I don’t know about you, but I feel the pull. The temptation to check email as soon as I roll out of bed is strong. To check my voicemail, LinkedIn, and Facebook right away each morning, just in case I missed something urgent or groundbreaking while I was sleeping.
I’m coming clean. I have a problem.
I feel the urge to be engaged 24/7. And if I’m not careful to manage my time properly, it can yank me far away from my broader goals or my targeted to-do list.
I don’t think I’m alone, at least not based on conversations with my friends and colleagues. But what are we supposed to do? Toss out our phones? Throw a match on our Facebook accounts? That’s just never going to happen.
I’m finding it increasingly crucial—as an entrepreneur especially, but also as a human—to crack this case of how to live in harmony in our current state of constant connection, of neverending distraction, and still be focused and productive.
I think I’m getting pretty darn close. Here’s what I’ve come up with to resist the pull.
How to Safeguard Your Attention Span And Avoid Distractions
Like a kitten chasing every shiny object it sees, we have more alluring and readily available distractions than any human culture in our known history.
With everything we need at our fingertips, it’s easy to lose focus on what’s important.
So much so that Ed Hallowell, former Harvard Medical School professor, and author of Driven to Distraction, coined a term for the phenomenon:
Culturally Generated ADD
The truth is we all share this common tendency to plug into the matrix as soon as possible for fear work and life might pass us by.
But on the flip side, we also long for that deep sense of satisfaction that only comes from accomplishing what we set out to do for the day. When work is at its best, we feel a high—like a runner’s adrenaline boost—when we’ve moved the needle or made a difference.
The reverse, however, can be devastating.
You know the feeling. When your day is hijacked by a pointless meeting, a demanding client, or a needy team member. Or, perhaps worse, when you have no one to blame but yourself for procrastinating, and now your back is against the wall with a big deadline.
On those days, when work is at its worst, we head home feeling sapped, deflated, and unmotivated. So what’s the difference between the best day and the worst?
Your mental state.
How positive or negative you are has a direct correlation to your productivity, and to your ability to manage those external distractions. Yeah, so maybe you’re thinking that sounds like new age crap. But for now, withhold judgement.
Dr. Hallowell put it this way:
“Positive emotion is not a frill. It’s the on/off switch for effective mental functioning.”
That doesn’t mean that maintaining positivity is an easy or straightforward task. A lot of entrepreneurs try to achieve this state through blunt force, mistaking enthusiasm for excess. Dangers of overworking are now receiving regular coverage in small business publications, because entrepreneurs are realizing that pushing yourself beyond exhaustion is simply not productive.
At the same time, plodding along in the same measured routine, clocking in and out at the same time every day isn’t going to get you to that sweet spot either. Rigid limits on how and when you work are often a surefire way to lose intensity and enthusiasm for your work.
How, then, should you manage your attitude so you’re at peak productivity and avoid the distractions that draw you from your desired goals?
3 Tips to Perform Your Best at Work
1. Revamp Your Morning Ritual
Tim Ferriss, the megastar entrepreneur and author of The 4-Hour Workweek, interviewed more than 100 people at the tops of their games about their morning routines.
As Ferriss says, if you win the morning, you win the day.
If your morning sounds like the one I was describing above, where you roll over and check your phone first thing, this tip is for you. Try these changes to your routine to learn how to stop getting distracted in the morning.
Complete one task before attacking your inbox. Diving right into email, voicemail, or even social media can put you immediately into reactive mode—everything else be damned. Instead, start your day by completing one project-based task. For example, publish a blog post, create a marketing campaign or reconcile your accounts.
Meditate 10 minutes per day. I know. Meditation isn’t exactly fun. It’s difficult to sit and just be in the moment. You’re accustomed to being entertained, distracted, stimulated.
You’ve trained your attention span to be on the same level as that of an 8-year-old on Pixy Stix. So much so, you’re only able to consume content that’s been dissected into neat subheadings and actionable tips, like the article you’re reading now (let’s be honest, if I wrote this piece as a couple pages of text, you would have clicked away a long time ago).
But come on. You’re an entrepreneur, which means you’re someone who thrives on stepping outside of your comfort zone. So challenge yourself to meditate for precisely that reason—because it’s something that is uncomfortable for you. See what you find on the other side.
