You think you’re studying/ working ten hours a day.
What if I tell you, you aren’t.
You may be putting in hours by the clock, but the output – and that’s what matters, right? – may be equivalent of just four hours of focused study/ work.
High-achievers know this difference.
Albert Einstein (sorry, he was super-high-achiever!) knew how to get most of his hours.
At ETH Institute, Zurich, Einstein worked with mathematician Marcel Grossman. When he became convinced that non-Euclidean math (studied by Grossman) was the way to account for gravity in his work on relativity, he went whole hog. He worked incredibly hard for three years on the subject and eventually published his theory of relativity, widely regarded as one of the greatest scientific accomplishments of twentieth century, in the year 1915.
Well, he was lucky too. There were far fewer distractions then. (Imagine, scientists still working on what Einstein accomplished more than a century back, because Einstein had a mobile phone!)
Peter Higgs, the theoretical physicist who won 2013 Nobel Prize for his work on mass of subatomic particles (remember, Higgs Boson!), works in such isolation that journalists couldn’t find him after he won the Nobel Prize. He has no computer. No email. And he answers the phone only when he knows who is calling.
J.K Rowling was largely absent from social media when he wrote her Harry Potter novels.
No distractions. Deep focus. That’s how you produce great work.
In this post, I’ll cover what you lose from distractions (it’s far, far more than what most of us realize) and steps you can take to be more focused. The biggest reason why people fall to distractions is lack of interest in the stuff they’re doing, and that lack of interest largely emanates from absence of an overarching ‘why’ (or the purpose) that can kindle their interest, motivate them.
Because lack of interest is such an important reason leading to distractions, I’ll start with it. But before that, let’s quickly look at how much can distractions drain your schedule. It may surprise you.
How distractions affect your study?
According to a University of California-Irvine study, it can take, on average, nearly 20 minutes to get back to the earlier level after an interruption.
Yes, that quick reply to a text can set you back by several minutes, and just count how many distractions you heap on yourself during your most productive hours. That’s an important reason why at the end of the day you wonder why you achieved so much less than what you aimed for in the morning.
To give an analogy, if you’re driving on a highway with no speed-breakers, you’ll maintain your peak speed almost throughout the journey. But if you face speed-breakers, your average speed will go down significantly, because a speed-breaker forces you to slow down to almost zero before you accelerate back to your top speed. The speed-breaker may be just two feet across and the combined width of all of them on your journey may be less than 0.01 percent of the total distance you cover, but it’ll increase your journey time by as much as 20-30 percent.
Distractions do something similar. Few, innocuously short disruptions in your schedule reduce your productivity by lot. And it can affect animals too (duration: 1:53 minutes):
Let’s jump right into some of the steps you can take to study without getting distracted.
(Note: if you routinely find it difficult to get started on tasks, then you’re likely a procrastinator, which you need to control additionally. You may read more on how to control procrastination here:
How to concentrate on studies without getting distracted?
1. Find your ‘why’
Call it whatever you want to, but it’s the single biggest and pivotal factor behind most distractions.
Do you think Roger Federer gets distracted in his practice sessions? (BTW, he too found it difficult to put in long sessions early on in his career, and back then he used to admire Mirka’s – whom he married later on – work ethic.)
Do you get distracted when you’re watching YouTube videos? Are you coaxed into playing video games or surfing Facebook?
“Son, I haven’t seen you checking Facebook for a week now. Are you alright?”
Sounds weird, right?
You don’t procrastinate when you’ve to play video games. You’re already on to these things big time on your own because they interest you. And when it comes to things that matter to your academic and professional future, it’s the opposite. You’re disinterested.
That’s the fundamental reason why you get distracted so easily.
So how do you motivate yourself for less interesting, but important, matters such as academics?
Think of why you’re doing what you’re doing. (In most cases, you already know the answer.) For example, if you’re a high school student, you know that getting good grades and excelling in competitive exams, among other things, are important for you to get admission in your desired college, which is an important step toward achieving your career goals. And compare the answer with the contrasting result. So in this case, the two contrasting scenarios could be:
- If you get admission to your desired college, you’ve a strong chance to achieve your short-term career goals and to be financially independent
- If you don’t get admission to your desired college, you may not be able to achieve your short-term career goals, and hence your current situation may prolong
This contrast should be at the top of your mind. You should even write it down, and put it on the bathroom mirror and walls where you see it so many times every day that it becomes part of your conscious mind.
