“Ollin, my biggest problem right now is that I’m so distracted! How can I push through all these distractions and concentrate on my writing?”
I’m sorry, what? I couldn’t hear you; I was too distracted by the fabulous, show stopping performances on this week’s episode of Glee. (That Blaine character is sooo dreamy. Makes my heart melt every time.)
No, but all jokes aside, you’re not the only one who has trouble concentrating. We all do. When you think about it, every human being gets distracted. We’re all wired that way. Can you stop and imagine a world where none of us were ever distracted and we we’re all constantly focused?
We’d be so enraptured by a fluttering butterfly in front of us, for instance, that we wouldn’t notice a thief quietly reaching into our back pocket and then making off with our wallets.
There are many situations (like the one described above) in which it’s a good thing that we can get distracted.
But I know what you’re really asking is that you wanna be able to concentrate when it matters: when your work, or your creativity, depend on your ability to concentrate.
Now, there’s a huge myth about distraction. That myth is that each of us is distracted for the very same reasons, and that just isn’t true. Each of us is distracted for very different reasons, reasons that may change depending on the situation we’re in. That’s why we each need different strategies to help us concentrate during different types of situations.
Reclaiming Your Power Over Distractions
If you’re having trouble with concentration I recommend that you first sit down and ask yourself these series of questions:
1. Are distractions really taking over my life, or am I letting distractions take over my life?
Have you set appropriate boundaries, or rules, for yourself, and then later followed through on those boundaries or rules? If you didn’t, then you may be letting distractions take over your life.
For instance, if you say to yourself: “No Facebook for a week while I get my novel done!” but then you don’t follow through on this rule, you can see how you may never take your efforts to concentrate seriously.
When I was a tutor, I learned very quickly that following through on the rules you have set is essential to getting students to respect you. But, if you make over-the-top threats that you know you’ll never follow through on, a student can sense this from a mile away. In fact, the student will break your rule just to call your bluff.
So don’t ever set a limit or boundary that you know you will never keep.
If you can’t live without Facebook for a week, then don’t make that a boundary for yourself. But if you can live without Facebook for a day, or for a few hours, then make this your boundary instead.
If you break this rule, make sure to remove all rewards or incentives (no Red Velvet cupcake for you!). I’m a big believer in no punishments, but I do believe in removing rewards when you don’t follow through on the rules you have set for yourself.
2. Have I been strict with others on how they should treat and respect the time I need to focus?
When you set boundaries and rules around your writing schedule, make sure friends and family understand and respect those boundaries. If you find it hard to make them respect your boundaries, then just make it very hard for them to interrupt you during those moments of extreme concentration.
Go to the library or visit a quiet, private place where you won’t be bothered. Turn off the phone and go to a location where you cannot get Internet connection no matter how hard you try.
Remember to always follow through on the rules you have set. Demonstrate to your friends and family that your time to focus on your work is sacred by constantly reinforcing your boundaries.
If others keep insisting on interrupting you during those times of much-needed focus, you can say something like this:
“Even though I do not go to an office, please know that I still have work to do. Please respect my work hours and contact me again on the weekend—the time I have set aside for the important people in my life like you. Thank you.”
Again, if the boundaries you have set are unreasonable, friends and family members will reflect this. Your loved ones might start bugging you more often than before–becoming restless with the fact that you never spend any time with them.
At this time you may need to reevaluate your writing schedule. Maybe you can cut out time spent watching television or surfing the Internet in order to make more time for the important people in your life. Reorganizing your priorities might encourage your family and friends to respect your “time to focus” more because they see that, even though you are busy, you still make time for them when you can.
3. If I feel that I’m the one who’s allowing myself to be distracted, but I don’t know how to stop myself, then I need to find the real reason I can’t concentrate–what is at the core of this? Have I been avoiding a confrontation, or a big life change that, if I addressed, would make it easier for me to concentrate?
I read a lot of blogs, and the topic of “learning how to focus” and “distraction” comes up a lot. But I’m surprised that no one has ever talked about one of the biggest reasons why some people are so distracted:
They secretly don’t want to concentrate. They are purposely trying to avoid work, or trying to avoid a sticky situation, or trying to avoid coming to terms with a big life change they are experiencing.