Before you start your meditation, do some quick physical exercises to bring your mind into your body. Try 30 seconds to a minute of jumping jacks, push-ups, or sit-ups. Then set an alarm for 10 minutes and don’t move until it goes off. Sit quietly and focus on your breath. Notice what screams for attention. When you get distracted, bring your attention back to the breath, and stay with it. Jot down a few notes about how you felt.
Review your to-do list and choose the top three items. Choose the ones that are causing you a little anxiety, or that you’ve been putting off. Remember, no more than three. Otherwise, guess what sets in?
We’ve all felt the panic of having 10-20 really important things to do. But busy is not productive. Busy is what people do when they’re avoiding the hard stuff, which is usually what really matters. Busy puts people in a negative, deprived mindset. Focus fosters positivity and productivity.
Start your morning the night before. Get a jump on sifting through your priorities by reviewing your schedule the evening prior. Ferriss recommends doing this before dinner for two reasons: 1) to make sure you don’t spend too long dwelling on it (you’re hungry, after all); and 2) to prevent anxiety or pre-work jitters right before bed. This practice of an evening review can include everything from looking at major milestones for the day, to putting out your clothes for that big meeting.
2. Protect Your Time
After you have redesigned your morning routine for maximum productivity and learned to avoid the most common distractions, it’s time for the next step. Let’s take a closer look at how you can stay one step ahead of the people (including yourself) who are always working to hijack your most valuable asset—your time.
Go on a social media fast. So much of what’s on social media these days (especially Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter) is negative. If one minute finds you seeing what your friend is up to, and the next hour finds you researching why Donald Trump’s daughter is getting an office at the White House, you have a problem. And for what positive gain? All you’ve done is generate more fear and loathing. Consider deleting the apps on your smartphone. Or at least cut back to half an hour per day.
B). Spend quality time with your inbox. Checking email is a well-documented compulsivity. Your inbox is an easy place for your brain to run when it wants to avoid the challenge of deep concentration. And we’ve already established that defaulting to email first thing can derail your whole day.
To avoid distractions, schedule email checks twice a day. So long as the right people know how to reach you in an emergency, in most cases this is enough to stay on top of what matters.
Say no más to MAS. Take some advice from David Grady, information security manager and comedic public speaker. Grady, in his TED Talk, decries what he calls the “Mindless Accept Syndrome” for meetings.
He pleads with everyone to say no más to blind accepts.
Because we don’t want to be rude and request more information from the meeting organizer before we accept, we all waste inordinate amounts of time in meetings we don’t even need to attend. Sound familiar?
Block off time for silence. Top CEOs have highly fragmented workdays, and are often booked back to back all day, sometimes down to 15-minute increments.
If that’s your life, how to get anything done? Try getting up before everyone else in the household and work from home in the morning for 90 minutes with no interruptions.
3. Bring Your Whole Self to Work
Sometimes lack of productivity is a symptom of a deeper problem. Often people who procrastinate do so because their reasons for starting a business are not strong enough to force them into action. Other times, short-term difficulties can obscure our views of the bigger picture. Let’s take a closer look.
Seek out purpose. Scholar and writer Leah Weiss is an expert at applying meditation in secular situations. On productivity in the workplace, she writes that one of the most effective tactics for staying on task is to bring purpose to each moment of your work.
Before you (gasp) picture yourself meditating at your desk, take a step back. What we’re really talking about here is a mindset: using your work as a practice. Instead of complaining that you don’t love your work, work on loving where you are in the moment. Why are you here?
Be grateful. American happiness researcher and Harvard lecturer Shawn Achor specializes in positive psychology. In his humorous TED talk, he asserts that 90% of your happiness depends on how your brain works, or your attitude. Only 10% depends upon external circumstances.
So while most of us are wired to pursue success in hopes that happiness will follow, Shawn says it’s the other way around: Happiness brings success. He points out that we can be trained to view obstacles as challenges rather than threats. Part of his method is practicing gratitude on a daily basis. It creates what he calls the “happiness advantage,” which improves both focus and productivity.
WHEW. Now It’s Time to Rise Above Those Distractions
That’s a lot, I know. But if you can bring even one fraction of one of these tips to life, you’ll get more done. You’ll feel better, too.
Remember, though, that no matter how talented and focused you are there will be rough days.
As Kurt Vonnegut said about his work:
“When I write, I feel like an armless, legless man with a crayon in his mouth.”
What about you? Do you tend to check your email and social media as soon as you roll out of bed? Do you find distractions are dragging you down? How are you rising above them?