This (study) is just one of several motivational challenges we face every day. You could be struggling to motivate yourself to work harder to become a better tennis player or learn a new skill or lose weight.
Whatever the goal is, find your ‘why’, and compare the two potential contrasting results – success and failure.
And, in your daily schedule, few minutes before you sit down to work on a task, remind yourself of the contrast (the ‘why’, in other words) and where the next hour will take you in that direction. That connection between what you’re about to do and your ‘why’ will keep your interest level higher than usual.
Do the same when you’re losing momentum.
2. Wage war on distractions from phone and digital media
It’s not that we don’t realize the deleterious effect of digital noise on our productivity. We do. Yet, we don’t escape.
Here are few steps you can take to limit digital distractions during your productive sessions:
- Bury the phone: Turn your phone to silent mode, and bury it under the pillow or dump it in a drawer.
- Get off the internet: Either pull the plug on internet or use browser extensions such as StayFocused to nuke the internet or study at a place with no access to internet. I use StayFocused, and it has worked wonderfully for me. I can tell you from my experience that once you know that you’re off internet for few hours, your mind adjusts to the new reality, and the deprivation turns out to be much less painful than we think. I started with blocking internet for 30 minutes, and now I routinely block it for eight hours (if I don’t need internet for my work) at a stretch. Just as you build physical muscles through practice in gym, you can build anti-internet muscles too through practice.
It’s not as tough as you think. Just start small.
- Keep only one project open: If you’re working on a computer, keep only the bare minimum files and tabs open. Close everything else. This will keep you on just one thing, and make you less likely to fall to distractions.
- Read your favorite articles through a reader service: Instead of checking and rechecking your favorite websites for the latest article, read them through a reader service such as Feedly, which pulls in all the articles to an inbox-type format as and when they’re published. This format allows you to access all the articles from one webpage.
If we check our devices once in few hours, then digital distraction wouldn’t be the menace it is. The problem is we can’t resist checking and rechecking them every few minutes for the fear of missing out on something important. Many, in fact, get anxious if they’re separated from their devices for long (recall the time when you faced hours of separation from your phone). This fear of missing on something important is completely unfounded and irrational, and can be shed by gradually increasing your period of digital abstinence.
Digital distraction is a topic in itself. Therefore, I’ve dealt with it separately. You may learn more on the topic here:
3. Avoid multi-tasking
Three researchers divided around 100 Stanford undergrad students into two groups – heavy multitaskers and light multitaskers of media sources (internet, electronic documents, texting, and so on) – and asked them to concentrate on a problem, simultaneously introducing lots of distractions. (Heavy multitaskers of media sources are the types with dozens of browser tabs and few other projects open. Light multitaskers, on the other hand, have much less digital clutter on their devices at any point.)
The researchers expected heavy multitaskers to have better focus on the given problem amidst multiple distractions. After all, they’re the ones who are much more used to distractions. But, surprisingly, light multitaskers did better. On every attentional test that the researchers gave, light multitaskers did better, sometimes significantly. To quote Anthony Wagner, one of the researchers in the study:
When they’re [students] in situations where there are multiple sources of information coming from the external world or emerging out of memory, they’re not able to filter out what’s not relevant to their current goal. That failure to filter means they’re slowed down by that irrelevant information.
So if a person is multitasking on three tasks (math assignment, chatting, and internet surfing), she is getting information from all the three sources – and memory – even though she may be in this moment working on the assignment. This failure to filter out information from the other two sources slows her down.
That’s the problem.
Human minds have evolved to pay attention to one task at a time. When you’re multitasking, you’re essentially switching (your attention) back and forth between those tasks, which is nothing but huge distraction. John Medina, a leading authority on brain study and founding director of two brain research institutes, in his book Brain Rules, says:
The brain is a sequential processor, unable to pay attention to two things at the same time. Businesses and schools praise multitasking, but research clearly shows that it reduces productivity and increases mistakes.
