How to Stay Focused on All Your Tasks

How to Stay Focused on All Your Tasks

We’ve all found ourselves distracted from things we should be doing. A 2014 study found that a whopping 87 percent of high school and college students are self-professed procrastinators. Odds are good that you’ve found yourself distracted when you know you should be focused on a task. Is there a cure? Let’s take a look at how to avoid the pitfalls of common distractions.

When the Internet Interferes with Your Productivity

Distractions are everywhere, and the Internet doesn’t help. My article deadline is approaching and I still have a long way to go. I’m a perfectionist—I wouldn’t dare slap something together just to have it done—so that means either finishing soon or facing the indignity of asking for an extension. Ugh.

I stare at the cursor. Blink. Blink. Blink.

Maybe I’ll scroll through my Facebook feed. (Hush, conscience! There may be inspiration there. You never know.) Is that an ad for a meal delivery service? Sounds interesting. I like cooking. Cooking requires electricity. I wonder if I paid the electric bill. Maybe I’ll check my personal email account for the receipt. Hmm, Amazon emailed to see if I’d be interested in a panini maker. Would I use that? I’d like a panini for lunch. Ugh! This article won’t write itself. I need to get my ducks in a row.

I don’t have ducks. There is no row. I think what I have is more like over-caffeinated squirrels run amok.


3 Internet-Blocking Productivity Apps

Fortunately, there are apps for that. If you have the self-discipline to use them, they can help you keep your eyes off social media and other time-wasting sites that lure you away when you’re trying to work. Here are a few:

  • Self Control is an open-source Mac app that blocks time-waster sites that you specify. Simply add your most frequent offenders to the blacklist, set a timer, and run the app to keep distractions at bay, even if you restart your computer.
  • Freedom helps over 100,000 users block out Internet distractions (and even the entire Internet for those who want to get some reading or other non-digital work done). Although it costs $29 for a one-year plan, the program is robust and works across Mac, Windows, and iOS platforms. The downside? They don’t have an Android app and currently have browser plugins for Chrome only.
  • Forest helps you keep your hands off your Android or iOS device by gamifying the process. Start the app to plant a virtual tree. As long as you keep your paws off, the tree grows. When the tree matures (which takes a half hour) you can add it to a grove that eventually becomes a forest. Bonus: users can spend virtual coins they earn in Forest to plant real world trees.

When the Real World Gets You Off-Task

The Internet is a significant distraction, but it’s not the whole picture. The Internet has been with us for only a short span of human history, but distractibility has probably been a thing since that one guy, we’ll call him Trogg, first wandered away from his tribe of hunter/gatherers in search of something shiny he spotted on a distant hillside.

Sometimes, a little structured procrastination can actually help you regain your focus. But more often, it represents the things you do when you really should be doing something else. The more focused I’m supposed to be on an article, the more inclined I am to get up and make a cup of tea or decide that the dog needs walking. Office environments pose a different problem, because workplace distractions abound. What to do?

4 Ways to Increase Your Focus

  • Focus on habits over goals. Think of goals as the overarching theme. (I want to stay focused and finish my articles before their deadline.) Goals are fine, but failing to reach them is a recipe for feeling bad about yourself. That’s where habits come in. By creating habits, you break your goals down into manageable steps. (I’ll research and outline in the morning, write in the afternoon, and finalize and edit in the evening.) Plus, those good habits become ingrained and, hopefully, stay with you for life. Win!
  • Allocate time to plan your day. As you can see above, I have a strategy for researching and writing articles that works with my own schedule. If you spend a few moments in the morning allocating your time, you’ll be less likely to let the day slip away before you’ve finished your tasks. My schedule might look like this: 9-11 a.m. research and outlining; 1-2 p.m. answer email; 2-4 p.m. write 800 words; 9-11 p.m. finish writing and editing.
  • Take a stand against pesky coworkers. When I work in an office setting, I tend to become the office “social worker.” Everyone comes to me with their problems, or their desire to share their life story. (It’s a gift, albeit a questionable one.) I once had a boss who was the worst offender. She’d sit in my office for hours talking about her personal life, and then complain when I wasn’t finished with my tasks at the end of the day. If you find yourself constantly subjected to office chatter, disengaging can be as simple as standing up when an eager-to-talk coworker enters your workspace. Your unwelcome guest will find the idea of sitting down while you’re standing awkward and will be less likely to overstay their welcome. Voila!
  • Make to-do lists. Start your morning (or end your day) by creating a to-do list. We tend to stay more focused on tasks when they’re laid out for us and we can prioritize. Posting a written list can provide a useful bit of visual incentive as you gleefully cross off the tasks you’ve accomplished. It really is that simple!

We’re distractible people, and the world is a distracting place. To make matters worse, technology is all up in our business 24/7. But with a little planning, and maybe even some help from technology itself via productivity apps, we can shut out the noisy world and get things done.

Do you have trouble staying focused? Share a story and your favorite way to stay on task in the comments.

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