For all its amazing benefits (Netflix and Uber Eats among them), technology has left us with a major conundrum: how to concentrate in a digitally distracting world.
Yes, the compulsion to check our devices is real, and it’s harming our productivity, our ability to focus, possibly even our relationships. Can we do something about it? Short answer — yes. Learning how to focus better is possible (though not always easy).
So let’s jump in and look at strategies you can use to improve your focus in a world of distraction.
The Psychology of Digital Distraction
If you want to learn how to concentrate the mind on one thing, it helps to understand why your devices are so distracting in the first place.
Reality is, you have an incredibly powerful motivation to check your apps and social networks multiple times per day (or, uh, per hour). And it’s not that you might have important messages or miss something critical going on in the world.
This powerful motivator operates at an even more basic level. What is it? Variable intermittent rewards.
These are the same type of rewards that make casino slot machines so addictive. You know you might “win” (in this case it could mean a notification, like, comment, etc.) but you don’t know when. This sense of expectation is what compels you to keep coming back.
“The beeps and buzzes of smartphone notifications provide an intermittent, variable, unpredictable, but uniquely desirable schedule of rarely-met social rewards,” explains one 2018 research report on smartphone addiction. Because we anticipate the rewards but don’t know when they will come, “very strong modes of arousal” are triggered in our brains.
Devices and apps don’t work like this by accident; they’re designed to take advantage of this system of reinforcement. This is part of the reason why breaking free from a pattern of digital distraction is tougher than we think it will be.
How to Concentrate Better: Try These 6 Strategies
So the next question is, how to focus at work without getting sidetracked? Or for that matter, when doing any activity that requires you to be present? What can you do to break the compulsion and minimize the digital distractions (given that throwing all your tech out the window probably isn’t an option)? Here are six strategies that can help.
1. Avoid temptation
Witticisms aside, Wilde had a point. Persistent temptations wear down our willpower. There comes a point where it’s simply easier to just check your phone than to resist the temptation to check it.
And here’s the thing: even if you think about checking your phone but successfully resist, you’ve still experienced a distraction.
2017 research had people complete tests with their phones either face down on the desk, in their bags, or in another room. The results? Those with phones on their desk, even when face down and silent, fared the worst. The researchers concluded that “even when people are successful at maintaining sustained attention—as when avoiding the temptation to check their phones—the mere presence of these devices reduces available cognitive capacity.”
So perhaps the only way to get rid of a temptation is to… avoid it in the first place.
We know that’s not always easy when digital devices are a necessary part of life, so try these ideas:
- Put your phone out of sight. It may not be completely out of mind, but as the research above showed, the further it is from you the better.
- Install distraction-blockers on your computer and phone so you’re barred from accessing distracting apps during worktime. Some popular examples are Cold Turkey, Self Control, and Freedom.
- Turn off all unnecessary notifications. And perhaps rethink what “necessary” means in this context.
2. Take device-free breaks
So you can’t avoid the temptation of devices all together (especially if you use those devices for work). But when it comes to learning how to concentrate on work effectively, there’s one time of day when ditching the devices is especially important — your breaks.
This is because downtime at work is super important. Use your downtime wisely and you’ll return refreshed and more able to focus.
An interesting study from 2018 found that taking a break in nature is particularly refreshing to our attention span — but that using an electronic device counteracts those benefits. So whenever possible, leave your devices behind when you take a break.
3. Get a watch
Yes, it’s a ridiculously simple yet effective piece of advice on how to concentrate better: Get yourself a clock or watch. Because seriously, how many times have you looked at your phone to check the time, only to end up checking your messages instead (and later realizing you still have no clue what time it is)? Yeah, us too.
Physical alarm clocks (aka, not your smartphone) are also a good way to avoid immediate digital distraction upon waking.
4. Quit trying to multitask
In case you missed it: Multitasking doesn’t work. Science has proved this time and again. For example:
- Media multitaskers are worse at focusing and filtering out irrelevant information.
- Multitasking leads to lower accuracy on a task.
- Facebook multitasking has been linked to lower grades. And so on.
So let’s put it another way. You must use your digital devices, and that’s okay. But at least use just one at a time. You’ll have a much better ability to focus.
5. Set limits
It’s difficult to switch off from digital distractions when your boss is still messaging you at 10 p.m. But sometimes it’s up to you to draw a line. You might set a personal policy of not replying to work emails or messages after 6 p.m., and tell your colleagues to call you only if something is genuinely urgent.
Or if you tend to get sucked into your devices during meals, try setting a rule that they’re no longer allowed at the table. According to some 2012 research, merely having a cell phone in the room can interfere with human relationships and damage our connections and conversation quality. So settings some limits can help you avoid distraction from devices and focus on what’s important — like food. Oh, and the people you love.
6. Practice mindfulness
Digital distractions are dangerous because they’re so insidious. One minute you’re opening up YouTube to look at a software tutorial, an hour later you’re still there watching cooking videos. And… why were you here again? Oh yeah, software tutorial.
In a word, we get lost in things mindlessly.
This is where mindfulness practice comes in. Here’s a study from 2012:
During a simple mindful breathing practice, sustained attention is required to maintain focus on the breath while cognitive control is required to detect mind wandering. We thus hypothesized that regular, brief mindfulness training would result in improvements in the self-regulation of attention and foster changes in neuronal activity related to attentional control.”
Their hypothesis was correct. So let’s put that in simple terms: Practicing mindfulness (even just simple breathing exercises) is like training for your attention span. The more you do it, the better you get at being able to focus and maintain your attention.
So a few minutes of mindfulness can be a great start in learning to overcome those digital distractions.
What is the Best Way to Concentrate?
To sum up, we live in a world in which digital distractions are everywhere. And yet, the same devices that provide those distractions provide us with countless benefits.
So it’s unreasonable to suggest that we ditch our digital devices altogether.
Instead, it’s about managing how we use them. Remember these key points:
- Avoiding temptation is easier than resisting it. If you can distance yourself from potential distractions, you’ll find it easier to focus.
- You can design your environment for less distraction. Wearing a watch so you don’t have to reach for your phone to check the time is just one small example.
- It’s not worth using multiple devices at once. Even if you’re using all of them for legit work purposes, this not only doubles the potential for distraction but also means you’re never giving any one thing your full focus. Single-tasking is more effective than multitasking.
- Better breaks mean better focus. When you come back from a break refreshed, you’ll focus better. And thus be less likely to get distracted again.
- Mindfulness is a powerful tool. If attention is like a muscle, then mindfulness practice is strength training. Plus, when you’re present in whatever task you’re doing, you’re less likely to get lost in mindless distractions.
- Gradual changes in habit add up to big benefits. Learning how to concentrate like a Jedi master takes time. So start small, focus on gradual positive changes, and in time you’ll see big benefits.
Your turn: Do you find it difficult to concentrate? How do you deal with digital distractions?
Check out some easy ways to focus in a distracting environment.