At times, the world can feel like one big distraction. Smartphones chirp and vibrate with dozens of daily notifications. Colleagues stop by your desk to discuss the latest Downton Abbey. And Jack Russell terriers bark and interrupt phone interviews—or at least they do in my home office. No wonder we have trouble paying attention.
"Of all the comments I hear when talking with others about their day, ‘overwhelmed’ is heard most often," says Jones Loflin, coauthor of Getting to It. "But things aren’t going to slow down. In fact, they’ll more likely speed up."
So how do you find focus in a world that is noisy and chaotic? While it’s easy to blame technology, coworkers, and dogs, the answer might be found in the mirror.
"Too few of us take time to define our ‘it’—our ‘important thing,’" says Loflin. "Instead, we choose to be victims to activity, like hamsters in a wheel."
Loflin says it’s possible to block the distractions and finish each day with a sense of accomplishment. He offers these five steps for finding your focus.
The first thing to do is to stop and find moments of sacred idleness. "We get so close to taking care of our tasks that we often don’t see the big picture," says Loflin.
He likes this quote from Leonardo DaVinci: "Every now and then go away, have a little relaxation, for when you come back to your work your judgment will be surer. Go some distance away because then the work appears smaller and more of it can be taken in at a glance and a lack of harmony and proportion is more readily seen."
Like an artist stepping back from a painting to take it all in, time away from work can provide a better perspective. While a vacation or day away is ideal, Loflin says just a few minutes will help.
Next, define your "it"—your Important Thing. Loflin says we walk around every day dropping possibilities of things we can do into a big mental funnel.
"We hope they’ll all get done in the end, but a funnel slows and narrows at bottom," he says. "We may be working in a world of unlimited possibilities but we’re also in a world of limited time."
Instead, determine what gets done by using filters, such as your deadlines, values, available time, or resources, and arrange your day around the things that are important—big or small.
Then carve out time to work by taking care of the things that distract you. Unexpected things will always pop up, but you can plan for common and known distractions.
For example, if you find noise to be distracting, seek solitude or replace the sound with something soothing. Loflin finds the Film Score channel on Pandora—which plays music without lyrics—helps him focus. Another option is to use a countdown timer, and limit a task to a certain amount of minutes. "This will force you to stay in the moment," says Loflin.
And always turn off email and social media notifications. "Even if you choose to not respond, your mind registers the interruption and wonder what it’s about," says Loflin. "Turning your phone to silent will diminish your curiosity."
Let your colleagues, family, and friends know what’s important to you, so they can support you and respect your time.
In his role as a management consultant, Loflin likes to ask people what their important thing is. "They usually know what they need to get done, but then I ask, ‘What would Joe say is your important thing?’" says Loflin. "If they hesitate and have to stop to think, they haven’t communicated it well."
It also helps to let others know why your important thing might be important to them. For example, your finishing the presentation might bring new clients, which will benefit the stability of the company.
Finally, keep the feeling of being overwhelmed at bay by focusing on milestones. Loflin has a friend who started running. Instead of focusing on miles, he worked on running from utility pole to utility pole.
"It made the process feel much more doable," says Loflin, adding that the same goes for work. "Concentrate on staying focused for an hour or for a day instead of looking at everything that is ahead."