Why your to-do list is actually killing your productivity
7 scientifically-backed techniques to help you focus
I read the word ‘’dolphin skin’ in a headline and thought, oh god, what horrible mutilation and abuse has mankind imposed on our fellow mammals this time? I took a deep breath and continued reading. It ended up being a term for the skincare trend of dewy, glassy-looking skin. Like that of a dolphin’s. Dolphins don’t need to clock in 8 hours of beauty sleep as we do for #skincaregoals. They sleep with half their brain still conscious, sleeping with one eye open for predators. After two hours they switch, and the other side of the brain gets to rest. I know this because I started to read up about a particular skincare product for puffy eyes, then got linked to dolphin skin, dolphin sleeping patterns and more strange animal facts, like the 30-minute long pig orgasm. What I should have been doing is writing about how not to get distracted while working or studying. The joke isn’t lost on me.
I had made my list. Checked it twice. Brewed a cup of coffee, sat down at my desk and stared at the Word document filled with disjointed thoughts.
Distractions are plenty. Pinging phones with friends sharing their daily Wordle scores, screaming neighbours, cats fighting on the street and constant drilling because someone, somewhere is renovating their home. Before you know it, half the day has gone and you’ve managed to tick only one thing off your task list.
Avoiding distractions is tough. Before we understand how not to get distracted, we need to figure out why we’re getting so distracted in the first place and what counts as a distraction.
Nir Eyal, behaviour designer, lecturer and author of Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life, wants people to understand the difference between distraction and traction. “Traction, by definition is any action that pulls you towards what you said you were going to do. Things that you do with intent, that move you closer to your values and help you become the person you want to become.” Distraction becomes its opposite. Activities and actions that pull us away from our intended goal/act and things we had planned to do. Eyal argues that it’s not just a matter of semantics and definitions. “Any action can be traction or distraction based on one word and that word is forethought. If you want to play video games, scroll through FB or whatever it is that you want to do, that’s fine. We should stop moralising and medicalising these perfectly fun, great behaviours, there’s nothing wrong with this, as long as you do this on your schedule and according to your values.”
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The only way, according to him, to know what is a distraction is by defining how we want to or should be spending our time. “You can’t call something a distraction unless you know what it distracted you from.”
So why are we getting distracted? There are proximal/external and internal triggers that are driving our behaviour. Proximal causes would be the things around us. The phone notifications, the TV remote urging us to switch channels, emails reminders for upcoming meetings, pigeons cooing incessantly outside your window.
Eyal says, “People tend to blame external triggers for distraction. But did you know they only account for 10% of the time we get distracted? The other 90% of the time we get distracted because of something that happens inside of us – internal triggers.” The real reason we’re picking up our phones to scroll through Instagram is because we’re looking to escape an uncomfortable emotion — this could be boredom, loneliness, fatigue, stress and anxiety.
“Attention is a limited resource that the brain allocates to what it estimates is the most relevant, items or things around,” says cognitive neuroscience research Jean-Philippe Lachaux.
To help you focus on what is important, try these scientifically-backed techniques.
How to not get distracted: 7 science-backed tips to try
Create a timebox calendar
Forget task lists, try making daily schedules instead. Timeboxing is a time management technique that Eyal recommends where you plan out your day to include what you’re going to do and when you’re going to do it. “Running your life on to-do lists is the worst thing you can do for your personal productivity. Instead of measuring yourself based on how many checkboxes you ticked, you want to measure yourself by your ability to do what you said you were going to do for as long as you said you would without distraction.”
Giving yourself time slots to complete certain tasks can also help you access how long it takes you to get it done and then adjust accordingly. For example, you gave yourself from 10 AM to 12 PM to finish your report, but you only managed to do research and organise the numbers. Now you know how long this will take in the future, so you can adjust your daily schedule accordingly.
You also need to create time for distractions and not just work. Give yourself a 30-minute window in the day to watch random YouTube videos. Add that 45-minute slot to your schedule to watch the new episode of your favourite TV show instead of letting it play on your mind all day.
Train your brain to focus
Like the muscles of our body, sometimes our brain also needs a training exercise to stretch and strengthen.
When you’re unable to keep your mind on one thing, even a 10-minute meditation session can help you refocus. Meditation can be a practice to de-stress but in practice, is pretty much about clearing your mind and drawing your focus on your breathing.
Another crowd favourite, one that’s beloved by Twinkle Khanna too, is the Pomodoro method to increase productivity. With the use of a timer and breaks, you can train your brain to hyperfocus in short bursts for better concentration.
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Invented in the early 1990s by Francesco Cirillo, this method asks that you break your day’s work into timed intervals, with breaks in between.
