How easy do you find it to focus on your writing work? The answer to that question probably depends on two main factors: first, what external distractions there are. Particularly at the moment with more family members hanging about at home, you may be getting interrupted more frequently or have to deal with more noise; secondly, how much resistance you are feeling to actually doing the work. Maybe you’re tired, or it’s a bit dull (or tricky).
In terms of dealing with external distractions, the solutions are fairly straightforward. Decide what steps you need to take to make sure that you are not constantly interrupted. For example, you might get up earlier when everyone else is asleep, or put a sign on your office door or find a better spot to work in the house. You could try working with headphones and ambient noise such as the sounds of a café (Coffivity is a great free app I often use for that).
Consider what external distractions you are actually manufacturing for yourself. Do you have notifications pinging in all the time, for example? If you’re already feeling stressed, the sound of that email whooshing in is likely to trigger a release of adrenaline as you ready yourself to deal with whatever else is being thrown at you. Over the day, that builds up. The higher the levels of adrenaline and cortisol in your brain, the more your fight-or-flight amygdala takes control, and the less your logical pre-frontal cortex is able to function efficiently. Essentially, your brain believes your life is under threat and it switches into emergency action mode. That might save your life in the right circumstances, but it’s unlikely to help you to write a great reading text.
Notifications of retweets, new posts, likes and replies may not stress you out, but they are specifically designed to be addictive. That ping can trigger the release of dopamine, which feels good, but which will quickly train your brain to stop whatever you’re doing to just go and see what’s happening on Facebook or Twitter.
And every time you stop and switch tasks, there’s a price to pay. As well as the little surge of stress or drive chemicals, the brain takes time to switch focus. At best, this may only be a few seconds, but when you add up an entire day’s worth of flipping between tasks and other interruptions, that’s a lot of productive brain time. David Meyer, a psychologist who has studied this ‘switch cost’, estimates that we might be wasting as much as 40% of the time we spend working.
This isn’t just about the potential to get more done; it’s about all the time you might be spending sitting at your desk that you could actually be using to get out for a walk or spend time with family.
To do this we need to stop letting distractions, especially tech distractions, control us, and start using technology more intentionally. I don’t think we need to throw away our phones or delete all our apps; we just need to become more conscious or mindful of our use of them.
To start with, turn off all notifications.
Then decide on certain set times when you are going to check your email and/or social media and respond to any emails, messages or comments. Once you’ve made this decision, try and notice in a mindful way every time you feel the impulse to stop working and go and check outside of these times. You might be surprised how often that is.
If you need a bit more motivation or help to resist the urge to check, you could try using an app. Forest (available for desktop and phone) is one that you can programme with a list of ‘banned’ sites. If you try and visit one of these during the 25-minute period it sets, you’ll be told ‘Go back to your work’. If you ignore this, the virtual tree that is gradually growing as you work will die.
For some of you, the 25-minute slot will be familiar. This is also the length of time of one ‘pomodoro’. The pomodoro technique is an effective way of avoiding distractions and getting a lot more done by working in 25-minute ‘sprints’. You work for 25 minutes straight, then take a 5-minute break, then repeat the 25 + 5 pattern until you have done four pomodoros, or two hours’ worth of focused work. You can then take a longer break if you wish. It may seem that 25 minutes is not enough to get anything done, but I am constantly surprised at how efficient I can be using this method.
It can also be used very effectively in conjunction with blocking out a day or a half-day to get something done and letting people know that you will not be available during that time for phone calls, and won’t be responding to emails.
But what if you’ve tried all these things before and found that none of them really stuck? If that is the case, you might need to dig deeper and ask yourself what the attraction of the distractions is. Perhaps you are feeling anxious about how well you’re able to do the work, and the distractions are a way of avoiding facing that anxiety. Perhaps you are feeling resentful about the rate of pay you agreed to, or all the extra things that seem to keep getting magically added to the brief. Bad habits (and social media addiction is definitely one of those) are nearly always a way of trying to avoid being present in the moment.
Many of us spend most of our time almost on automatic pilot. We can find ourselves unconsciously creating or giving in to distractions without really noticing what we’re doing. The result is that we end up exhausted and feeling that we haven’t achieved much. The solution is always to become more mindful. The more we practise mindfulness, the better able we become to make fully conscious decisions about our behaviour, to understand why we might be behaving in certain ways and to quieten down the fight-or-flight reactions of our amygdala. If you’re interested in finding out more about mindfulness and learning some techniques, I have a free ebook available through my site.
If you’ve read this far, I’m guessing you’re interested in finding solutions to the problem of getting distracted. So, what practical changes can you commit to right now to stop distractions getting in the way of your work – and your life?
As well as being a long-term ELT teacher, teacher trainer and materials writer, Rachael Roberts is also a qualified life coach, specialising in helping teachers and other education professionals to build a balanced, satisfying work and personal life.