By Leo Babauta
I absolutely adore the Internet, but there’s no doubt it has made us more distracted than ever. I can see this in myself, and in watching everyone else around me: constant use of laptops, switching between browser tabs, checking things on iPhones, typing in a message here and there … we all do it. But it’s not a good formula for getting things done. We may feel productive when we’re constantly switching between things, constantly doing something, but in all honesty, we’re not. We’re just distracted. A friend recently told me she thinks she has a problem: it’s hard to get work done, or focus on anything at all, with all of the distractions. In truth, we all have this problem. We’re all suffering from Distraction Syndrome. This causes people not to be able to study for class, to get important or difficult work done, to create, to be mindful throughout their day. So what’s the cure for Distraction Syndrome? Here’s what works for me:
- Become aware. See when you’re switching tasks, being pulled by social media and other distractions. See your mind rushing from one thing to the next. If you’re not aware of the habit, you’ll never change it. This awareness can be increased over days and weeks, if you just start paying attention, and notice when you’ve gone a few hours without noticing.
- See your main distractions. What are the things your mind runs to? What about these things appeal to you? What fears are you running from?
- Find one thing to focus on. You might have a long list of things to do, but you can’t do them all right now. Just pick one: something to study, a novel to read, something to write, a harder task that you’ve been putting off. You know you should do this task, but you’ve been too distracted and have been putting it off. (Note: I’m testing out One Task on the Mac — excellent single-tasking todo app. But don’t let finding the “perfect” todo app become your distraction.)
- Clear everything. Close all programs you don’t need. Close your computer if you don’t need it. Otherwise, close your browser, or at least all browser tabs you don’t absolutely need for this task. Turn off your phone or put it on silent and hide it. Just have this task in front of you.
- Set a timer for 20 minutes. Or 10 minutes, or 15, if 20 seems too long. During this time, you’re going to do nothing but focus on the one task you choose. No switching to other things. At all. If you finish the task before the 20 minutes is up, you can pick another task to focus on for the remainder of the time (and then do it again if you finish early), but no going to your distractions.
- Watch your mind try to run. This will inevitably happen. It’s a part of the Distraction Syndrome. It’s just you and your task, and you’ll want to run away. You’re afraid of the focus, afraid of the difficulty, afraid of the discomfort, afraid of the confusion/uncertainty. That’s OK. You can stay with the task even with the fear. The fear is what causes you to be distracted, but you don’t have to give in to it. It’s just something that arises in your mind. Sit with the urge to go to a distraction, without acting on the urge. Watch it, let it rise, then let it fall. Stay with the task.
- Take a break. After your 20 minutes is over, set the timer for 10 minutes, and take a well-deserved break. Allow yourself to go to the distractions. But when the break is over, go to the next task on your list (or back to the one you weren’t finished with). This break will give your mind some relief, which it needs. It just doesn’t need the relief all the livelong day.
This process, incidentally, is a form of meditation. Pretty productive meditation, actually.But it takes practice. Try this today, see where you falter, forgive yourself and try tomorrow. With practice, you can develop a less-distracted mental habit.
Leo Babauta is a simplicity blogger & author. He created Zen Habits, where this post first appeared. Zen Habits is a Top 25 blog (according to TIME magazine) with 260,000 subscribers.
Babauta is a former journalist of 18 years, a husband, father of six children, and in 2010 moved from Guam to San Francisco, where he leads a simple life.