How to Maintain Focus in the Age of Distraction

Bob Wells | 08 Dec 2020

From social media updates to the tyrannical nature of our email inboxes, we are bombarded by a cacophony of distraction. Since we live in an age of hyperconnectivity, that latest email from our boss or friend’s social media profile is just a thumb swipe or a right click away. With so many distractions, it’s a miracle that any of us are able to accomplish anything of substance. 

The not so delicious irony is that, in this age of hyperconnectivity, it is precisely that hyperconnectivity that threatens to loosen our hold on our too often precarious professional positions. This hyperconnectivity forces us to work more shallowly, which generates suboptimal outcomes for our clients and ourselves.  

The rise of the global economy, and its current ubiquity, forces us into a Darwinian-esque choice: constantly adapt and learn things deeply AND quickly, or maintain the status quo of shallow work and learn to be left behind. While the ‘correct’ choice seems obvious to most of us, its path to success is especially muddied since our professional lives--largely due to the advent of the Blackberry and the open office plan--are typically set up for us to work shallowly. This constant availability actually prevents us from being able to work deeply and subsequently perform better. 

In his seminal “Deep Work”, Cal Newport illustrates some of the advantages of those who are “allowed” to do deep work. Great works of art, such as Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” or Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, or even great pieces of legislation like U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s monumental work with social security, highlight some of the ways that deep work can positively shape the lives of future generations.  

While deep work does not necessarily need to be focused on drastically altering entire societies, it is critical for achieving meaningful success in our personal and professional lives. Deep work’s opposite stimulus/response-esque existence will continue to yield very dissatisfying results for most professionals and their clients. 

For example, a fitness coach who can’t, or won’t, think deeply, such as through the best practices for client retention (Hint: The retention process starts with the initial appointment) will constantly churn through clients. He/she will subsequently fail to be able to successfully scale their business, and the number of lives that they could have changed is drastically reduced because of this inability. 

How then do we usher in a return to deep work, at least on a part-time basis, in all our lives? I believe one answer to this question lies in adopting creative new ways of thinking and acting. For example, I believe that some of the principles of Neo-Luddism offer some tremendous insight and another potential path to success with deep work. Being mindful about our use of technology, for example, provides a great starting point. From there, we can formulate an appropriate plan, and practice self-compassion when we inevitably struggle with adhering to the plan that we create.

Being mindful means that we are aware of how we are spending our time and energy. A big part of the reason that we can get sucked into things like Facebook and Instagram for hours at a time is that we are not mindful of how we are spending our time, nor of the pernicious effect that ‘losing time’ has on us and on our lives. Simply being mindful of how we spend our time can drastically change how we spend that time. 

John Berardi of Precision Nutrition illustrates the significant effect that ‘noticing and naming’ has on behavioral change. Through exhaustive research, they have found that people who keep a food log adopt better eating habits, even without any other interventions. We can and should adopt this strategy of noticing how we are using technology, lest we fulfill Alexis de Tocqueville’s nightmare of a return to savagery.

Step two in this process of reclaiming the ability to do deep work is to be methodical and have a concrete plan for both how and why you will use technology. As the classic saying reminds us, “When you fail to plan, you plan to fail.”

To plan properly, you will need to ask yourself some of the following questions: Which devices will I use? Why? Which websites and apps will I use? When? For how long? Write out your own plan and set of rules based on the things that you value most. By creating this tech plan, as Newport illustrates in “Digital Minimalism”, it allows you to better align your actions with your values, and it is an absolute game changer to maintain proper focus. 

Instead of being restrictive, having and adhering to these technology usage plans are in fact freeing. As Jocko Willink, author of “Extreme Ownership” and “The Dichotomy of Leadership” often says, “Discipline is freedom!” 

This is because discipline allows us to live more present and fulfilled lives, based on the people and the goals that are most important to each of us. We no longer become slaves to our devices, or inboxes, and instead use them to enhance our lives to focus on and connect with the people and things that matter most to us.

Despite even the best laid plans, things can AND will go awry at times. Therefore, step three, being compassionate to self, is so critically important. Being self-compassionate does not mean being delusional about our efforts, but instead about acknowledging our fallibility and responding appropriately. 

When we make mistakes or fall short, as we inevitably will, we need to first treat ourselves like most of us would treat another person who missed the mark. In that case, we typically remind the other people of the difficulties they are facing and to keep working because they can and will get better. Being self-compassionate will allow you to get back on track more quickly instead of resorting to such typical techniques such as avoidance and denial.   

As Susan David highlights in “Emotional Agility”, self-compassion is not about deluding ourselves, but instead is about accepting our complete selves, which sets the stage for being able to stay on track with the three-part plan of being mindful, methodical, and self-compassionate. 

By following these steps, you will get better results for yourselves and your clients and maintain focus in the age of distraction.


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Bob Wells

About the author: Bob Wells

Bob Wells graduated from Duke University, where he studied Psychology and Biological Anthropology and Anatomy. He is the CEO and Founder of Bob Wells Fitness, and he is currently helping develop sports nutrition courses and material for multiple universities.

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