Your time and attention are your most valuable human resources.
Because of this, you desire to devote each precious minute to the things you love to do and the people you want to surround yourself with.
You’re happiest when you have the freedom to choose what you focus your time and attention on and when nothing is distracting you from doing so.
Sadly, there’s a strong chance that this doesn’t describe your current situation.
And this is largely due to the fact that the world today is just so noisy. Every minute, of every hour of every day you are bombarded with things that demand your attention.
Some of these things of course will be important to you. But others will have little (if any) significance to you at all.
Let me know if any of the following sounds familiar;
• Visually, you’re bombarded by clickbait articles and images designed to stand out so you pay attention to them (whether you want to or not)
• Auditorily, you’re exposed to constant noise whether it be your kids playing, your coworkers chatting or the sound of passing traffic
• Digitally, your devices sound and light up in small instances demanding your immediate attention (sometimes for the least important things)
As much as you might value your time and attention, the reality (while sometimes frightening) is that there are others who also value it.
Some desire your attention simply because they want to be closer to you. Others however, seek your attention simply so they can profit through advertisements.
As a result, the ability to focus is not only becoming increasingly difficult, it’s also becoming increasingly rare.
The myth of multitasking
When faced with large amounts of noise to endure and large amounts of things to do, many people will conclude that the solution is to try to do multiple things at the same time.
But contrary to a common belief, it is neurologically impossible for you (or anyone) to give your attention to two different mentally demanding tasks.
What is commonly referred to as multitasking, is better referred to as: task-switching.
What really happens when a person attempts to do two things at the same time, is that their attention switches rapidly from one task to another.
And while this may feel smooth and fluent, the brain actually undergoes a stop/start process every time it switches from one task to another.
This constant stopping and starting can leave you feeling mentally drained far quicker than if you simply did one task before moving on to the next.
And the more mentally drained you feel, the more likely you are to give in to more distractions which makes it difficult to give your focus and attention to the things that are important to you.
Of course, many people will argue against this with something like;
Multitasking is totally possible, how else could a person drive a car while talking? Or make a cup of coffee while listening to the radio?
The problem with scenarios like these, is that it involves tasks that your mind and body have learned to do subconsciously where virtually no attention is required.
It’s because of your subconscious mind, that you are able to do certain things on autopilot while your conscious mind thinks about something totally different.
Scenarios like these are commonly referred to as; background tasking.
However, this is not the same as trying to do two different mentally demanding tasks (that both require your full conscious attention) at the same time.
If by any chance I’ve failed to convince you of how unproductive and costly it is to try to multitask, I encourage you to check out this simple exercise.
Just to be clear, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with accepting the limitations of what we as human beings are capable of. The fact is, there are certain things that humans just aren’t good at doing, just as there are certain things that machines aren’t great at doing (at this point in time anyway).
But I also believe, that every person (including you) can do truly amazing things when they eliminate distractions and summon one of the most powerful human resources they have; their focus.
Let’s talk about how you can do that.
Whether you’re trying to get work done or trying to enjoy your personal time, the sounds in your environment can be more distracting than you might expect.
You don’t necessarily have to migrate to a shack in the middle of nowhere in order to quieten your environment. Regardless of where you live, there are always things you can do to reduce the noise in your life so you can focus your thoughts more intentionally on what you value.
Here’s what you can do to reduce background noise;
• Turn off the television – While most people find comfort in having the TV play while they do other things, it should go without saying that it’s extremely distracting. Learn to do the things you do without the TV on in the background, and you’ll likely find more satisfaction in being able to focus on them.
• Wear headphones – Preventing yourself from hearing background noise is a first step in reclaiming your focus (sometimes I’ll wear unplugged headphones just to achieve this). But you can take it a step further by playing simple ambient music that defuses the noise around you (Spotify and Apple Music have some great playlists for this).
• Wake up while the world sleeps – Sometimes the only way to avoid noise is to adjust your routine so that you wake up when your home is peaceful and quiet. For me, this is usually between 5-6AM. If this is the only way you can find quiet time, be sure to adjust the time you go to bed accordingly so that you still get a healthy amount of sleep.
Interrupting phone calls
Interrupting phone calls are nothing new and have been around for several decades. Sometimes it’s a friend calling you while you’re trying to be productive, other times it’s a cold caller trying to sell you something while you’re having dinner with a loved one.
And since the vast majority of people use their smartphone as their main (and sometimes only) phone, interrupting phone have the potential to distract you everywhere you go. Thankfully, smartphones also come with features that can help you reduce these kinds of distractions.
Here’s how you can reduce the amount of interrupting phone calls you receive;
• Block cold callers – Every time you receive a cold call from an unsolicited caller, make sure you block the number so that they do not call you again.
