• Author Tim Metz

How to stay focused and withstand unlimited distraction

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Chances are you shouldn’t be reading this right now. You set off to do something else, yet somehow you ended up here. Welcome to the Age of Unlimited Distraction.

When you’re wondering how to stay focused, you might think of it as training a muscle in the gym. The more activities you do which require deep concentration (reading a book, finishing a design, writing a report, coming up with a marketing concept), the more you train your ability to focus, right? Right, but there’s a but.

Getting to the root of the problem

The lean manufacturing system championed by Toyota is not only famous for its practice of “continuous improvement” (Kaizen). Another brilliantly simple concept it teaches is “5 Whys“. Keep asking why, until you get to the heart of the matter. For example:

  • Why do I want to go to the gym more often? Because I want to be healthier.
  • Why do I want to be healthier? Because I want to look good.
  • Why do I want to look good? Because I want to impress that hot new colleague.
  • Why do I want to impress that hot new colleague? To go on a date.
  • Why do I want to go on a date? Well, you get the point.

The driving force behind a problem is often not the first reason which comes to mind. Therefore, it can pay off to keep digging deeper and deeper, beyond the obvious. This also holds true when we’re wondering how to stay focused.

Who doesn’t like free?

Take a minute to think about things which used to cost money, but are now (practically) free. How many can you come up with? Five? Ten? Twenty? The longer you think, the more things you will come up with. Did you get any of these:

  • Sending letters (email).
  • Music (Spotify, Pandora).
  • News.
  • General knowledge (Wikipedia).
  • Long-distance calls (Skype).
  • Publishing a book (eBooks).
  • Games. Movies / TV / video (Youtube).
  • Socializing (Facebook) and business networking (LinkedIn).
  • Texting and chatting (What’s App, WeChat, Snapchat, etc.).
  • Making, producing and recording music.
  • Taking photos and videos.
  • Editing photos and videos.
  • Launching your own radio or TV show (podcasts, Youtube, Vine).

I’m sure there’s more and the list will get even longer if we slightly stretch the threshold; include everything which now costs less than $10 and you can also include private drivers, personal assistants, and book summaries.

The bad guy is…

Why are these trends “bad” and “worse”? And what does all this have to do with focus you might wonder? The answer is “distraction“. No matter how well you train your concentration muscle, even a superhuman can’t withstand all these free temptations without some help. Which brings us to another, deeper level of asking “Why can I not stay focused?“. Asking for help is where the real trouble starts. Most of us know we are too distracted these days, but we feel weak, immature or simply uncomfortable to admit we need a bit of assistance here. “Surely I can withstand the pull of Facebook by myself, it’s just a website?! OK, I checked it twenty times today, but tomorrow I will definitely be stronger.” Replace Facebook by whatever digital distraction rocks your boat, whether that’s email, Candy Crush or Snapchat, and most of us will have said something along those lines to ourselves in the past, me included.

The business of distraction

If you feel childish or guilty for admitting you need help in this area, consider the following: this battle is not you versus your computer, or even you against that silly game. You’re up against thousands and thousands of people who are working to keep you distracted for as long as possible.

Every self-respecting app you have on your phone has at least one person working full-time to analyse every swipe and touch you make (I know, because I worked at a mobile gaming company and we had several people doing just that). Facebook alone now has more than 8,000 employees, all neatly hidden behind the cover of that innocent blue website. A substantial part of those people are constantly crunching data on what you’re up to and how they can keep you coming back and stay longer.

The point here is not that there’s necessarily anything wrong or evil about what these companies are doing. Like any business should, they’re just improving and optimizing their product (and giving it away to you for free!). But as your grandmother can surely tell you, nothing in this world is free. You pay with your time and attention. You have to guard it carefully and up against an army of people, there’s nothing wrong with calling in some help.

A rabbit hole paradise

With unlimited access to all things we listed earlier and people behind the scenes making them ever more tempting, we face not one, but an infinite amount of endless rabbit holes to go down*. The deeper we go, the more we explore and the more rabbit holes we find to get lost in. This brings us to The Paradox of Choice: with a limited amount of options, choice is a good thing. We’re all different, so having the luxury to pick something which you like is great. But research suggests** having lots of choice is often worse than having limited choice:

  • We feel overwhelmed with so much choice, which ironically makes us indecisive;
  • We feel less happy with whatever choice we do end up making, because of all the options we didn’t pick;
  • We blame ourselves if we’re not happy with something, because it was us making that choice, not someone else;
  • Having to constantly decide what we choose out of all those options depletes our willpower, therefore making it more likely we can’t resist a temptation or stick to a habit you intend to change later in the day.

Simply by opening up our computers and carrying around our smartphones, we always have the option to do a hundred different things at any time of the day. You can choose to answer a work email during the weekend, but you can also decide to play a quick game while at work. The lines have blurred and the choice is yours, all the time.

No wonder we find it hard to focus on one thing and feel overwhelmed by those implicit little decisions we constantly have to make. The learnings from The Paradox of Choice suggest we might at best feel somewhat satisfied by the end of day, but more likely disappointed because of all the things we didn’t get to do.

The comfort of limitation

In the good ol’ days when things cost money and effort, limits were automatically set for us. You couldn’t call your aunt in New-Zealand for hours. Not only because you didn’t really want to, but also because you (or your parents) would go bankrupt. And unless you were a celebrity of some sort (also less likely back then than it is now), you wouldn’t receive a 100 letters to read and respond to every day. Why? Because it took people effort and money to send you a letter, so you hardly got any. Neither could you carry a game console to work, nor work on your office typewriter while having dinner with a friend on Saturday night.

As we have seen, these natural limitations have now been removed in most areas of our lives. The pace of technological innovation will surely keep accelerating this trend. In the face of all this, setting some self-imposed limits to reduce distractions from all these choices is not childish nor weak. In fact, it’s very necessary for you to function normally and feel good when you end your day. Pulling up some barricades means you have less temptations and choices to worry about, which saves your willpower and frees up your mind to focus on the important stuff.

Want more control of your time? Start our Time management course today! 

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