We all have done this at some point in our lives: we purposely spend hours on Twitter or Facebook, or surfing the Internet, or watching reruns of Seinfeld because that’s easier to do than dealing with life.
So, in this case, you need a moment of truth with yourself: is the problem really distraction? Or is the distraction acting as a buffer between you and the not-so-easy thing that needs to get done? Are you using distraction as a shield to protect you against reality? To protect you against having to actually get your hands dirty, take risks, or exert the effort needed to get out of a sticky situation?
You might want to write this question in your journal:
Why am I hiding behind distraction?
Answer this question as honestly as possible. Are you afraid? Are you worried? Are you dreading a big life decision? Are you feeling sad, angry, disappointed, or bitter? Is the task at hand simply too overwhelming for you?
If you have a strong emotion, or worry, pair that emotion or worry with an action. Do something about that worry so that you can move on and then concentrate on your work.
If a task seems to overwhelming to execute, then simply utilize my trick to beat writer’s block and never stop being productive ever.
Become An Expert At Concentration
If after you’ve reclaimed your power over the distraction, concentration is still a problem for you, then you may need to strengthen you “concentration muscle.”
1. Practice concentration
Practice concentration by doing work in the middle of a lot of distractions. Go to a rowdy café, or go do work at the house of a friend who receives regular visitors. Give yourself the challenge of trying to get work done in this very distracting and noisy place. Your work will not come out as good as when you’re in a quieter environment, but what you may find is that you CAN get work done amid great distraction. This kind of “concentration practice” will strengthen your “concentration muscle” so that when you’re in places where there are lesser distractions you’ll finding it easier to focus.
2. De-clutter and clear your mind
De-clutter by making your workspace clean and organized. Take one of your days off from work to clear you computer’s desktop until all your digital folders appear clean and simple to navigate.
Clear your mind before you begin to work by going for a jog, writing down your thoughts in a journal, or by meditating.
3. Engage in a “concentration” meditation practice
To help further strengthen your “concentration muscle” try this mediation practice I learned form Thich Nhat Hanh:
Sit comfortably. Close your eyes. Breath in and out. Then, after a while of breathing, count to the number twenty, making sure that each number is reached on an out-breath or on an in-breath. Once you reach the number twenty, count backwards until you reach the number one again. If you lose count at any point in this process (which will happen if you have trouble concentrating) then you’ll need to start the meditation all over again from the very beginning, until you’re able to count to twenty and backwards—without screwing up.
4. Try engaging in activities that require your concentration
Reading a long, involved book like Ana Karenina or Les Miserables, doing a crossword puzzle, or engaging in some other activity that rewards your deep focus will strengthen your concentration muscle. On the other hand, spending a lot of time engaging in activities that reward your ADD—like flicking through websites on the Internet—will weaken your concentration muscle.
Realize That Too Much Distraction Is A Crime Against… Yourself
A distraction is, by definition, something that causes you to not be present and unconscious of the world around you. When you’re distracted, you’re literally not “here.” If you’re not “here,” then you can’t be living life. So, when you allow yourself to become too distracted, it’s like you’re allowing a crime to be committed against yourself. You’re taking away time that you can use to live life.
Maybe your moments of distraction could be better utilized in the company of friends and family. Maybe your moments of distraction could be better utilized by going out in nature, or progressing your career, or meeting future friends, or reading a new book, or trying out a new hobby.
As I’ve said, some distraction is necessary, but if you allow yourself too much distraction you might be limiting your great potential.
Don’t do that to yourself.
Instead, reclaim your power over the distraction, or find the root cause as to why you are lost in distractions, and then address this issue. Then, strengthen your “concentration muscle” by meditating or engaging in activities that require great focus. Finally, de-clutter your workspace and clear your mind to help you concentrate.
At last, remember: if you can’t be focused all the time, don’t be so hard on yourself. We all get distracted every once in—Oh, look! It’s Blaine singing again!
much “it’s not unusual to be loved by anyone… duh-duh-duh-duh-dah…”,
What do you do to help yourself concentrate? Please share you best tips with us in the comments below!
>>> Guest blogging: Make sure to also check out my guest post on Elizabeth Craig’s blog today, where I talk about how to achieve just the right work/passion/life balance.