In a hilarious MTV skit featuring Bob Newhart as a psychologist (Dr. Switzer), a lady named Katherine enters his office seeking help for her problems.
Dr. Switzer begins by explaining his method of billing. To Katherine's surprise, he only charges five dollars for the first five minutes of the session, and then absolutely nothing after that.
"How does that sound?" he asks.
"That sounds great! Too good to be true as a matter of fact!" she responds.
"Well, I can almost guarantee you the session will not last the full five minutes," he continues.
Dr. Switzer then looks at his watch, pauses for a moment, and says, "Go!"
After listening to Katherine explain her issue for 30 seconds, Dr. Switzer says, "Okay Katherine, I'm going to say two words to you right now. I want you to listen to them very carefully. Then I want you to take them out of the office with you and incorporate them into your life."
She pulls out a notepad and piece of paper.
"You ready? Okay, here they are."
His face becomes angry as he screams, "STOP IT!"
Flustered, she replies, "I'm sorry?"
"STOP IT! STOP-IT," he yells.
"So what are you saying?" she asks in confusion.
Distraction is the number one thing killing your success and dreams. Chances are, you're reading this very article as a form of distraction from your work or other (far more) important things in your life.
Distraction is an addiction--a pleasurable drug--a terrific escape. And the internet is the most beautiful web of distraction ever concocted.
Almost everyone else in our digital society is lost in a hazy distraction as well. 50 percent of Americans say they can only work for 15 minutes before becoming distracted, and report wasting more than an hour per day.
Chances are, you too spend a large portion of each day distracted by the non-essential and trivial.
But do you really want to be like everyone else? If not... then STOP IT!
If you take control of your distractions, you will accomplish more in one day than most get done in a week. Compound that over a long enough time, and you'll be among the most productive and successful in the world.
1. Have Only A Few Priorities And A Small To-Do List Each Day
"If you have more than three priorities, then you don't have any."--Jim Collins
What are you really trying to achieve in your life?
Most people's lives are like Bilbo Baggins. They're butter scraped over too much bread. They have too many competing "priorities." Their lives are going in a million directions. And they wonder why they have no focus.
The truth is, almost everything in life is a distraction. Your job might be a distraction. Most of your goals and priorities are probably distractions.
If you can pin down two or three huge things you want to achieve, focus becomes simplified. As Leonardo Da Vinci has said, "Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication."
After clarifying your essential priorities, your daily to-do should only include a few key tasks to focus on. Compare this to 90 percent of people who fail to complete their lengthy to-do list.
2. Spend 5 Minutes Creating Outlines In Advance (This Will Save You Hours)
In his book, Essentialism, Greg McKeown explains a method he uses to save time and enhance creativity. Hours, or even days, before jumping into a creative activity, he spends just 3-4 minutes creating an outline. Once the outline is built, he walks away from it. When he starts into his project, the outline triggers a flood of information getting him quickly into the zone; rather than having to mentally generate all the information he needs from scratch.
I too use this method in my writing. I design writing sessions for the sole purpose of creating outlines. With a pile of outlines already structured, I can often return and write several articles in a single session. Without the outlines, I can often lose motivation and focus after just one.
I've even used this approach in outlining the contents of entire books. I take a blank sheet of paper and write all the chapters that would be in a book. With that framework in place, I can braindump and get a solid first draft in no time.
3. Remove Temptation
Some people think withstanding temptation for long periods of time makes you tough. Smarter people simply remove the temptation so they don't have to deal with it.
If you can't stop checking your phone, turn it off or put it in a different room. If you can stop checking your email, close the browser or get apps that block certain websites for a period of time.
Most "emergencies" aren't really emergencies and can be taken care of when you finish your work. We don't always need to be plugged-in. Most of our time should be unplugged so we can tap into flow.
4. Turn On Background Noise
Background noise drives out distractions, according to Stephanie Sarkis, Ph.D, a psychotherapist and author of 10 Simple Solutions to Adult ADD: How to Overcome Chronic Distraction & Accomplish Your Goals. When you're studying or working, turn on your ceiling fan for a layer of white noise and/or listen to music on low volume.
Music creates an atmosphere and environment that can trigger focus, creativity, and high performance. For example, Michael Phelps had a routine he did religiously before each swimming event involving music. He's not alone. Many athletes use music before events to trigger relaxation from the pressure and even to psych them up.
When asked by Time Magazine about his use of music prior to races, Phelps said it kept him focused and helped him "tune everything out, and take one step at a time." When asked about the kind of music he listens to, he answered, "I listen to hip hop and rap." Interestingly, research has found that high tempo music like hip hop can create strong arousal and performance readiness. Other evidence finds the intensity of the emotional response can linger long after the music has stopped. So, while Phelps is in the water swimming, he's still hyped from his hip hop.
What music gets you in the zone? Use it as a trigger for creative bursts and focus.
Listening to music while working/learning can also:
- Music helps us learn because it:
- Establishes a positive learning state
- Creates a desired atmosphere
- Builds a sense of anticipation
- Energizes learning activities
- Changes brain wave states
- Increases focused concentration
- Increases attention
- Improves memory
- Facilitates a multisensory learning experience
- Releases tension
- Enhances imagination
- Provides inspiration and motivation
- Adds an element of fun
Personally, depending on the type of output I'm trying to create, listen to either classical music or dubstep.
