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How To Limit Distractions When You Need To Focus

02/22/2017 05:12 EST | Updated 02/22/2017 05:12 EST
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Shot of a young female designer looking thoughtful while sitting at a conference table with her colleagues

Help Me Rhonda,

I can't seem to focus at work. I have so many things that I have to be doing daily, and I just can't seem to get one thing done at a time. I am always distracted by something else that needs to be done.

Signed Lacks Focus

Dear Lacks Focus,

I occasionally suffer from "bright shiny object" syndrome, or like a dog who suddenly veers off when he spots a squirrel. When I'm working on one thing, something else will grab my attention; I drop the thing I'm working on and jump to the other. I know that isn't efficient, yet I sometimes don't realize how distracted I have become.

You and I are not alone. We all have read the studies that tell us not to multi-task and we know we shouldn't. However, the reality is that virtually every job requires us to be able to juggle multiple balls simultaneously. The challenge lies when we find a new ball we want to throw into the mix.

We need to learn focus. The art of concentrating on one task at a time, and to not get distracted by anything else. Easier said than done, but we must master the art of focus.

Here are some of the things I do to limit my distractions when I need to focus:

- I turn off the radio. I used to listen to the radio at work because I found that I often got lonely. I've recently realized how much of a distraction it is for me. A pending snowstorm, a big traffic pile-up, the latest concert announcement, or even my favourite song, can seep into my consciousness, causing me to lose focus. If you can say to yourself "They've played this song three times today," then you know that your focus is elsewhere.

I appreciate that there is other ambient noise in the office, but turn off the ones you can control. Some have shared with me that they actually put their earphones in (making it look like they are listening to music, when they are actually not), so that it blocks out some of the background sounds as well. Naturally we need to be careful with this practice (certainly not recommended if you are the receptionist!). Earplugs do work, and some days, it really does help (just practice caution as it could send a message that you are not a team player).

- I shut down the notifications on my personal cell phone. I'm a self-admitted Words With Friends junkie. I realized that when the notifications pop up telling me it's my turn or that Terri has nudged me to take my turn, I want to immediately take my turn. I enjoy online games. I am 100 per cent aware that they are not appropriate in the work environment. So although you won't see me playing at my desk, my mind is thinking, "I hope Judith doesn't think I'm ignoring her because I haven't taken my turn yet." That's a distraction. There are many notifications on your phone, beyond games, that can be turned off. Check your settings, shut them down (and it will save your data usage as well).

- I turn off my browser. I don't need any of those windows open if I'm not using them at the moment. Don't just minimize it; it's too easy to click and just "look" at what is happening on The Huffington Post, CNN, Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest or the recipe of the day. If I need to do some research or use one of my online programs, the browser gets opened and I go to the site I need. I turn it off again when I am finished.

- I sometimes turn off my email. When I'm involved in something that requires a lot of concentration, my email can be a huge distraction, even if I have no intention of responding to it right now. I just "need to know." Well, shut it off for a period of time (not all day, obviously) so you can focus where you need to focus. It will get done, just not right now.

- I clear distractions from my office. Look around your work area. Do you have built-in distractions in the hope of making your workspace look more welcoming? A picture of your child/grandchild that makes you smile? Do you know what your brain is saying when you look at those photos? It is not saying, "get back to work." I'm not saying don't have any personal effects in your workplace. I am saying make sure that your workspace is not distracting to you or causing your mind to wander. Too many photos, knick-knacks and other personal items can cause your brain to wander.

- I put stuff away. I don't work on a completely empty desk. It isn't a tornado, but it isn't picture-perfect, either. I've found that when I'm waiting on responses, documentation etc., I don't like to file those files in the cabinet for fear I will forget there is something outstanding. However, I don't keep them in my main line-of-sight, either. I have a vertical folder that I keep on top of a filing cabinet. I keep those folders available for quick access, but I don't keep them in my main working area because they are a potential distraction (oh yeah, I haven't heard from Carmen yet--I should call her).

- I create times when it's okay to do other things. Working from home for some can be a very big distraction. Give yourself permission to put in a load of laundry, run the dishwasher and get dinner started, but block off time for that. For instance: I'll do a few personal things at 10:30 but for no longer than 15 minutes. The same concept is true for people who work in an office: I'll catch up with Wendy at 10:30. I'll check my Facebook at lunch. I'll make my dentist appointment at 3:00. Personal responsibilities do get in the way of our work time occasionally. Instead of feeling guilty, schedule them. Then you can focus on what you're doing instead of worrying that if you don't do it right now, you'll forget to do it at all.

Maintaining focus requires discipline. We all know how to do it; we just need to remind ourselves sometimes that a little extra effort is required. Try a couple of these suggestions today and see if you feel a sense of satisfaction by the end of the day.

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