• Create boundaries – Schedule certain times throughout the day during which you do not wish to be contacted (whether by phone or by message) and have a system that enforces these boundaries. My favourite method…
• Use Do Not Disturb – Most smartphones these days come with a Do Not Disturb feature that will reduce the amount of notifications you receive and can be set up to turn on automatically at whatever time you set. The good thing about this, is that you usually have the option to allow notifications from certain contacts such as close friends or family while blocking notifications from sources that you don’t want to distract you.
In 2016, the Washington Post reported the average white-collar worker to spend roughly 4.1 hours a day dealing with email. Unlike in the past, when email was usually contained within desktop computers, email is accessible from many devices and doesn’t even require a login to view. One of the biggest problems with this is that the instant access and notifications can bring about a false sense of urgency.
But more often than not, emails are not urgent in the same way that phone calls are and they generally don’t require your immediate attention. If you spend more than an hour a day dealing with email, or if you’re constantly in the habit of checking it several times an hour (because of constant usage), it might be worth reevaluating the way your email use so that it can be used as a valuable tool instead of a distracting chore.
Here’s how you can make your emails less distracting:
• Unsubscribe – Remove any promotional emails that have no purpose other than to sell you things or get you to click through where you’ll no doubt spend more time browsing mindlessly.
• Disable email notifications – Turn off email notifications on your devices. This can retrain your mind from treating email as though it is urgent.
• Check your email periodically – Instead of dealing with email as and when it comes, build a routine of checking your email at a certain time in the day. And most importantly, once you’re done, be done!
It goes without saying that social media is one of the most distracting (and addictive) creations of our time. And while some of the things you’ll find on social media will no doubt be important to you, other things do little more than keep your attention away from the things that truly matter.
Using social media mindfully in a way that’s less distracting can be a challenge. This is largely because social media providers have a business incentive to acquire and keep your attention for as long as possible.
But if you’re mindful and resourceful, you can still make social media a useful tool without letting it distract you in unhealthy ways.
Here’s how you can make social media less distracting:
• Reduce notifications – Limit the notifications you receive (when away from social media apps) to only what’s important. My personal recommendation is to turn off all notifications except for direct messages and leave everything else contained within the website/app itself until you decide to check it.
• Check social media periodically – Using the same approach as mentioned with email, instead of opening social media every time you receive a notification, develop a habit of checking it at set times within the day. If this is a challenge to you, this app might help you.
• Interact less – The more active you are on social media, the more people will interact with you, the more notifications you’ll generate making you feel overwhelmed. Be mindful of your interactions, if something is gonna trigger notifications, make sure that it’s something that’s important enough to be worth your time and attention.
Whether they’re fun or boring, people can be just as distracting as any technology in existence. In fact, there are actually very few distractions that do not originate from people.
Sometimes however, the people who occupy the physical space around you can distract you without the use of any technology at all. But unlike with you digital tools, you can’t just simple hit a button and mute somebody else’s voice. And you certain can’t just ignore somebody who’s right next to you just because they’re boring the crap out of you (not without social awkwardness anyway).
If most of the distractions you face come directly from people, you’ll need to be delicate with your approach;
Here’s what you can do to reduce distractions from people;
• Explain the importance to others – If you can help others to fully understand why something is important to you, then you’ve won half of the battle. Politely make people aware of how you feel so that hopefully they will be more mindful of your attention.
• Give your attention to others – Be sure to give the right amount of your time and attention to the people who want and need it. When somebody is constantly demanding your attention, sometimes giving it to them can give them satisfaction so they won’t demand it as much in the future.
• Seek solitude – Sometimes you have no choice but to move to a space where you are alone and isolated from others. For example, trying to focus deeply while sharing the same space with a large group of extroverted and chatty people can be a challenge. When this happens, removing yourself from the environment is often the only option. However, since this can come across as rude to many people, it would be a good idea to occasionally socialise so that others know you’re not just ignoring them for your own pleasure.
Creating a life with less distractions
Over the next few days, I want you to make a note of everything that distracts you. This way, you’ll have a clear list of distractions you can eliminate one by one.
But more importantly, remember what it is in your life that you want to focus on.
What is it that you feel is not getting enough of your attention because something else keeps getting in the way?
There’s little point in creating a distraction free life with nothing that you want to give your attention to. Even if you want to reduce distractions so you can better explore what it is that you love, that’s okay.
Just as long as you know the reasons for your efforts.
What you choose to focus on can have a massive impact on how your life looks even when the world around you feels like a storm.
Craig Link is a minimalist and technology enthusiast with a passion for finding and sharing practical ways to live a simpler life with more time, money and energy for what’s most important to you.