Re-finding My Focus... How to Concentrate in a Distracted World
As a school kid in the early noughties, I was bright and focussed. I worked hard and did well, usually finishing top of my class or thereabouts. This continued through sixth form and even university. But something has changed in the three years since I graduated and entered the workforce: I just cannot concentrate anymore.
It’s frustrating, it means my days seem to go more slowly, and it makes me feel as though I’m never really being challenged in the way I once was on a regular basis – something I really enjoyed. It’s bizarre as I know that I could seek that challenge for myself, yet I inevitably end up being distracted by a series of smaller tasks, and before I know it it’s the end of the working day. Even when I do get my teeth stuck into something, it’s usually only a matter of minutes before I get a slack notification or check my emails, the news, or my phone. This constant checking in feels almost like a compulsion – a sign of addiction that so many of us are struggling with nowadays. In fact, it is an addiction, and the workplace is not, in my opinion, set up well to help us manage it.
In school, at least when I was there, we didn’t have access to a computer all day every day, and therefore we couldn’t distract ourselves by switching tabs at the first sign of boredom or mental exertion. Likewise, although I’m of the generation where I can’t remember a time without mobiles, there was no way we’d be allowed to keep ours out on the desk during class. Even in university, politeness dictated that I kept my phone on silent and firmly in my bag during lectures and seminars.
That’s just not the case when at work – in fact, the opposite is often encouraged. Many of us need to keep our phones handy in case someone tries to reach us throughout the day, and more than 60% of employees in the UK conduct their work via a computer, leaving endless opportunities to be distracted. What’s more, for many of us, we’re expected to be online and reachable all the time - be that by email or direct messaging.
Furthermore, at school, our days were broken down into much more manageable chunks, usually an hour at a time, with decent breaks between each class including an extra-long pause to enjoy at lunch. The days were shorter too – usually around 6.5 hours in the UK. Total concentration was expected within these times, with – as mentioned – minimal distraction, save for the class clown. Most teachers knew the right amount of material to fit into these slots – enough to challenge you, but not too much as to be impossible within the time limit – and I thrived on these sharp blasts of attention, punctured by regular breaks during which I could chat with my friends.
At university, lectures and seminars were ran in a similar manner – concentrated blocks of time to focus on a subject. Admittedly, as most students will testify, there were plenty of opportunities for distraction to set in outside of these times, but the beauty of our timetables meant that we were free to study as and when worked best for us as individuals. Whilst this lack of structure may not have worked well for everyone, it certainly kept me motivated to finish my work as quickly as possible, so I could enjoy the rest of my day. Best of all? If I woke up on a grey Tuesday morning and just could not motivate myself to work that morning, I didn’t have to – I’d get it done some other time.
In many workplaces, we’re expected to be at our desks constantly throughout the day, even if we don’t have that much to do, or if we could benefit more from a change of scenery or a break. For me, this presenteeism means I find ways to look busy – which often results in having a scroll through the news or my personal emails. I get into bad habits, which are then difficult to break when I actually need to concentrate; I find myself flicking back to those much-visited sites almost unconsciously.
For some of us who have spent the past 18 months working from home, perhaps we have been relieved from much of this presenteeism, as we may have felt more comfortable taking a short walk or sitting down for a cup of tea between tasks. That said, I’ve certainly found myself nudging the cursor from time to time, to keep my profile green until 5pm, when the work actually dried up at 3pm. For others, working from home presents as many, if not more, distractions as the office; for those home-schooling or dealing with conflicted schedules and / or confined working space, simply carving out enough time to focus must have been a nightmare.
As we ease into autumn, many of us will be returning to the workplace for the first time in almost a year and a half, which will certainly engender mixed feelings for a lot of people – amongst my circle of friends, there is mixture of dread and excitement, depending on the person and, it seems, how flexible their new work schedule looks to be. I believe we have a right (and perhaps also a responsibility) to ask questions and make demands about what we want from our workplaces – to make them work better for us and to allow us to maximise our potentials.
Below is a short list of some of the ways I’d like flexibility from my employer, to enable me to achieve more frequent and longer periods of concentration. There are also ideas I need to enact myself, taking responsibility for my own focus by removing distractions and optimising my environment. Some of these are based on the above observations of what has worked well for me in the past, some on Kal Newport’s suggestions in his popular book “Deep work”, and some on more recent self-observation about my working habits. I encourage you to think of a list tailored to you, and, if possible, to speak to your team about putting those items in place to maximise your own productivity at work.
