In The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World, Adam Gazzaley humorously points out that “The brain has allowed us to perform extraordinary feats from discovering general relativity to painting the Sistine Chapel . . . and yet, we still forget to pick up milk on the way home. How can this be?”
With cell phone alerts, social media notifications, emails, and 58% of U.S. employees now working remotely at least one day per week, virtually everyone is affected by distractions and mental mishaps. This plague of distractibility is, unfortunately, leading many to feel frustrated and discouraged about their abilities. One study by the University of California Irvine found that it took distracted people 23 minutes and 15 seconds to recover from a distraction each time it happened.
Fortunately, you can reclaim your productivity and mental health by learning the causes of being easily distracted and some tools for staying focused.
- Being easily distracted doesn’t mean you have ADHD.
- Stress, overwhelm, and poor time management skills can increase distractibility.
- Learning your natural patterns, triggers, and biology is the key to staying focused.
Why Do I Get Easily Distracted?
Getting distracted easily is most likely due to increased stress and other internal factors. When we’re stressed or overwhelmed, our whole mind and body are affected, causing focus to be lost and exhaustion to set in. Technology, multitasking, workplace interruptions, lack of clarity, and personal factors can also lead to increased distractibility. According to Harvard Health Publishing, today’s stimuli are often non-urgent but stimulate the brain’s fight-or-flight stress response. If your focus is constantly being broken by prompts to switch tasks, environmental noises, or a lack of communication, an inability to concentrate can be your brain’s way of indicating mental fatigue.
Other internal causes of distractibility:
- Financial stress
- Emotional exhaustion
- Parenting responsibilities
- Relationship problems
- Increase in work stress or overwhelm
Nir Eyal, the author of Indistractable, says: “Most distraction begins from within; we call these ‘internal triggers’; internal triggers are uncomfortable emotional sensations that we seek to escape from.” While our physiological desire to escape discomfort (pain, cold, heat, etc.) is commonly understood, this same mechanism also applies to our psychological sensations and is less recognized. For example, if you’re bored with a task, this state of boredom is uncomfortable. Therefore, your mind will shift to other things to mitigate the discomfort of boredom.
The Differences Between ADD, ADHD, and Distractibility
An inability to stay focused doesn’t inherently mean you have ADD (Adult Deficit Disorder) or ADHD (Adult Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder). While ADHD is the most common neurodevelopmental diagnosis in children, affecting about 2.4 million kids aged 6 to 11, its prevalence in adults is much lower.
ADD and ADHD
According to ADDITUDE, people with ADHD and ADD often have other associated “comorbid conditions,” like bipolar disorder, depressive disorder, anxiety, and personality disorders. ADHD and ADD manifest similarly, but people with ADHD diagnoses further struggle with a “hyperactivity” component, which can look like excessive talking or moving.
General characteristics of ADHD and ADD:
- Acting impulsively
- General inattention
While ADD and ADHD are formal medical diagnoses, distractibility refers simply to one’s brief lapses in attention. According to ScienceDirect, distractibility is the inability to focus for long periods of time on a single task or is characterized by varying levels of attention on multiple stimuli. ADD and ADHD are only possibilities when distractibility becomes chronic and coupled with symptoms of hyperactivity or impulsivity.
10 Ways to Overcome Distractions
“Clarity about what matters provides clarity about what does not.”cal newport
In Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence, author Daniel Goleman explains, “Tightly focused attention gets fatigued—much like an overworked muscle—when we push to the point of cognitive exhaustion. The signs of mental fatigue, such as a drop in effectiveness and a rise in distractedness and irritability, signify that the mental effort needed to sustain focus has depleted the glucose that feeds neural energy.”
Like anything, too much thinking or concentration, particularly when coupled with poor time management skills, can cause mental fatigue. Fortunately, some tools and techniques can help organize one’s tasks while restoring mental energy and focus.
1. Practice Journaling
Studies show that the practice of journaling frees up “brain space.” This is because writing forces your brain to slow down and untangle your thoughts. The driving force behind mental exhaustion is the lack of clarity and organization of your thoughts. But once they’re organized, you’ll feel lighter and clearer about what to do.
Other benefits of journaling:
- Reduces feelings of stress and anxiety.