Start simple, pick a task and set a 25-minute timer. Work until the alarm rings. Once your 25 minutes are up, take a 5-minute break. During your break, you can do whatever you want. Power nap, dance or get a small workout in, this is your time.
Try and stick to your work interval and breaks as much as you can. But if 5-minute breaks aren’t enough, it’s understandable too. You can try a 10-minute break and 30-minute work slot. With time, try and stretch your work slot to 45 minutes.
Surf the urge
‘Urge surfing’ is a mindfulness technique in psychology that we can use to avoid acting on distracting actions or behaviours. Whether it’s picking up your phone to play Candy Crush or smoking a cigarette, urges rarely last longer than 30 minutes, say experts at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, “if you don’t ‘feed’ them. We feed urges through ruminating, giving them attention, planning to fulfil them, engaging in apparently irrelevant and unimportant behaviours, justifying, etc. Urges will pass on their own if we allow them to,” they write.
Don’t ignore or fight the urge. That can make it feel like it’s growing bigger. Instead, surf the urge: “Why do I want to play Candy Crush so badly right now instead of writing my article? Do I really need to play the game right now?”
Eyal talks about something similar called the 10-minute rule. If you feel tempted to do something, wait 10 minutes, think about it and see if you still want to. In most cases, if your prime intention is to get a certain task done, you’ll be able to ride out the urge without giving in to it.
Break it all down
A task at hand and a deadline looming on the horizon can feel overwhelming. When it feels like you’re staring down your own personal Everest, break up your large assignment into smaller doable tasks and work that into your timebox calendar for the day.
You need to interview someone you feel very intimated by for work. Your first small task can be to spend one hour researching their background. The next 30 minutes is spent looking through past interviews. Take your 5-minute break to listen to some music. You can then end your day by practising your interview with a family member or colleague.
Each task completed will give you a mental reward, a hit of dopamine that drives you to tackle what’s next on your schedule.
Minimise external triggers
This is perhaps the simplest and most practical step to start with. Turn off those notifications, delete the apps or put your phone on Do Not Disturb mode. If it’s external noise that’s bothering you, then invest in noise cancellation headphones.
If you haven’t already, create a designated work spot at home. It can be a desk, chair and laptop set-up or just one particular chair in the living room where you sit and work. Having a distinction between workspace and recreation space, especially when working from home, allows the mind to mentally create separation as well. When you’re taking your breaks, leave your work spot and go to your bedroom, balcony or kitchen to brew your next cup of coffee.
The more often you do it, the quicker your brain will get accustomed to a shift in mindset when you enter your ‘office’ at home and leave it behind at the end of the day. And yes, that means no more working from your bed.
Stop trying to multitask
We often hail multitasking as a skill mastered by highly productive and efficient people. But studies on the long-term impact of multitasking have revealed detrimental effects. Forcing our brains to constantly switch gears can lower the quality of our work. We get what is called attention residue, where you’re thinking of one task while working on something else and you get distracted.
In his book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, Georgetown computer science professor Cal Newport writes that the more we multitask, the less comfortable we get with paying attention and focusing on one thing for long periods of time. Not all multitasking can be avoided in our personal and professional lives, but if we can carve out time slots to engage in one task at a time, that’s how we can tap into our complete intellectual capabilities.
Let yourself get bored
From the time we wake up to after we get into bed, our day involves us darting from one screen to the next. Phone to computer, maybe an iPad break in between while your Fitbit reminder pops off on your wrist.
Chris Bailey, the author of Hyperfocus and The Productivity Project, found his life run by screens so he decided to conduct an experiment.
“We think the problem is that our brains are distracted. It’s not that we’re distracted but that our brains are overstimulated. We crave distraction in the first place. Our brains love these tiny little nuggets of information, social media and emails, and the things we do in the course of the day. There’s a thing in our mind called the novelty bias when our mind rewards us with a hit of dopamine when we check Facebook. So we not only crave distraction but our mind rewards us for seeking out and finding distraction in the first place. We’re at this hyper-stimulated state where we bounce around between these different objects of stimulation,” he says.
First, he limited his phone time to 30 minutes a day. He started to dig into the research to try and find out how to not get distracted and focus. Then he asked readers of his website to tell him the most boring activities they can think of for him to do for one hour a day for a whole month. These ranged from watching a clock for a whole hour to reading the iTunes Terms and Conditions.
It took a week for him to adjust the lower level of stimulation, but he found himself to be more attentive when working on an intended task. His ability to focus increased, not because he had removed distractions for the rest of the day around him, but because with the changed stimulation level of his mind, he didn’t crave the distraction as it did before.
Are you ready to become indistractable?