Mental Health: Defeating Distractions – Part 2: Internal Distractions

This post continues a discussion of managing distractions to maximize efficiency when working on tasks. If you missed Part 1, check it out here.

Attention span refers to how long someone can sustain attention, focus, and concentrate when working on a task. Different people have different natural attention spans, and the amount of time we can spend working on a task will be different for each person and for different situations. It will depend on many different things, including

Task Factors. A major factor that can influence your ability to concentrate is task difficulty. It’s common to “zone out” if a task is very easy, but very difficult and challenging tasks can also make it hard for some people to focus. Another factor is level of familiarity with the task. A new task might hold our interest and therefore our attention better, while very familiar tasks can become automatic and allow our mind to easily wander.

Environmental Factors. Your environment matters a lot. Think about whether your physical surrounding is new or familiar (in this case, familiar and boring environments are best), if there are background distractions (such as sights, sounds, or movements), and what your personal comfort level is like (such as room temperature or the seat’s softness).

Individual Factors: Our internal state of mind and physical state can have big impacts on attention span.  It can be easier or harder to sustain focus based on how awake or fatigued we feel, how relevant or interesting we find the task, whether or not we’ve eaten recently, whether or not we have a headache, what else is going in life that’s on our minds, and potentially hundreds of other factors that influence our ability to concentrate in the moment.

Managing internal distractions: Distractibility delay

Some of the most common distractions when we’re working are the thoughts that pop into our heads. Especially when working on something boring or unpleasant, it’s tempting to simply stop what we’re doing and shift focus to the new thought or new task right away. We might worry about forgetting the new idea and not following through at all. Does that experience sound familiar? Some people are less aware they they’ve stopped working, and almost get “lost” in these distracting thoughts.

A simple yet effective way to minimize these internal distractions is to use the distractibility delay. The distractibility delay technique allows us to move these thoughts out of our heads and “park them” somewhere else so they’re not forgotten. Then, we can return focus to the task at hand. All this requires is a timer and something to write with (such as a piece of paper or a notes app on your phone or computer). Have these materials ready when you’re starting to work on a boring or unattractive task.

When you are ready to start your task, set a timer for a pre-determined amount of time (for example, 20 minutes… we recommend starting small). Whenever any distracting thought pops into your head, quickly write down a few keywords, but don’t take action on the thought or new task at this time. Instead, return your focus to the original task. Repeat this process until the task is completed, or until you’ve done as much work on it as you set out to do.

When the timer goes off, look at the list and decide if anything you wrote down needs your attention. You might decide to take care of one or more items right away. Or you can add the task to your to-do list or planner so you will remember it later. Or, you might realize the thought or idea wasn’t all that important, and it was have just been your mind’s way of taking a break from the boring or unattractive task. After you’ve decided what to do with the distracting thoughts, be sure to throw out the slip of paper or delete the note. That prevents us from collecting multiple to-do lists (which gets confusing and increases the chances of overlooking an important task). Also, disposing of this temporary list can provide a sense of accomplishment: “I made progress on this unpleasant task, and I didn’t let distractions get in the way.”

I hope you’ll try the distractibility delay next time you sit down to work on something that requires focus. You’ll probably find it’s really hard at first to nudge your attention back to the task at hand. Like everything, this technique usually becomes easier with more repetition and practice. It can also be helpful to have a few positive and motivating thoughts ready to say to yourself during the unpleasant task, to make it easier to let go of those distracting thoughts for now. Some examples include:

  • “I’ll worry about this later when I have time to focus on it,” or
  • “This is not a top priority right now,” or
  • “I won’t forget this if I write it down. I will definitely come back to it.”

Keeping the right mindset and trying something new can make a big impact on our concentration and efficiency when working on tasks.