15 ways to stay focused in a distracted world

Stuck Moment: I feel like my day is one big interruption. A steady stream of questions, last-minute requests, and texts that just won’t quit. How am I supposed to focus on what I already have to do? And how long can I keep this up?

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Modern life is a minefield of distractions. Ever burgeoning gadgets, games, information sources — even open-plan offices — conspire to divert our attention away from whatever we need to concentrate on. Neuroscientist Frances Jensen recently dubbed this “the dementia of the preoccupied,” referring to how it feels to continually shift her attention throughout the day. “Things fall through the cracks,” she says.

Indeed, our daily frenzy probably is causing us to miss a lot, perhaps without realizing it. Take it one step further, and that fractured focus gets in the way of doing our best, or doing it at all, even when it’s important to us. Instead, the conveyor belt of must-do’s, listen-to-me’s, and sorry-to-interrupt’s compromises our efforts as we push to get through the day.


If you’re ready to stop pin-balling from one distraction to another so you can get down to business (or life) on a regular basis, it’s going to take a little reworking of your daily habits. We’ve come up with nine practical ways to wrangle your day and another six methods to practice staying in the moment. Find the handful of tips that will
give you back the gift of your own concentration.


  1. Make a ranked list.
    Every morning, write down the most important things you need get done (not everything is the “most
    important”). Then order the items, starting with the most pressing. This is your touchstone to refer to throughout the day. If it’s creeping on 3 pm and your list remains unattended to, take it as a warning to refocus.
  2. Get rid of physical clutter.
    Too much stuff lying about can sidetrack you, causing you to waste valuable time sorting through piles of old mail to find your W2s or looking through 20 blue shirts to locate one that still fits. Your ability to focus will go up exponentially with each old video, CD, and concert T-shirt you get rid of. Skeptical? Here are six ways organizing can transform your life.
  3. Get rid of demanding clutter.
    Do you have after-work plans every night this week? Cut out commitments that are more obligation than enjoyment. And while you’re at it, set time restraints on technology. Scientists believe that the constant stimulation of digital technology (i.e., demands on our time and attention) undermines our ability to concentrate, think deeply, and be creative.
  4. Establish routines.
    When you have a set schedule, you do things automatically, avoid decision fatigue, and have energy left over for the “macro” issues of your life. Set up a routine for AM activities (exercising, showering, eating breakfast) and PM ones (doing laundry, laying out your clothes for the next day, emptying the dishwasher). As a result you’ll probably notice more ideas and solutions popping into your head.
  5. Single-task.
    Since you began reading this, did you open another window to Google “takeout Indian food near downtown,” get up for a snack, and answer an instant-message from a colleague about March Madness? You may feel like you’re getting more done when you multitask, but research shows that it almost always takes longer than when you focus on doing one thing at a time — most people need several minutes to regain their focus after even a brief pause to check email or Instagram.
  6. Buffer your time commitments.
    Meetings run long, an accident on the highway adds 15 minutes to your commute, your cubicle mate wants to show you his vacation pictures. Instead of panicking, build in some additional time — say 10 minutes — for each item on your schedule. That way, the 11 AM meeting doesn’t overlap the 12 PM conference call, enabling you to better concentrate your attention.
  7. Go outside.
    Nature walks worked for the Buddha, St. John the Baptist, and Thoreau, and they can also help today’s harried individual. Studies have shown that strolling in nature — whether it’s a forest, a desert, or just a small green space with a few trees or some grass — calms the mind and allows us to reconnect to ourselves.
  8. Exercise and sleep.
    Practiced regularly, these two tactics are a panacea, including mental acuity. Just 30 minutes a day of exercise will help increase the connections between brain cells and relieve stress, both of which help improve concentration. As for sleep, being overtired negatively affects your attention span and other brain functions. Eight hours a night come easier with regular exercise. Here are nine more tactics to solve sleep problems.
  9. Distraction-proof your workspace.
    Cubicle-style or open offices are a breeding ground for reducing our attention span. To minimize overstimulation, try these four tips: Put a plant on your desk to increase concentration. Turn your desk or computer screen toward a wall. Get a pair of noise-canceling headphones. Work earlier or later than everyone else.
  10. Worry less.
    As the saying goes, worry is a misuse of the imagination. Fretting about events that haven’t happened and may never happen prevents you from experiencing the only moment in life you have any control over: the present. Here are nine+ ways to calm
  11. Savor more.
    In her book Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert pokes fun at a friend who’s always saying, “It’s so beautiful here! I want to come back here someday!” Instead of fixating on future pleasures, savor whatever you’re experiencing in the present tense, whether
    it’s sipping a latte or listening to a coworker’s idea. Similarly, when you videotape a concert or take pictures of your food at a restaurant, you’re thinking ahead instead of focusing on the moment. Put the camera down.
  12. Meditate on it.
    Meditation helps us learn to control our thoughts so they don’t careen uncontrollably around our heads. Reaping the benefits doesn’t have to involve hours of cross-legged sitting in a monastery in Tibet. It can be as simple as taking 100 deep breaths
    or doing a five-minute guided meditation like this (free) one.
  13. Go with the flow.
    Is the subway running late? Did your kids spill Cheerios all over your car? Getting angry when things go wrong only exacerbates the problem and sidetracks us even further. Going with the flow means accepting life’s little bumps without becoming derailed by our emotions. Here are 15 ways to zap your annoyance before it ruins your day.
  14. Write down nagging thoughts.
    Racing, random ruminations make it harder to concentrate. Your mind doesn’t want to forget what you’re thinking about, so it reruns them over and over. Break the cycle by writing down what you’re obsessing about; this will allow you to let go of these distressing musings and focus (at least for the time being).
  15. Look around.
    This is an easy way to get yourself into the here and now so you can focus. Several times a day, make a point of noticing something new in your environment — a window display, how the days are getting longer. There’s something uplifting about engaging in the present moment and place.

Make that change come to life
Our “Making a Change” digital Life Course helps you uncover ways to implement lasting change — like cutting out life’s pesky distractions.  
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