We’ve reached a pinnacle of communication where there are countless ways for us to interact with the world around us.  Texts, tweets, messages, email, pop ups, alerts, and video chats all have us sharing information at an incredible rate, faster and more frequent than ever before.  Which leads us to our greatest challenge.  How to focus in a distracted world.  Each of these methods of communication are creating a challenge for us to complete our work.

User experience has a concept of dark patterns.  Dark patterns are any design features that are intended to manipulate, deceive, or trick you into taking an action you didn’t plan on.

It turns out that all those red dots warning you about new messages and alerts are psychologically created to annoy you into taking action.  Think of your frustration when you’ve gone into your email or text messaging, marked everything as read, only to find a single phantom red dot left.  This is a focus thief trying to steal your attention away from your real purpose, which is to get work done.

Luckily for you, there are ways for you gain control of your focus.   But it will take a strong heart and a stronger mind because you have been willingly conditioned to respond to those red dots.

Take Control of Your Focus

Focus is not just selecting the right thing, but also saying no to the wrong ones.

Daniel Goleman

Daniel Goleman, in his book Focus – The Hidden Driver of Excellence, got it right in that what you say no to is just as important as to what you focus on.  It is a rule that I live by.  The following are some of the ways in which I force myself to stay focused in a world of distractions.

  • Identify your distractions – You need to understand what is distracting you on a daily basis.  For the next two days I want you create a list of things that are distracting you during the day.  You’ll recognize a distraction when you suddenly remember “Oh, that’s right, I need to get this done” instead of what you are focused on at the moment.  Write every single one down even if it you’ve already been distracted by it.  Once you’ve your list, review your distractions and decide if they should be getting your precious focus time.  If not, find ways to remove them.  Learn to say no, or at least, not now.

  • Create a Top 3 Priority list daily – While humans can focus on many things in a given day, the question is whether that focus is effective.  Time slicing yourself across a dozen priorities just means that you will have a dozen partially completed tasks.  Focus on three, celebrate your completion of them, and then prepare for the next three.  Smaller batches of focus keep you more efficient by reducing the context switching time loss between tasks.

  • Create Focus time blocks – Find out when you work the best, be it morning or night, and block off one hour windows to focus.  Try to get 2-3 windows a day.  Block off your calendar as focus time and defend that time.  There will be times when you need to give up your focus time but it should be a rare event.  I always find this a hard thing to do but people will come to respect the time blocks in a couple of weeks.  Stay true to your need for focus time.

  • Tell everyone how to get your attention- One of the biggest challenges of creating focus time is that people fear that they’ve lost their ability to get your time.  Some of these people validly need your time.  Others waste your time on non-priority tasks.  You can protect your focus time by telling people about it.  More importantly, you can teach people when it is important to get a hold of you and when it is not.  By setting boundaries most people will realize they can wait the hour before you have time.

  • Pull in your communications – This is one of the best ways to improve your productivity and it works to remove those dark patterns.  Those little red circles and message counts are bad.  You are allowing those messages to be pushed to you, which push you around.  Turn them off.  All of them.  Turn off the message alerts.  Turn off the email alerts.  I pull in my email and messages every hour.  This creates focused pockets of time that I deal with those issues that cannot wait.  This coupled with training the people around you to only approach you when it is an emergency is your strongest focus ally.

  • Email subject lines are important – Teach everyone you work with on how to gain your attention.  There are times when I’ve gotten 400-500 emails in a day.  It is impossible to read all of them and still get work done.  Train your staff on a new email subject line system.  Start every email subject line with what type of interaction they need.  Action.  Decision.  Informational.  Critical.  Let them know that you have to be in the To list of receivers to ensure you know the email is meant for you.  This helps to triage my email and focus on what must be completed today.  Here you need to actively be coaching.  For the first few weeks  you need to respond with things like ‘this really wasn’t a critical issue’ or ‘I don’t see an action I need to take here’.  People adjust quickly.

  • Break the rules – Finally, you sometimes need to break your own rules.  Sometimes things really do require your immediate attention.  Let your staff know they can phone or contact you if they need to during your focus time.  This takes away the fear of losing access to you.  Over time they will interrupt you less and less for poor reasons as your cost of context switching will result in a loss of over 10 minutes of productive time even just to answer a quick question.

These small changes will help you become more focused so that you can complete those three priority tasks every day.  The last challenge will be dealing with your own brain. It is used to constantly switching from task to task to task.  It is a habit.  You will need to break the habit.  Create your own “Things to do later” notepad so that you can write things down if a different, yet distracting, idea comes to you.  Get it down on paper and get back to the task at hand.

A final word of advice.  Don’t make all of these changes at once.  Start understanding what is distracting you and then slowly pick away at removing them one by one.   Add in the new focus steps.  You’ll be surprised at how effective you are in a month’s time.