You can find all kinds of advice on avoiding distractions. I think the best tips on how to stay focused are based on the fact that you can’t avoid distractions, you can only manage them.
Why you can’t avoid distractions
So many of the tips you can find about how to stay focused treat the distractions as the enemy. The pundits tell you to turn off the TV, music, Facebook, Twitter… whatever the current social media or game happens to be, and then to turn your mind to the task.
For me the distractions are about three things – unless there’s an underlying medical condition.
- What you would rather be doing
- What your mind is throwing at you as possible solutions, new ideas or perspective
- Your inner critic who is trying to make everything perfect the first time
All three types of distraction rebel against avoidance and most of the tips that tell you how to stay focused deal with distractions in one way.
How to stay focused, my experience
Over the years, I’ve dealt with distractions in the workplace, in the creative process, in business and in personal settings. I’m currently balancing, personal life, running a consulting business, writing and publishing books, and starting up a whole new business partnership. I’ve had to learn how to stay focused just to survive.
Here are my tips for the three distraction types.
You would rather be doing something else: I tend to use this distraction as a reward system. If I would rather be reading a book, going out with friends, I give myself a time limit to do my chore in. I also use my PVR extensively – there’s really no reason to allow the networks to determine your schedule if you are a TV watcher.
Your mind throws all kinds of ideas at you: this distraction group is a bit more tricky. Sometimes the ideas are good and sometimes they aren’t; sometimes they are pertinent to your current task and sometimes they are all about a different task all together.
I start by writing down any idea that seems interesting – getting it out of my mind onto paper seems to solve the problem temporarily. Anything that looks like it pertains to the task I’m doing gets a few minutes consideration – I use what is valuable and can toss what isn’t. Anything that is about a new idea or another task gets put aside for later.
Your inner critic is holding out for perfection; I wrote about this in another post. There’s nothing that works better to quiet my inner critic than a quick thought of thanks for the information. Your inner critic isn’t usually trying to undermine you, but is trying to help.
Focus and the creative process
One of the questions that authors get is ‘where do you get your ideas?’. Frankly, I get way too many ideas. Every story brings forth 5 or 6 new ideas for other stories. For the author, managing distractions is often about juggling projects and ideas than it is about doing ‘research’ rather than writing, or rewriting.
No one wants to stifle the ideas. This is the source of all of our creative production. Taking the ideas and quickly making a few notes in a folder, notebook, or document, is the only way to keep the flow coming without completely stopping your current project. What amazes me is the quality of these ideas. When I go back and review them, there are gems that make some of my works-in-progress better, there are fabulous new story ideas, and there are some that need to be erased from existence.
In the end, the best tips on how to stay focused are not about subtracting anything from your life; they are about valuing everything at the right time.