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Focusing in the Age of Distraction: 3 Time-Proven Strategies

Frazzled"It's hard to get work done. There are just too many distractions." Sound familiar? From the recent spate of news coverage, you would think this is a new problem, brought on by the proliferation of the Internet, mobile phones, and social networks. But is it really?

It turns out that people have been complaining about the impact of distractions on creative thinking for centuries. Monastic life was one extreme way to deal with this problem from at least the time of the Greeks. But that was never a practical lifestyle for most people. So, from the "there is nothing new under the sun" department, here are some time-tested, practical suggestions for dealing with distractions, provided by scholars from as early as the 1300s.

Georg Spalatin, a scholar who lived in Saxony in the 1500s, wrote a letter to his patron, the prince of Saxony, requesting an interruption-free work space for deep thinking. In his case, this was partly to break free of the distractions created by his mother-in-law, who he referred to as his "home-devil" (note: the more things change, the more they stay the same). Spalatin found his refuge in a chapel in the woods.

What would he say if he were alive today? Create a workspace with no TV, no Internet surfing, and no text messaging. This can be a room in the house, a work area, or a municipal park. Even a garden shed can become your place for contemplation. This is not an office with a computer and a telephone—it is a studio for creative thinking; your only tools should be a pen and paper. For example, I find that I get a great deal of creative problem thinking done on transatlantic flights. No telephone calls, no Internet, and no interruptions. If you can recreate that space in your everyday experience, it will work.

cluttered office

Desiderius Erasmus a scholar who lived in Holland, in the 1500s, wrote, in 1528, a blueprint for organizing a scholar's life. In this text, The Ciceronian, Erasums suggests setting aside time when "one can shut down." On a practical note, Erasmus recommends writing "in the dead of night, when it's absolutely quiet and deep silence reigns over all." No outside distractions, no background noises.

What would he say if he were alive today? Take a nap in the afternoon and avoid alcohol in the evening, in order to be alert at night. Turn off the TV, set the Tivo to record the evening programs, and put the kids to sleep. When everyone else is falling over, you will be raring to go. As college students will attest, a lot of great work gets done in the wee hours of the morning. As long as you don't have an 8AM meeting.

Francesco Petrarca a Tuscan scholar from the 1300s, describes in his Life of Solitude, how to construct "invisible walls" by developing the disposition to be less distracted through an emotional detachment from ambient noise. Petrarca says you can achieve imaginary solitude by "closing the doors of your senses in order to achieve solitude in the presence of other people."

What would he say if he were alive today? Take a computer to a coffee shop, library, or other place where you can sit for long periods of time uninterrupted by other people. Bring some music and plug in. Turn off your mobile phone, email, social media sites, and all your other alerts. Create a bubble of solitude and get to work.

If these ideas don't work, you can always find a list of monasteries taking applications.