re going to get anything done.
This article was a list of things that always help me find my focus. What puts you into the zone?
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As an ICF Certified Executive Coach, Melissa partners with leaders to develop their executive presence, strategic and systems thinking, resilience, communication skills, and influence in order to reach their goals. Melissa is passionate about supporting leaders and teams on their growth journeys toward greater impact, more collaborative teams, and stronger results.