Focus is more important than intelligence: how to eliminate distraction

Chris Esh

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Focus is more important than intelligence.

Distraction makes us dumber. And we’ve never been more distracted than we are in 2018.

But the good news is that if you’re a person who can learn to minimize distractions and increase focus, you can out-perform others who are way smarter and way more experienced than you.

While everybody else is getting interrupted by emails, notifications, and texts while switching between three different projects, you work on your most important priority of the day and absolutely crush it. Then move onto your second most important priority, etc. Work like this for a few days, and you’ll realize you’re completing more tasks in a morning than you used to complete all day.

So why don’t we?

Before you can make any progress on overcoming distractions, you need to understand what you’re up against. It’s not an accident that you can spend half of your workday on emails, or that you interrupt real human interaction to check Facebook, or that you can be busy for an entire 8-hour workday and accomplish next to nothing.

Most distractions provide the opportunity for pleasure and trigger addictive reactions in our brains. Every time we stop an important project to check our email or social media, we’re hoping for a little good news, affirmation, or a small rush of pleasure. Of course they usually don’t deliver pleasure, but the chance that they will is enough to keep us coming back.

Your mammal brain is no match for the seductive power of social media, email, and notifications. That’s why the only way to successfully avoid distractions is to eliminate them.

Photo by Paul Skorupskas on Unsplash

Here’s how:

Turn off notifications.

Turn off most phone and computer notifications. They force you to be reactive to what the world sends at you instead of allowing you to prioritize your focus. You do not need to know the second a new email comes in.

Remove social media and news from your phone.

There is a place for social media, but it’s not in your pocket. I used to habitually check Facebook throughout the day whenever I had a spare second. I thought about leaving Facebook all together, but there are too many benefits that I wasn’t prepared to renounce.

So I deleted it from my phone, and it’s made a huge difference. I check Facebook from my computer a couple times a week, which removes the compulsive aspect of it. I still can find out about friends and family from far away and I can still post an occasional update, but it doesn’t consume my attention. It’s no longer a compulsive, unconscious habit.

Check email during set times of the day.

If you work at a computer, it’s amazing how much time can be lost reading and answering emails. Some days it felt like the only thing I actually did. The problem with email is that other people get to decide your priorities for the day, not you.

Instead, check your email at a couple defined times of day. For example, 10am, 1pm and 4:30pm. This forces email requests to fit into your schedule, and removes the temptation to check your email one more time before starting that big important project you’ve been delaying.

Keep phone far away.

Don’t keep your phone next to you all the time, especially if you’re trying to do something meaningful and non-digital. In the morning, when I’m trying to wake up, my willpower is weak. If my phone is next to me when I’m trying to read or meditate, I’ll often think of an excuse to check something on it. Then before I know it I’m reading the New York Times or checking Saturday’s weather for no reason.

Keep your phone out of reach so it won’t be tempting.

Do one task at a time.

Multitasking is the devil’s playground. Regardless of your personality or gender, the more you multitask, the less focus you can devote to each task. Everybody performs worse when they spread their attention across unrelated tasks.

Every time to switch tasks, you create an opening for distraction. While switching applications, you notice you got a new email, or you see that tab you left open of some other unfinished task.

So don’t switch to the next task until first one is complete.

Photo by Domenico Loia on Unsplash

Keep your workspace clean.

Eliminating distraction starts with your physical/visual space. Every time you see something else you could be working on, some of your energy is diverted. Don’t tempt your procrastinating brain.

So don’t leave anything on your physical or digital desktops that might pull your attention away. Close all other windows, move away the documents on your desk for the next task. Don’t leave reminders for yourself of everything else you could be doing.

Work without physical or mental clutter.

Don’t store tasks in your head.

You’re in the middle of your priority task and then remember that you forgot to reply to your client’s email. You can’t afford to forget again, so you stop what you’re doing to take care of that email.

Don’t. Working in this way is a slippery slope.

Instead of doing the task, write it down on your to-do list. Then let it go. Your brain knows it won’t be forgotten, so it won’t need to ping you every 5 minutes anymore.

I currently use Trello for my to-do lists, but I also have had success with Todoist and even a simple pen and notebook. They key is to use the same list all day long so your brain can relax knowing that open items aren’t falling through the cracks.

Take action

Be your smartest, most creative self by cutting out distractions from your workday.

In this distracted world, the most focused person usually wins. So don’t fight distraction out of a sense of guilt or obligation. Instead, see it as low-hanging fruit: the easiest opportunity to improve your impact and get ahead.


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