Tuesday 8 February 2011

The Art of Focus, 3 tools and techniques to help you beat distraction addiction

Have you noticed something different in the last few years? Have you noticed that many people, maybe even you are addicted to information stimulus. We've become addicted to distractions that get in the way of what we want to do.

It's hard to imagine now, but only 20 years ago most of us wouldn't have had a mobile phone. We might have just set up our first email account, but we'd rarely check it. SMS wasn't used much (did it even exist?). Twitter and Facebook were a long way from being conceived. There weren't many distractions really. I'm not sure if this was a better time, but for me it was a very creative time. I'd lock myself in my room and create music, free from any distractions or disturbances. It was just me, my imagination and my music.

Now when I sit down to create there is so much temptation. The modern computer is an incredible tool, it gives us all the power to create things that 20 years would have been out of our reach. My little Macbook is a typewriter, a photography lab, an artistic workshop, a global communication device, an endless library of knowledge, a video production suite, a unix supercomputer, a publishing house, an incredible digital recording studio. It can do so many things, it has endless possibilities.

And yet now we sit in front of our computers or stare at our phones endlessly checking email, refreshing the Twitter stream or spending too much time browsing around Facebook. Instead of initiating action, we now await stimuli and respond to it. If there is no stimuli we feel somehow disconnected, we're not sure what to do, we have become addicted to this constant stream of new information. All these systems work on a similar principal to fruit machines and computer games, that of random rewards...

The clever people who invented the first fruit machines knew that if you randomly reward players, by varying the level of prize, then players will keep pulling the handle, because on the 'next pull' they just might get a big reward.

How many times do you re-check your email/Twitter/Facebook/etc.. just 'one more time' because the 'next pull' might be something urgent or interesting or mildly entertaining? And how often does that get in the way of what you're really trying to do? Do you really need to pull the information handle again or are you simply becoming addicted to information stimuli?

If you feel you're getting addicted to these distractions then what can you do to regain control?
  1. Realise the world won't end - 20 years ago this stuff didn't exist and the world carried on just fine. It's generally not as important or urgent as we make out. Try progressively switching your information inputs off for longer periods. At first you could try Sunday afternoons or some other equally acceptable 'switch-off' time. Switch off email/Twitter/Facebook/etc.. on your phone and computer. If you're feeling brave switch off your phone. Then progressively switch-off at more times during the week. Ideally you should aim to check inputs no more than once a day, and preferably in the afternoon, only after your main task of the day if completed.

  2. Use focus tools - distractions only occur if you allow them to. The multitasking power of modern computers and phones can be useful, but it can also allow non-essential information to pull our minds away from the task at hand. So switch off all pop-up alerts. Even better use some of the excellent single-tasking tools that are now available. For example I'm writing this on the zen inducing OmmWriter. I also use a Pomodoro Timer which forces me to ignore everything until my 25 minute Pomodoro session is over.

  3. Work where you can't be interrupted - Jason Fried recently talked about why 'Work doesn't happen at work' and concluded that interruption in the office is what stops work happening. Tim Ferriss talks about how to avoid taking calls and, even worse, 'walk-ups' that break our 'flow' in his first book, The 4-hour Work Week. If you have to work in an office, try buying yourself a headset, put it on and switch it off. People won't bother you if they think that you're 'busy' on an important call. Even better find a place where you can't be interrupted. It might be a quiet corner, a nice coffee shop, it might be your home, it might be the top of a hill. Be creative and find somewhere that inspires you. I've found a handful of places in London where I can go (ask me and I'll point you at a few), switch everything off and focus on getting a task done.

It's astonishing just how much you can get done and how creative you can be even with a small amount of time once you get rid of the addiction to distraction.

Stay focused, stay in control, stop consuming and start creating.

All the best,

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