Diary, Media, Technology

How do you stay focused in the digital era?

Weapons of mass distraction. Mar 27, 2012, by birgerking (720x404)How do you stay focused in the digital era? Discipline. There, that was easy, wasn’t it?

No, actually. Today we’re bombarded by so many distractions – on our phones and on the web – that it’s all too easy to wander off-task at work or at home. And one way or another, the consequence usually ends up impacting your own wellbeing.

Following BBC Click regular Kate Russell’s advice on tools to give yourself a digital detox, the question of how you stay on-task seems especially apt to me right now.

We’ve all been there. You open your web browser to search for something, visit a product site or read the news. The page loads. Scrolling… scrolling… oh, what’s this? you think, clicking a new link. And so, it begins. The problem is just as bad when it comes to smartphones, if not worst as shown by the large number of us that are reportedly sleep deprived because of smartphone use.

In the ongoing mission to ‘work smarter’, what works for some, won’t work for others. But I’d like to think that sharing my own experiences will help those of you in a similar position.

Have a look at some of my advice for staying focused below. Then why not share your own advice in the comments box below or tweet me @dk33per?

Near Artist's Point, Aug 25, 2012, by North Cascades National, Park (3840x2160)Limit what’s on your daily to-do list
There’s a good chance you’ll already make yourself a to-do list or perhaps several. I heard about the 1-3-5 rule some time ago, but it’s only recently that I find myself subscribing to it more and more. Essentially, it encourages you to aim to accomplish just “one big mission, three medium tasks, and five small things” per day. It’s an extremely practical way of thinking, helping you to manage your daily goals more realistically.

It’s not always possible to limit yourself to one to-do list, as complex projects and long-term goals often prove. I recommend keeping daily goals in your primary phone/email calendar (which also helps to think about the time you wish to devote to each task), leaving future tasks in a note-keeping app.

Keep the majority of your to-do list(s) and notes in one place
This, frankly, is a massive issue as far as I’m concerned. Where do you put essential notes about your workplace CMS? That budget restaurant with Ritz-quality food you found? Those hair care products you spotted online for comparison? The memos and photos for that Best Man speech that’s rushing toward you? Right now, there is no service that tackles this problem without hours of commitment and careful organisation from the user. Nevertheless, Evernote is what I use to keep these notes in a useful place, rather than cluttering up my workspace.

Other note-taking, productivity apps are available, such as Simplenote and OneNote. Issues with privacy mean it’s not always possible to keep highly sensitive info or docs in some of these apps, but my advice would be to limit yourself to one app if at all possible.

Keep in mind that, depending on your needs, it may in fact be simpler to use bookmarking services, such as StumbleUpon, or create spreadsheets for some things. It’s always wise to think: what’s the best way to display this information? Does my chosen app offer the means to achieve this?

Tackling your inbox and reduce your notifications
Altering your habits towards email is another process that takes ongoing commitment. By now, you’ll likely have email addresses for work, personal use and, if you’ve had some foresight, spares for shopping, mailing lists and other services. Given that I’m nowhere near the fabled inbox zero for any of my inboxes, my advice is listen to LJ Rich. However, I do recommend reducing your app notifications on your phone and computer. Simply turning off the banner alerts for Facebook and Twitter or the alert tones for MS Outlook, TweetDeck and other services can help stop you checking these apps too frequently.

Use music to stay focused
Music is a tremendous aid in helping you to stay on-task. You’ll know what genre or blend of music helps you best. I find instrumental music perfect for keeping my mind where it needs to be during long and laborious tasks. Over time, I’ve been compiling several instrumental playlists specifically for getting things done – or pausing to reflect. It’s good to have silence too, however. When you’re proofreading for instance.

Take a break
Obvious, yet so difficult to do when your mind is intent on tap, tap, tapping to see just what’s behind the next hyperlink. Sitting down for a short breather or getting up and going for a walk/run remains one of the most fulfilling ways of relaxing your mind and helping you to return with renewed focus. If you’re struggling to impose regular break times, try giving yourself a notification to visit Donothingfor2minutes or Calm.com.

Make use of website blockers
If there are some instances that you just can’t resist even when its past your bedtime, then website blockers are perhaps the last resort – save for throwing out all of your digital devices, of course. LeechBlock is an extremely useful Firefox add-on, allowing you to block batches of websites according to times of your choosing. StayFocused is the equivalent for Google Chrome. Provided you don’t switch to another browser or pick up your smartphone, these can help stop you from wasting any more time.

That’s all from me. I hope you’ve taken something useful from this.

What are your tips for staying focused in the digital era?

Further reading
Make the Most of Your Time: The Guardian and the School of Life co-published a fantastic booklet on managing your time in 2010 that’s worth reading if you missed it.

Images: birgerking/Flickr (main); North Cascades National Park/Flickr (body)

2 thoughts on “How do you stay focused in the digital era?”

  1. David Osbon says:

    I like the 1-3-5 rule which will work as long as you know which is the biggest task from those 9. Then again it’s all a matter of process and re-evaluation that can be done at the end of each day.

    1. Aaron says:

      Very much so. I find that being able to file away notes for large/long-term tasks quickly and easily – without being led away from whatever you were doing when the thought came to you – is crucial.

      Constant re-evalution is certainly something I need to do more of daily too, if I am to get more done and still have time quiet/social time.