It’s impossible to prevent distractions completely. But if you’re struggling to concentrate at work, you can minimize distractions by learning to manage your attention.
To concentrate on work without getting distracted requires learning a new set of skills. Learning attention management skills can increase your ability to control both internal and external distractions. This improves focus and increases productivity.
Any time you respond to distraction—whether it’s by answering a text that just showed up, or pursuing a random thought that just popped into your head—you’re being reactive. The problem is that we can only be productive when we’re being proactive.
10 Tips to Help You Focus Better on Work
In this article, I’ll share some strategies you can use to maintain a state of proactivity. These strategies will help you resist internal and external distractions, so you can better concentrate on work, and achieve your most important goals.
1. Recognize That Technology is Hijacking Your Attention
Most of us are living in a state of constant distraction, allowing repeated interruptions that derail us from making progress on our projects, our priorities, and the significant results in our lives.
We live in a constant state of self-induced distraction. I say “self-induced” because we create the situation. The screens we surround ourselves with are designed to steal our attention from us.
The first step in changing any habit is awareness. Try keeping a piece of scrap paper in your work area and make a mark every time your technology distracts you, like when you react to a notification, stop what you’re doing to check the weather, look up something on your device (unrelated to what you were doing), or read an email just because it arrived.
Do this for at least a few hours, maybe even a few days. I think you’ll be surprised at how often it happens. It might illustrate that you aren’t really in charge of your days.
2. Take Control of Your Email
Now that you’ve recognized the first big problem, you’re ready to address it. Let’s begin with email, one of the biggest attention thieves.
Why? Because email is full of other people’s priorities and passions. When you receive an email, it’s because someone is likely wanting you to set aside your important tasks to react to what they need.
And the sooner the better, of course.
One of the best ways you can improve your ability to concentrate on work is to get your email under control. By this, I mean to adopt a systematic approach to reviewing and processing email.
If you’re struggling to concentrate on work, don’t use your inbox like the junk drawer in your home. Messages shouldn’t live there for very long. Instead, move them out of your inbox after you’ve read them. Add them to your task list if there is something you need to do. Or put them in a general “storage” folder if you think you might need the message later.
If you’re struggling with distractions, you need to invest the time to set up email filters. This will stop messages from marketers or newsletters from unnecessarily distracting you during your workday. Create rules that send those to a folder that you can review at your convenience, or when the need arises.
If your email is out of control and you need help with your strategy, download my helpful Control Your Tech workbook by filling out the form just below: It’s a step-by-step guide to how to make your technology work for you, and not the other way around.
3. Don’t Try to “Multitask”
When you have more than one screen open at a time, you are, by definition, setting yourself up for distraction. While some jobs require two screens of “real estate” to make the job easier, most people use the second screen to monitor incoming communication. .
In this case, having a second screen sets you up to derail your productivity.
Did you know that research shows that multitasking isn’t even something humans can do? Instead, we do one task and then switch our attention to the other and back again. What we call “multitasking” is really just “task-switching.”
And here’s the catch—each time we switch our attention, it can take anywhere from two minutes to two hours to get back to what we were doing.
So task switching is a threat to productivity. If you’re serious about how you can concentrate on work without getting distracted, commit to using only one screen at a time.
4. Put Your Phone on Silent Instead of Vibrate
If you carry around a smartphone in your pocket, you are carrying a disruption machine. You may realize that, but feel you have no choice.
You probably also put your phone on silent or vibrate when you need to concentrate, thinking that you have done everything possible to increase your ability to concentrate on work without getting distracted.
While putting your phone on “vibrate” shows you take care not to disturb others, it also shows that you feel it’s fine to interrupt yourself!
Even if you put your phone on “silent,” your screen will still light up to alert you to an incoming call or text. This alone can divert your attention from the task at hand.
Instead, treat your attention like the valuable resource it is. Whenever you need to focus deeply—whether during a meeting with someone else, or an appointment with yourself—put your phone on “Do Not Disturb” mode.
If you’re struggling to concentrate on work, you’ll want to retrieve your messages when you’re ready. You will need to control your phone rather than let your phone control you.
Click here to get the free Control Your Tech guide. It includes step-by-step directions on how to use “Do Not Disturb” mode.
5. Don’t Use Social Media or other Internet Browsing to “Take a Break”
If you feel you need a break from work, getting sucked into the rabbit hole of social media, news, or sports scores isn’t truly giving your brain the refreshment it needs.
As long as you are still on a screen, the same parts of your brain continue working (the part you use to read).
Restoration is key to unleashing your genius. To truly refresh your mind, try a more restorative activity. Instead of more screen time, try going for a brisk walk outside, doing a short meditation, chatting with a friend, or eating a healthy snack.
Check out this post for more strategies to help you unleash your genius.
6. Use Boundary-Setting Signals with Other People
Let’s face it: Whether you work from home or in an office full of colleagues, there are likely to be people who would like—need!—your attention right NOW.
You need a plan to avoid interruptions by others. If you don’t have a plan, you’ll spend your days being reactive to the priorities of whoever is interrupting you.