1. Only answer emails within a dedicated time period each day.
I first came across this idea listening to a podcast of a British expat living in Denmark, who explained that it is common practice there to set an automated response to all emails making senders aware that the receiver answers emails only between a certain time period each day (for instance, 9-10am), and that they should not expect a response outside of those times. Newport mentions something similar in Deep Work.
To me, this idea is genius – it communicates a clear boundary to those seeking to get in touch, and it allots a certain period of time each day to focus on the often mundane but necessary task of answering emails. The best part? After that, the email tab and notifications can be switched off, meaning that we are no longer distracted every 5 minutes when we see a new message pop up. This is important, as studies have found that even when we don’t open an email straight away (which many of us do), we are still thinking about it, and it takes us a good ten minutes to regain our concentration… by which time we are likely to have received another email.
Clearly, there are some roles for which it might be impossible to only attend to emails once a day. Might you instead be able to allot two or three specific times during the day to do this task instead, rather than keeping the tab open constantly in the background?
2. Remove my phone from view.
This is very much a me problem – in my job, it is rarely necessary for me to use my phone in my day-to-day work. Yet there it is, on my desk for much of the day. Apparently, we receive an average of 63 notifications each day on our smartphones, and much like with emails, if I see something pop up, even if I don’t actively check the message, my focus has been disturbed.
The solution is simple – keep it on silent and out of sight. I’m going to do this. I’m going to do this… *prises phone from hands*
3. Have a more flexible work schedule.
In all honesty, the working day here at Stillpoint is pretty flexible – we’re not confined to our desk all day every day, and we certainly wouldn’t be chastised for taking a break, leaving early on occasion or for attending to a personal matter within work times. I've also been allowed time off to study when needed, which has been a god-send. This said, I’ve included this point for two reasons.
Firstly, I believe it’s important that companies trust their employees enough to manage their own time – if someone can produce the expected quality and quantity of output, for most roles that should be all that matters.
Secondly, we are not all the same, and that extends to the time and manner in which we work. Personally, I can achieve far deeper levels of concentration if I wake up naturally (without an alarm) and am able to exercise before I start my day. Others hit that sweet spot in the early hours, before everyone else has risen. Whilst core office hours are useful (and often necessary), wherever possible it makes sense to let people work in the manner that best suits them. As a bonus, employees will then be far more happy to be flexible themselves in return.
4. Set aside a time (and if possible, a place) for Deep Work.
Location-wise, I’ve found my spot; at Stillpoint London, where I work for most of the week, there is a gorgeous little library complete with a comfy sofa and chairs. Every time I have a blog post to research or write, I squirrel myself away here for a few hours (without my phone, and preferably without my emails open). It’s comfortable enough to write for an extended period without feeling fidgety, slightly withdrawn from the rest of the coworking space, and because I only sit there when engaging in Deep Work, it signals to my brain that it’s time to concentrate.
In terms of setting aside a specific time, there’s room for improvement. I guess this is normal when working as part of a team, as on any given day there may be meetings or tasks that crop up without warning or flexibility. That said, it’s been shown that committing to setting aside time for an activity on a regular basis makes us far more likely to carry it out. It can also help us to be more productive, both by strengthening our skills in that task, and also by allowing ourselves to concentrate more fully on it – if you said at the start of the week that Wednesday mornings were to be spent doing X, you’ll be less likely to feel guilty about not doing Y during that time, even if Y feels slightly more urgent.
For a number of years, Stillpoint has run a Deep Working Writing Group on a Friday afternoon, to provide people with three hours of solid concentration and friendly support on a weekly basis, so that they can work hard on a writing project of their choice – be that a novel, coursework, personal reflection or much more. The group meet online, from 2-5pm (UK time), and begin with a quick meditation to get into the zone. After that, they write, together but in silence. At the end, people can disclose how they found the session, though they are under no obligation to do so.
Members have found it to be a very useful way to crack on with what they need to – they appreciate both the uninterrupted chunk of time to do this (no one wants to be the one disturbing the peace for everyone else) as well as the feeling of community that comes from working alongside others. I’m going to start attending – if you’d like to too, or you’d like to learn more, take a look here or pop us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Have a think about what might work for, in terms of upping your productivity and concentration. If you’ve any tips or thoughts, we’d love to hear them – feel free to share within our free, online community for the psychologically curious.
Alex Grunnill works for Stillpoint, and is based in London, UK. She is passionate about psychology, travelling, sustainability and linguistics. She hopes eventually to train as a psychotherapist. You can find her on Linked In.
Stillpoint is an organisation that aims to make psychology more publicly accessible, through events, online content and a virtual community for the psychologically curious.