Article

How to beat distractions and reclaim your focus

by Melissa Cafiero

You know the drill: you get your beverage of choice, clear your desk of clutter, pop in your headphones, and sit down to work, only to be met with a buzzing phone, an email notification, or a knock on your office door (or a tap on your shoulder if you’re in an open office environment).

How are any of us supposed to accomplish anything amidst a constant flurry of pings, rings, buzzes, and chirps? It’s almost like the odds are stacked against us. Some companies even have employees dedicated to studying psychology in order to create addictive technology and products designed to steal your focus, to the point where you willingly give away your attention.

Luckily, not all of them are bad. There are myriad products, apps, and platforms that can help you — in self-discovery, managing the home, and achieving more in your career (we hope Smartsheet fits in this category for you!). But we can be more intentional about how and where we spend our time and attention.

All of this hit me like a lightning bolt during a recent commute to the Smartsheet office while I listened to The Next Big Idea podcast episode featuring Nir Eyal, author of the new book “Indistractable: How To Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life.” Here are the four strategies he shared to help us all become indistractable.

An image of the outline of a person's head in light green with a dark green thought bubble appearing overhead

Recognize and overcome internal triggers

The first lesson is that a distraction is not the thing itself. For example, a cell phone is not the distraction; the distraction is how we respond to it. Eyal posits that we form habits of being distracted as a way to escape discomfort. Once you understand the drivers behind your behavior, you can make changes to address them.

It’s uncomfortable not to give in to a distraction. Our mind continues craving it. But we have to learn to deal with that discomfort to overcome the distractions, Eyal advises. And an important distinction should be made here: mental abstinence (trying to keep yourself from thinking about the distraction) is not the goal; suppressing thoughts will only cause them to rebound in your brain.

Make it actionable: It might be challenging to identify your internal triggers. (It was for me, too!) You’ll want to tune into not only the triggers, but also the sensations and emotions you feel before getting distracted and as you ride the wave of the distraction. You can use Eyal’s 4-step method to explore and address internal triggers.

An image of a green stopwatch set against a grid background in varying shades of green

Make time for advancement

This strategy boils down to prioritizing and then making time to work on the most important items. It’s not enough to make a to-do list; you have to schedule time into your calendar to focus on certain work, otherwise you’re simply planning the output rather than the input, Eyal says.

As you schedule time, make sure to consider the three life domains: you, your work, and your relationships. This will help you create a framework for how to spend your time. Above all, be sure to create time for yourself first or the other two will suffer as a result.

Make it actionable: Take advantage of the Smartsheet daily task manager template to manage your to-do list, and be sure to schedule chunks of time in your calendar to tackle each to-do. Set aside however much time you’d like to allocate to each task each week.

An image of two hands shaking, one a darker green and the other a lighter shade of green

Make pacts to prevent distraction

There are three types of pacts you can employ in your quest to be indistractable: effort pacts, price pacts, and identity pacts.

Effort pacts require you to increase the amount of effort required to perform the undesirable action. For example, if I know I like snacking on Flamin' Hot Cheetos when watching TV, I won’t buy them during my usual grocery trip.

That makes me have to delay watching my show and drive all the way to the store to buy them. The pact makes me ask: Is my craving really worth the effort?

Other hacks in the effort pact category include specialized apps that prevent you from checking email or scrolling through Instagram when you should be focusing on something specific (like finishing that presentation for your boss).

With price pacts, money is at stake. And thanks to a concept called “loss aversion,” we’re more wired to want to avoid losing money than we are to gain it. So when you set a price pact, it can’t be a reward, like buying a fancy new pair of shoes or going on a weekend getaway.

Instead, it needs to be more like Eyal’s exercise plan to work out every single day. He taped a $100 bill to his calendar, near a lighter. If he didn’t exercise one day, he had to burn the money. (Spoiler alert: He never had to burn the money.)

Lastly, identity pacts make you change your perception of who you are. Instead of saying, “I’m on a diet,” you would say, “I’m a healthy eater.” Similarly, simply changing your vocabulary from “I can’t” to “I don’t” can cause changes, too. “I can’t look at social media” feels very different from saying, “I don’t look at social media during focus time.”

Make it actionable: Identify the behaviors and distractions you’d like to change and spend some time determining the pact(s) that will be most beneficial. Eyal suggests going a step further by telling your friends and coworkers (if you’re comfortable) so they can help keep you accountable.

An image of the outline of a light green person with images of a bell, mail, and cell phone to their left

Minimize external triggers

External triggers include not just notifications and buzzes, but also responsibilities — at home, with family, and at the office. Work responsibilities are the most challenging to master, as you’re arguably less in control. There’s the work you need and want to do, along with the work your boss (and their boss) assign to you.

Not all external triggers are evil and need to be banished. Some triggers are good for us, especially when they prompt us to do something good for ourselves, like a reminder to go to your favorite gym class (that’s a thing that exists for other people, right?). The trouble arises when the trigger takes you away from something you planned to do.

Whatever you do, do it with intent, Eyal advises.

Make it actionable: For every trigger, Eyal’s guidance is to ask yourself whether the trigger is serving you (like that gym reminder) or whether you’re serving the trigger (like an email notification that takes you away from focusing on a project). Once you identify the triggers that don’t serve you, you’ll know where your trouble spots are and can work to remove them.

Let’s become indistractable

The ironic part of this story is the amount of distractions I experienced simply writing this article. And I’d be willing to bet you were distracted at least once while reading it.

That’s part of the reason work has become so dysfunctional. Combine distractions with ineffective communication and repetitive assignments, and it’s a recipe for getting bogged down in the details when you’re trying to get ahead at the office.

It’s time to find a new way to work and achieve all that we set out to do. Are you with me?