Fortunately, there are some easy, low-tech ways to signal you are busy and prefer not to be disturbed. These include:
- Closing your office door if you have one.
- Putting a Do Not Disturb sign up. (You can download funny ones here for free.)
- Wearing noise-canceling headphones.
- Making a whiteboard available for older children, teens, or team members (depending on where you’re working) to leave you a message.
The trick with all of these strategies is to be diligent with them. You can’t put up a sign and leave it there all day, because then it won’t have meaning. Use your signal for 15-30 minutes every hour, or 60-90 minutes a few times per day, so you can do heads-down, thoughtful work. The rest of the time you can be available to others, if necessary.
7. Recognize the 4 Different Types of Attention
Most people tend to think they’re either paying attention or they’re not. But your attention isn’t such a simple on/off mechanism.
A useful tool for learning how to concentrate on work without getting distracted is to read about the four attention categories from my 4 Quadrants of Attention Management model:
- Reactive and Distracted
- Focused and Mindful
Each of these types of attention can be summoned by setting the correct environmental conditions. And each type of attention is best suited to helping you perform a particular type of task.
So, for example, let’s say you’ve been trying and trying to use your logical mind to solve a work problem. But so far, no luck. You can willfully set the conditions for Daydreaming, a state that helps our subconscious minds create insights.
To do this, resist the urge to pull out your phone whenever you are bored or unoccupied. Instead, let your mind wander. In doing so, you are priming your brain for an “aha!” moment.
If you’re struggling to concentrate on work, learning about the four quadrants of attention management and how to leverage them can make a big difference in your life.
8. Practice Attention Management with the 7-Day Restoration Handbook
We need to deliberately and proactively practice attention management. Just like we can build our aerobic capacity by running a bit longer each time we work out, we can also train our minds to focus in various ways through exercises designed to accomplish this goal.
If you’re ready to exercise your attention management muscle, fill out the form below. I’ll send my “7-Day Restoration Handbook” straight to your inbox. You’ll get daily exercises that you can do in just a few minutes as you’re going about your regular routine.
At the end of the week, you’ll notice your attention management muscle is a lot stronger. You’ll be much more capable of concentrating at work and much better at preventing distractions.
9. Collect Your Thoughts…Literally!
We all field interruptions all day long, and some of those interruptions and distractions come from our own random thoughts.
But the last thing we should do if we want to be productive is to immediately act on every thought that pops into our heads.
So what should you do if you’re in the middle of a meeting and you suddenly remember that you forgot to run an important errand earlier in the day?
You could block out the rest of the meeting, as you frantically try to think of what to do to make up for your mistake. If you don’t have a place to record random thoughts like this, they’re likely to hijack your attention.
However, if you have a system for dealing with random thoughts, you’re much more likely to return your attention to the meeting and keep it there.
The truth is, you can only manage what you can see, and the way to see your thoughts is to record them someplace outside of your head!
Using an electronic task list (rather than random pads, sticky notes, and notebooks) to organize your thoughts and responsibilities is one of the easiest and most effective ways to boost your productivity. For much more about how to implement a productivity system based on attention management, be sure to read 12 Ways to Organize Your Workload and Feel Better.
10. Learn to Meditate
Meditation is perhaps the one skill more essential to learn than any other if you are serious about learning how to concentrate on work without getting distracted.
Meditation is quite literally the practice of focusing your attention internally, recognizing when your mind wanders, and bringing it back to the task at hand.
The question a non-meditator might ask is, “Why waste 20-30 minutes twice a day sitting around doing nothing when I could be accomplishing more stuff in that time?” This is a question I have received before and my secret thought around this is, “How do people get through the day without it?”
There are many reasons people choose to engage in a meditation practice. One of them is specifically to accomplish more.
The “sitting-down-quiet” type of meditation actually creates a deeper degree of rest than even the deepest part of sleep. Meditation reverses the typical signs of stress. It can change the levels of stress chemicals like lactate and cortisol in the blood.
Meditation also can elevate levels of serotonin, which is a happiness marker, which can allow a person to be more focused and happier!
To get started, download an app like Headspace or Buddhify and follow a guided meditation. The narrator will explain exactly what to do to relax and let go, as you build your attention management muscle.
How to Concentrate Better on Work
The most important way to build your capacity to concentrate on work without getting distracted is to learn about attention management and practice your skills.
When you know how to manage your attention, you’ll live proactively rather than reactively. You’ll feel more energized and consistently achieve more of your important goals with far less stress.
To get started building your attention management muscle, get the “7-Day Restoration Handbook.” Fill out the form below and you can get started right away.
Hi Maura, email is the biggest distraction for me. I often get new work via email so I don’t want to miss it but I get so much junk email as well. I’ve really go to set a timer for when to look at my email.
I do handle the other distractions pretty well now as I’ve had to in order to get a lot of work done in my biz.
Thanks for these tips! I like to go for a walk mid day – similar to your mediating tip!
Thanks for reading and commenting Lisa! There are some great free resources, including for getting fewer emails, on this page: https://maurathomas.com/free-resources/. I hope you find them helpful!
Thanks Maura, I will check those out – anything to get fewer emails today!