We live in a world of seemingly endless distractions, and it can be fantastic—whether you want to check out what your childhood best friend is up to on Instagram, look up some Pin-spiration for what to cook of an evening or catch up on the latest Twitter controversy, it’s all there right at our fingertips. 24 hours a day. The obvious downside to this is, of course, that it can be difficult to concentrate on anything else.
I’ve been trying to sit down and write every day this month (for NaNoWriMo—not sure whether I’ve mentioned that at all?) and it’s been tricky at times for sure, so I wanted to share my five top tips for staying focused and getting stuff done, whether that stuff is writing-related or not.
Know Your Goals
This is about more than just knowing what you want to achieve, it’s about having a clear sense of why you want to achieve those things. When you sit down to work, take a moment to think about not only what you’re working on, but the reason that’s something you’ve chosen to spend time doing. Taking the time to foreground what makes this work important, useful or necessary to you will help you be disciplined about making time in your schedule to do it, and help you stay focused when you might be inclined to allow yourself to be distracted after a few minutes.
Short Bursts, Short Breaks
Some people can concentrate for hours at a time, and I have nothing but respect for that. I’m honestly baffled by it, but I respect it. Most of us don’t have attention spans that long, and, while we might be able to get into a flow given the right job on the right day, it’s not something that necessarily comes naturally. Rather than trying to force yourself to sit in front of a computer screen for hours on end, it’s better to work for short sprints, interspersed with shorter breaks. Try out some different time splits to see what suits you, but twenty minutes of work followed by ten minutes off is a good place to start. You might think it’s counter-productive to deliberately break up your work like this, but it can become a lot easier to concentrate when you know it’s only for a set amount of time. You also might need to work out what you can do in your breaks without getting sucked in and delaying the start of the next work period—I know I can’t be trusted, for example, to go looking at Twitter on my break because once I start I can completely lose track of time. Making a cup of tea, stretching, listening to a couple of Hamilton songs, all of those are okay activities for a short break for me. Find what works for you so you can get back to it after ten minutes (or five, or fifteen, whatever interval you go for) refreshed and ready to concentrate.
Make Use of Routine
We humans, we’re creatures of habit. It’s a difficult thing to overcome, but if you can work with your natural tendency to form and carry out patterns it can actually become a huge advantage. Start by picking a time of day when you can make a bit of time for whatever it is you want to focus on. You know whether you’re at your best for concentrating in the morning or evening, before or after eating, with or without company; to the best of your ability, you want to set aside a little window of time when you’re already set up to succeed. Then you’re going to need a cue to get started. Ideally the cue to start should be something that you’re already doing every day, or something that happens that’s out of your control. Say you want to spend some time working on your drawing skills, maybe after you finish making your first morning cup of tea or coffee, you go and sit down with a sketch pad instead of picking up your phone. Or, if you want to focus on learning a language, maybe your cue could be getting out of the shower and you could put on a language-learning podcast to listen to while you’re drying your hair. Those are a couple of examples, I’m sure you can come up with some more; the point is to find something to tie the beginning of your concentrating time to. If you’re strict with yourself over this for a while, you’ll start finding that it becomes second nature to get yourself into a more focused state of mind, ready for work, when you perform your cue.
I mean, duh, right? But this is so important I couldn’t leave it off my list, even if it does seem stupidly obvious. It isn’t always easy to get rid of distractions, since they can be pretty built in to our lives. Your phone is likely never far away from you, and chances are decent that you do most of your work on a computer which has internet access, which means some of the single biggest distractions are hovering temptingly right in front of you all the time. For the phone, my favourite way to get rid of it as a distraction is the Forest app. In the app, you plant a tree when you want to concentrate for a while and, as you work, the tree will grow. If you leave the app, the tree will die. Sad times. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve gone to pick up my phone, without even thinking about it, and then stopped myself from actually doing anything with it when my phone screen blinked on to reveal my tree. Simple, but surprisingly effective. When it comes to the computer there are an abundance of website blockers available which you can use to keep you off whichever sites drag you away from work most frequently, I haven’t used any enough to make a solid recommendation but I hear good things about StayFocusd which works with Google Chrome.
Sometimes you’re going to struggle to concentrate. Sometimes you’re not going to get the things done that you hoped you would in a given sitting. Life happens, brains are complicated and people aren’t machines; so, whether it’s a single bad afternoon, a bad day or a bad week, it’s important not to beat yourself up over it. That doesn’t necessarily mean you shrug it off and settle in with the ice cream and trashy TV—if struggling to concentrate is a constant issue it’s worth taking a look at what might be standing in the way of you getting on with stuff you want to get done. But it’s important to be kind to yourself over it. Having a hard time focusing doesn’t make you a bad person, it doesn’t mean you’re lazy, and it’s not a sign that you’re doomed never to achieve anything, but it’s so easy to start telling yourself that kind of thing when you’re not being as productive as you think you ‘should’ be. Let all of that go. Maybe none of the advice I’ve suggested here will help you stay focused, but I can tell you with absolute certainty that berating yourself over a lack of focus isn’t a viable solution.
What do you need to focus on this week?
I want to know what project(s) you have on the go as we head into the final month of 2019—although, seriously, how did we get to December already… And what would be your number one piece of advice for people who need to buckle down and get something done? I’d love to get your recommendations!