5. Chew Gum
How often do you start getting "hungry" while you're working? Eating is a great escape to monotony and boredom. In addition to distraction, writing crushes potential for flow when you're overly full and bloated.
Chewing gum alleviates this challenge.
Researchers had two groups of 20 people each listen to a 30-minute recording that included a sequence of numbers. After listening, the participants were asked to remember the sequence. One group was chewing gum while the control group was not. The gum chewers had higher accuracy rates and faster reaction times than the non-gum chewers.
Chewing gum while working has two key benefits then: Increased focus and it stops you from eating out of boredom.
6. Do The Worst, First
Willpower is like a muscle that depletes when it is exercised. Similarly, our ability to make high quality decisions becomes fatigued over time. The more decisions you make, the lower quality they become -- the weaker your willpower.
Consequently, you need to do the hard stuff first thing in the morning. The important stuff. If you don't, it simply will not get done. By the end of your day, you'll be exhausted. You'll be fried. There will be a million reasons to just start tomorrow. And you will start tomorrow --which is never.
So your mantra becomes: The worst comes first. Do that thing you've been needing to do. Then do it again tomorrow.
If you take just one step toward your big goals every day, you'll realize those goals weren't really far away.
7. Embrace Stress And Recovery
People struggle drastically to detach from work. More now than ever, we fail to live presently. Our loved ones are lucky to experience a small percentage of our attention while they're with us.
When you focus on results, rather than being busy, you're 100 percent ON when you're working and 100 percent OFF when you're not. This not only allows you to be present in the moment, but allows you the needed time to rest and recover. The higher quality your recovery, the better you'll be at your work.
Your ability to work at a high level is like fitness. If you never took a break between sets, you wouldn't be able to build strength, stamina, and endurance. Recovery is just as important as intensive training for growth.
8. Condition Yourself With Punishments And Rewards
A famous study depicting conditioned behavior is known as "Pavlov's Dogs." The psychologist, Ivan Pavlov noticed that dogs salivate when they are given food.
He discovered that any object or event associated with food would trigger the dogs to salivate. So he started ringing a bell before bringing the food into the dogs. After a while, the dogs would salivate whenever a bell was rung, even when no food was brought.
Unlike dogs, humans can consciously choose the behaviors they want conditioned--like focus and optimal performance. We can even create our own triggers. The best athletes and performers in the world have pre-performance routines that trigger flow, which is peak focus.
In addition to pre-performance routines, punishments and highly motivating rewards can condition you to stay focused.
If you don't get that project done by a certain date, you owe $500 to your friend. Or, if you get it done, you will reward yourself by going out to your favorite restaurant. It doesn't matter what the punishments and rewards are, as long as they motivate you enough.
9. Orient Your Life Toward Outputs Rather Than Inputs
For most Americans, the first thing our morning eyes see is a digital screen...usually texts or emails. In spare seconds, we check newsfeeds and tweets. We're addicted to input. Or in other words, we're addicted to reactively being guided by other people's agendas.Instead of living a consciously organized life, we relentlessly react.
On the other hand, Josh Waitzkin, author of The Art of Learning, wakes up and immediately writes in his journal for 30 minutes. He does this to process what his subconscious mind has been brewing, scheming, problem-solving, and learning in the night. When Josh wakes up, he rushes to a quiet place and engages in a burst of intellectual and creative flow.
Similarly, while Greg McKeown was writing Essentialism, he wrote from 5 a.m. to 1 p.m., during which time he didn't check his email, social media, or phone. He didn't even receive interruptions from his family until his workday was finished.
Creatives focus on outputs. In their free moments, creatives utilize their subconscious breakthroughs. Their days are filled with creative bursts, making them incredible at their craft. If you want to have more creative flow in your life, stop compulsively checking your social media and email. Check them once or twice per day. Detach from the addiction to numb your mind and escape reality. Instead, get lost in the creative projects you've always wanted to do.
10. Work On Multiple Project Types
According to neuroscience research, novelty activates specific brain systems, foremost among them the dopamine system which makes you feel happy. So, when you perform the same routine every day, your work can get stale, prompting--often frequent--creative blocks. The novelty disappears. Consequently, working on multiple projects is an effective way to experience novelty in your art, and thus, an enhanced flood of dopamine.
Multiple projects not only make you happier, but research finds multitasking can boost creative output, if done the right way. Doing one activity for an extended period of time is less effective for creative output than switching back and forth between creative tasks. However, switching back and forth between a creative task and a passive one (such as eating, talking, reading, or watching something) generates the largest creative outputs.
The mind can get stuck circling the same cognitive pathways over and over. When working on a single problem continuously, you can become fixated on previous solutions. Yet, when you step away from the activity, your mind releases from the fixation and the old pathways fade from your memory. In the meantime, new possibilities are incubated subconsciously--leading to ah-ha moments.
In light of this, I've been varying my creative projects. Aside from my PhD research, I'm developing online courses and doing journalistic writing (like this). I'm also creatively invested in my family and church. My time away from each project is essential to the completion of them all. When I return to a certain project, I see it with fresh eyes and take the current draft to a higher level.