6 Ways to Train Yourself to be Less Distracted

May 18, 2015
8 Min Read

Constant interruptions at work seem to be the norm these days, so how is anyone supposed to get anything done? If nonstop demands feel like they’re overtaking your life, it’s time to understand the underlying reasons you’re constantly distracted and take control for a happier, healthier and more productive life.

You start the day with the best of intentions. You are not going to get distracted. Not. Going. To. Get. Distracted.

Then you think you’ll just do a quick Gmail check to make sure you’re not missing anything critical. After that, you check your Instagram account – might as well while you’re already online, right? A quick peek at Twitter and you’re ready to settle into work.

About that time, a co-worker interrupts, asking if you can take a quick look at an email she needs to send an unhappy customer. Finally, back to work where you’re pulled away 10 minutes later when the boss sends you an email asking for a project update.

By the end of the day, you’re feeling exhausted and overwhelmed, once again frustrated that you’ve had so many distractions you haven’t reached the goals you set.

It’s a familiar story to Dr. Edward M. Hallowell, but one he says can be changed so that anyone can have a more productive and focused life. Author of “Driven to Distraction at Work,” Hallowell is a leading expert on ADD and ADHD, and says that traditional advice such as making a to-do list doesn’t work because it ignores the deeper issues that are the cause of mental distraction.

Hallowell says there are six common ways that people lose their ability to focus at work and the emotional and psychological reasons behind each one:

1. Screen sucking. This latest and fast-growing addiction to the Internet and social media make people feel “high” when hyper-focusing on their electronic screens and they feel an actual loss without them. They may “self-medicate” by staying glued to their gadgets instead of dealing with feelings of frustration about their career, for example. Some strategies to overcome it include closely tracking how much time is truly spent online, keeping a list of activities to occupy yourself when bored and trying to communicate more face-to-face.

“Just about everyone has a bad Internet habit,” Hallowell says. “You can be upfront about that (at work), and say we as a group need to take this seriously and give each other permission to set boundaries. I would NOT use the word addiction, as that would scare people too much.”

2. Multitasking. Constantly feeling bombarded by tasks can lead you to becoming increasingly curt with others, always feeling rushed and unfocused while trying to appear as if everything is OK and under control. Millions of people feel they must “sacrifice themselves every day to the small stuff at the expense of their own needs,” Hallowell explains. “In the process, they risk their health, their relationships and their jobs.” He says that trying to do two things at once reduces attention to both tasks and leads to errors and “sub-optimal” performance. The habit often arises from trying to be constantly “good” and not letting anyone down. Some strategies to recover include learning to delegate, and understanding that you do everyone a favor when you say “no” because you’re simply stating you’re not the best person for the task at this time.

3. Idea hopping.You might be creative and entrepreneurial, but if you can’t sustain your focus you’re not going to see anything come to fruition. Some of the reasons you may do this can be tied to a belief that success is wrapped up in risk and rejection, for example, but there are ways to combat it.  Hallowell suggests writing down your goals, because “seeing them in print makes it easier to prioritize which you want to emphasize now, and which can wait.”

4. Toxic worrying. Feelings of anxiety cause many of us to give up large amounts of time to things we really don’t want to. You may have learned early in life that bad things happen, and these feelings of fear can cause you to depend on nothing and no one. While we all worry, it can become toxic when we somehow turn worry into an asset in our minds – it’s what we need to be successful. To overcome this, try strategies such as “never worrying alone,” he says. “It’s like a bad habit. You keep coming back to it.  By talking with someone you turn toxic worrying into problem-solving.”

5. Playing the hero. If you’ve become the person who fixes everyone else’s problems except your own, you risk sacrificing yourself for the organization. You may have learned this behavior early on in life, when you rushed to protect others. But you’ve got to “put the oxygen mask on yourself first,” before taking care of others, Hallowell advises. “Understand that taking care of yourself is not the same as being selfish.”

6. Dropping the ball. Some people have undiagnosed ADHD, and find themselves unable to achieve success at work as they’re overwhelmed by external chaos. They compound the problem by constantly blaming themselves. Hallowell suggests becoming educated on ADHD, which he says isn’t a “disorder” but “rather a trait, which can serve a person wonderfully well as long as it is managed properly.” He suggests working with a doctor and a coach, and using strategies such as meditation and medication.

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