- Boosts performance and productivity.
- Strengthens the immune system.
For more information on journaling, read Start Journaling for Improved Mental Performance.
2. Change Your Environment
According to Gitnux, 84.4% of workers are distracted. Furthermore, the cascade of distractions makes 34% of employees enjoy their jobs less. If you’re getting distracted easily, changing your environment is one of the first and easiest things you can do. Not only is a change in “scenery” good for your overall mental health, but creating distance between you and your distractions can help you learn how to focus.
Ways to change your environment:
- Close the door to your work or home office.
- Use noise-canceling headphones.
- Create physical distance between yourself and anything that distracts you.
- Put your cell phone on silent or in the “do not disturb” mode.
- Position yourself away from too many visual stimuli, like people and traffic.
3. Use Planners and Lists
A study by Harvard Business School states that “guiding people to concretely ‘unpack’ the when, where, and how of fulfilling a goal can increase their likelihood of following through even more.” It explains that “plan-making creates links in memory between anticipated future moments and the behaviors required to achieve goals.” Therefore, to have the highest productivity, it’s important to make a plan.
Resources for daily plans and lists:
- Invest in a Full Focus Planner.
- Download the Todoist app on your phone.
- Create an Asana account for calendar-based task management.
- Read Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World.
4. Eat the Frog First
We all procrastinate. Studies show that nearly 20% of all adults are plagued by chronic procrastination. Procrastination, as defined by the National Library of Medicine, is the “tendency to delay required tasks or assignments despite the negative effects of this postponement.” Fortunately, Brian Tracy, author of Eat That Frog!, has a solution. Tracy shares that by “eating your frog” or tackling your ugliest, most-challenging task first, you set yourself up for success the rest of the day.
Other benefits of “eating the frog:”
- It establishes control over your daily goals and agenda.
- It utilizes your mental energy during its peak performance.
- It creates a plan and subsequently fosters intrinsic motivation to execute it.
For more information on “eating the frog,” read 7 Tips to Stop Procrastinating and Eat the Frog for Enhanced Productivity.
5. Build a Productive Morning Routine
Establishing a good daily routine, particularly a morning routine, presents many optimal personal and professional benefits. As bestselling author and physician Dr. Rangan Chatterjee shares in an episode of Dr. Mark Hyman’s The Doctor’s Farmacy: “I’m a huge fan of morning routines because they give you a period of calm in the morning that’s just going to make you a bit more resilient to cope with those stressors that will come up in your day.”
If you’re getting easily distracted, developing a morning routine will provide structure and balance that will help you stay focused.
Strategies for an effective routine:
- Use time-blocking to designate specific tasks at certain times.
- Get a planner to record daily goals, tasks, and priorities.
- Integrate healthy habits like meditation, walking, or drinking water.
- Use an alarm to go to bed and rise at the same time each day.
6. Use a Task Organization Method
If you’re overwhelmed by multiple high-priority tasks, your mind may wander in other directions. While avoiding stressful jobs may provide relief temporarily, procrastination typically only makes things worse. In these cases, leaning on a task organization method can help you clarify and organize your priorities, reducing the need to “escape” them.
Methods of organization for reducing distractions:
- Eisenhower Matrix: This tool enables you to organize tasks by urgency and importance while filtering out tasks that are also non-urgent, non-important, or both.
- Pomodoro Technique: The Pomodoro Technique is when you pick one task, set a timer, take a short break when the timer is up, and switch to a new task with a new timer. When all tasks are complete, take a more extended break.
- The Ivy Lee Method: Created by Atomic Habits author James Clear, this method involves ordering the following day’s highest priority tasks using the numbers one to six, with number one being the most urgent. Then, work on the first task until completion before advancing down the list toward number 6.
- The ABCDE Method: If all of your tasks are of similar priority, Eat That Frog! author Brian Tracy’s ABCDE Method could be the most effective. With this, list all of your tasks, and then assign each a letter in order of urgency. Your “A” tasks will be your highest priority tasks—your “frogs”—that you must “eat” first.
As Brian Tracy says in Maximum Achievement, “The key to happiness is to systematically eliminate, or at least minimize, the parts of your life that cause you negativity or stress of any kind.”