You may be wondering at this stage, “How can I then walk and talk at the same time without compromising on any of them?”
In those few cases of multitasking where one does fine on both the tasks, one of the tasks is automated in your long-term memory. In the aforesaid example, you can walk and talk at the same time without compromising on any of the two, because walking is automated and you’ve to pay attention to only talking. Try talking and watching TV. You’ll compromise on both.
You can multitask, of course, but you can’t pay attention to more than one thing at a time. And it’s attention (you may also call it focus) that gets things done.
In essence, multitasking is an extreme form of distraction wherein you’re getting distracted every few minutes as you switch between tasks. Avoid it. You’ll achieve much less when you read and surf internet intermittently for an hour than when you take one task after the other sequentially for the same duration. And stop admiring your friends who seem to be multitasking so effortlessly. In reality, they’re working subpar.
4. Maintain a distraction sheet
When professional writers write, they only write. They don’t pause even to look for a small piece of missing information, which would take just a minute or two to search. If, for example, they find that they’re missing an important statistic, they won’t pause and start searching it, because it’ll be a distraction from the main task of writing. (Remember, how each distraction can set you back by several minutes.) Instead, they’ll leave a placeholder at the point where the stat was to be used, continue writing, and come back to the placeholder when they’re done with writing. (My placeholders are square brackets. An example: [Insert stat on digital distraction])
You should do something similar when you’re at work. In the middle of your session, if you recall that you’ve to pay your phone bill today, then don’t drift to your mobile service provider’s website. Note the task down on a sheet of paper (also called distraction sheet), and continue with your work. If you get the urge to check Leonardo Dicaprio’s age, just note it down in the distraction sheet, and continue working. In short, don’t chase random thoughts. Your motto should be ‘be here now’.
The act of noting down these distractions will free your mind of them, and you can focus solely on the task at hand. And once you’re done with the session, you can accomplish the tasks you noted in the distraction list. Simple, right?
5. Control worries and unwanted thoughts
So many things become so automated in our lives that we don’t even realize when they creep in, when they leave, and what consequences they heap on us. One such is unwanted thoughts: worries (‘what if I don’t score 90 percent’), unpleasant experiences (‘why did he say this to me’), and plain random thoughts or daydreaming (‘what about South Africa for my next holiday’).
Such unwanted thoughts can creep in anytime, often in the middle of a productive session, pulling your attention away from the task at hand. This is nothing but distraction.
How can you control such thoughts?
- Become aware of the thought: As I said earlier, sometimes we get so used to things – good and bad – that we’re not even cognizant that something has taken us over. So, first of all, the moment an unwanted thought strikes, recognize it immediately. That’s awareness.
- Note it down in your distraction sheet: Once you know that an unwanted thought has struck you, note it down in your distraction sheet (covered earlier).
- Deal with the thoughts after the session is done.
After the session, for each of your thoughts, ask yourself: ‘is this going to matter a year from now?’
If the answer is ‘no’, then dump the thought then and there, and if it’s ‘yes’, then deal with it.
For example, if you’re bedeviled by the worry of not getting 90 percent in a subject, and if the answer to aforesaid question is ‘yes’, then deal with it. How do you deal with it? By being better prepared. Period. There is no other way. Worry and anxiety won’t get you the desired result. They can in fact affect your result adversely.
If someone’s comments are disturbing you, then the answer to the aforesaid question in most cases will be ‘no’. People say and do all sort of things, and many times we attach more meaning to those words or actions than even they intended. And many times the person doesn’t even matter to us. Drop the thought then and there, if the answer is ‘no’. If you accumulate such thoughts even for few days, you’re burdening yourself with mental distress and loss of focus, which will take much heavier toll than those ‘disparaging’ comments. And if the answer is a rare ‘yes’, then meet the person and clarify.
Now this may sound overly simplistic, but solutions to big problems typically are simple. The challenge lies in showing the discipline to train your mind to follow the process so that in due course you tackle unwanted thoughts in auto-pilot mode. Don’t you focus more when you’re learning something new? And then in due course, the steps become automated. Think driving.
