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How to focus in a distracted world

Tue, 04/09/2019 - 09:34
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In this digital age, distractions are everywhere. Your mobile’s constantly buzzing from a group chat that’s blowing up; your inbox is pinging with important tasks and information, and then there’s the lure of social media. So much is vying for your attention and it can be hard to know where to focus your energy in order to create maximum output.

The new law of productivity is:

High-quality work produced = (time spent) x (intensity of focus)

Increased productivity can all be achieved through ‘Deep Work’, which is becoming an increasingly rare skill. Deep work has been defined as:

Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skills and are hard to replicate” (Newport, 2016)

There are many articles arguing that we should ‘ditch technology’ or implement apps to block websites (particularly social media sites) or prevent you from using for phone (like this app called Forest) when you’re trying to focus. But is technology really that bad? 

Find what works for you

Fundamentally, it’s finding a solution that works for you, to achieve your most productive and focused state. Whilst for some, deleting all social media and communication methods may be the only way they can achieve focus (if this is you… go for it!). However, for those of us who are still a little bit too attached to tech, there are 5 things that may help you to achieve focus:

  1. Create routine - Establishing a routine can help to reduce decision fatigue and gets your mind used to working at those times. For example, designate a specific time and place that is dedicated to focused work.
  2. Follow rituals  - These can help your brain to prepare for focused work, such as: tidying up the workspace before you start, making a cup of tea and turning off your phone (or at least notifications). 
  3. Work SMART - Create specific goals for your output, to guide your focus sessions. Setting an objective for each session makes yourself accountable for your output, and provides your mind with something tangible to do. If you decide you want to answer question 1 of a piece of coursework within a 1 hour study gap, then your mind has something tangible to work towards. 
  4. Keep the streak - See your work routine like a snapchat streak, you don’t want to lose that streak! If you try to dedicate 2 hours a day to undistracted working time, your only aim is to not break this pattern! It’s surprising what impact little and often can have in terms of output.
  5. Be lazy - Take time to just be. Times of idleness can help to inspire work when you are in focused modes. In these moments shut down your laptop. If you need to do more work, extend your hours, but once you’re finished, don’t touch it until the following day. It’s important to schedule downtime as it helps your brain to refocus and re-energise for your next session.

Find your optimum focus

There are three underpinning philosophies that can help you achieve your optimum focus:

Devotion to deep work, or the ‘Monastic philosophy’ - is a lifestyle choice, where you lead a lifestyle of near-total seclusion from the rest of the world. The outcome is long periods of uninterrupted focus, with little interaction from others. This approach can be compared to the life of a monk in a monastery. 

Structured deep work, or the ‘Bimodal philosophy’ - is where periods of seclusion and isolation are balanced with regular day-to-day activities. These periods of seclusion can last days or weeks, but usually result in the return to normal routine filled with regular distractions. 

Habitual deep work, or the ‘Rhythmic philosophy’ - tends to be the preferred choice for individuals who don’t have the levels of self-control, or the ability to shut themselves away for long periods in a day to work. It is where you designate some time (perhaps only an hour or two), everyday, that is dedicated to deep work. 

If you’re able to be extravagant, Newport proposed another method to achieve deep work, through ‘Grand Gestures’ such as that used by J.K.Rowling who booked into a hotel for a weekend in order to complete The Deathly Hallows. Although most of us cannot afford to book a lavish hotel to finish major projects, there are other gestures we can make such as: working from that really lush cafe in town, or cancelling your streaming subscription may have the same effect. 

The key is to find a solution that works best for you, and to make it a habit. Work smarter, not harder.


I joined Pearson as part of a Chartered Management Rotational Degree Apprenticeship scheme through Pearson College London in 2016. Since graduating, I transitioned into the Digital team to support the research and development of digital resources and online content for students and tutors.

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