7. Practice Time-Blocking
Elon Musk, Benjamin Franklin, and Steve Jobs are some of the most successful people who have reportedly used time-blocking to manage their lives. In his blog, Deep Work, author Cal Newport says, “A 40-hour time-blocked work week, I estimate, produces the same amount of output as a 60+ hour work week pursued without structure.” Anyone can use this technique, which can be a great way to section out categories of tasks, particularly if you have priorities in different areas.
How to use time-blocking for maximum efficacy:
- Write down all of your priority tasks.
- Identify times during your day or week that you can “block” consistently for just that task.
- Build in breaks after and between time-blocked tasks.
For more strategies on maximizing your time and focus, read Adults Are Distracted Every 47 Seconds: How to Increase Attention Span.
8. Build in Mental Breaks
Cramming as much as possible into a workday may sound productive, but such ambitions usually fall short once mental fatigue sets in. Fortunately, you can combat the onset of mental fatigue easily by building in small breaks throughout the work day.
As Samantha Artherholt, a psychologist with the UW School of Medicine, shares in an interview, “When we engage in a variety of activities that require more and less focus, our brain can spend time in the different states, which helps it function and allows us to be creative, to problem-solve, and to store information.”
Tips for building in breaks:
- Schedule shorter breaks in between tasks.
- Make room for a longer break after completing an organized task method.
- If using timed task-switching, build in a 5–10 minute break during each switch.
- Reduce stress and recharge faster by using breaks to get outdoors.
9. Lean Into Your Natural Patterns
Certified Sleep Coach Sanchita Sen states, “Early risers are often thought of as energetic problem-solvers leading businesses, organizations, or sometimes even nations,” but continues, “Night owls may disagree. They may argue that it’s possible to get extra work done at the end of the day.”
Waking up early presents professional benefits for many. However, if you’re one of over one-third of U.S. adults who reportedly under-sleep, “eating the frog” and tackling tasks first thing may not be feasible. Ultimately, when you work isn’t the critical component. The important thing is to acknowledge the time of day that you feel most productive and alert—your peak performance hours—and lean into this as much as possible.
How to determine your natural pattern, according to When author Daniel H. Pink:
- Identify the halfway point of your natural sleep cycle on a day that you are “off.”
- If the halfway point of your sleep is 3:30 a.m. or earlier, you are a morning person, and morning is your peak performance time.
- If the halfway point of your sleep is 5:30 a.m. or later, you are an evening person, and late afternoon or evening is your peak performance time.
- If the halfway point is between 3:30 a.m. and 5:30 a.m., you are a blend of the two, and morning is likely also your peak performance time.
10. Reduce Distractions to Focus on the Task at Hand
The most obvious way to overcome distractions is to reduce or remove them entirely. If you work from home and have a habit of playing the news in the background, consider playing soft music or something else that won’t tug at your attention. Or, if you keep your cell phone right by your laptop, consider silencing it or placing it in another room for blocked periods of time. Creating a distraction-free zone is the best way to protect your flow state.
Other ways to reduce or eliminate distractions:
- Don’t work in the same room or area as pets.
- When you finish your email, close it, and reopen it when necessary.
- Set statuses for online messaging tools to “away” or “busy” while working.
- Schedule breaks around uncontrollable distractions, like deliveries or meetings.
Adapting Biology With Behavior for Optimum Productivity
“Who you are, what you think, feel, and do, what you love—is the sum of what you focus on.”cal newport
If you wonder why you’re getting easily distracted lately, there’s no shortage of tips and tricks to overcome it. However, achieving optimal productivity in a “flow state” is ultimately about learning your natural biology and adapting your habits accordingly. No two people work the same way—you have to find what works best for you.
Additional resources for leveraging your own biology for optimum productivity:
- Read The ONE Thing by Gary Keller and Get Out of Your Own Way by Mark Goulston.
- Try the Clever Fox Pro Hourly Weekly Planner and Daily Organizer.
- Explore apps like Calm and the Apple Music Focus curated playlists to recharge and refocus.
You may be burned out if you’ve been feeling stressed, distracted, and overwhelmed for a while. Find out more by reading “6 Signs of Burnout and How to Beat It” next.
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