6. Match your energy with the difficulty of the task
If you start your day with easy stuff and leave the difficult part for later in the day, you’re likely to fall to pleasurable distractions such as YouTube when you come to the difficult part.
Difficult tasks are more susceptible to distractions. Therefore, take them up early in the day when you’re most productive. (If you’re more productive at some other time of the day, feel free to take difficult tasks on then.)
7. Take one step at a time on difficult projects
Have you started with something difficult for your ability, and then within no time reached out to your phone? That’s common.
Difficult tasks are more prone to distractions because they’re, for obvious reasons, painful. And when we feel pain, our natural tendency is to seek pleasure (examples: Facebook and YouTube), which is nothing but distraction.
So, if a task is steep jump, proceed gradually. If you attempt too many things in one session, you’re likely to fall to distractions.
8. Distract yourself to not get distracted
Don’t give up on distractions, because you can’t. Can you give up watching TV or YouTube? Of course not!
You only need to bunch them together instead of spreading them through the day especially during your productive sessions.
So, schedule distractions.
After you’ve put in few sessions of undistracted work, go and satisfy your urge to surf the internet, text, and chat. Club them all together and finish them, preferably, in a 30-odd minute session. Once done, start your next chain of undistracted sessions. In short, create a Chinese wall between the two types of sessions, with no leakages of course.
9. Few minor things
Last, there are few logistical, easy-to-achieve things that will help you stay focused:
- Pick a distraction-free space such as library to study. If you’re studying at home, make the room as much distraction-proof as possible and set the right expectation among friends & family about your availability.
- Eat stuff that helps you sustain energy. Otherwise, you’ll fatigue fast and become easy fodder for distractions.
- Take a short 5-10 minute break every 50-odd minutes to regain your focus. Poor focus will make you more prone to distractions.
How do you put it all together in practice?
You set the timer running to start the session, and, once started, you religiously fend off all distractions. No phone. No internet. No breaks. And no winks or smiles at your friend across the table (I’ve seen this happening in libraries). During the session, you’ve to focus only on the task at hand. Nothing else. You may employ some of the methods we’ve covered till now to make your session distraction-free.
“But I find it difficult to work for long duration without getting distracted. What do I do?”
If you’re not used to sitting tight, focusing on one thing, then start with 30-minute sessions. Yes, just 30 minutes. That’s short. And if you can’t manage even that, start with even shorter sessions. Idea is to start with something that you can’t fail in.
Once you’ve few successful sessions behind you, increase the duration by 5 (or, maybe, 10) minutes. Get used to the new normal, and then again increase it by 5 minutes. Eventually, settle the duration at around 50 minutes, if you can. (After 50 minutes or so, our focus starts waning. Therefore, one should take a 5-10 minute break every 50-odd minutes.) If you can’t handle 50 minutes in a go, then a shorter duration is fine too. Let it take weeks if it takes that long to reach the level. It’s normal. (Weightlifters don’t start with 80 kg weights. They start much smaller.) When you increase in small increments, you make the habit last.
Such sessions will get work done. Pseudo-sessions won’t. (That’s why some students who study only five hours a day achieve more than those who put in ten. Hours don’t matter. Attention does.) Pull off few such sessions every day, and you’re on track.
Lack of distraction-free, focused work is one of the most important reasons – and the sole reason for majority – why you get so little done every day and why you lag despite putting in so many hours.
Avoiding distractions is not easy, but is doable. (Remember, most distractions are a result of plain bad habits, and they can be shed or controlled like any other bad habits.) Like any skill, this too requires practice and discipline to attain mastery, and the way is through sessions.
Start small: 30-odd-minute sessions and few sessions per day. And after few weeks, clock longer sessions and more sessions per day.
This is absolutely worth trying… and mastering because you’ll gain a huge arbitrage over others in a world where distraction is the norm. And it’ll serve you well lifelong because, unlike the industrial economy of yesteryears where few had to perform tasks requiring deep thinking, in the knowledge economy of today much larger section of the workforce has to perform such tasks. And the trend will accentuate in future.
Remember, social media and other pleasurable distractions won’t pay your bills. Meaningful work will.