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Managing digital distraction: 10 tips to stay focused

By BBC Maestro

Do you find yourself constantly checking your phone when you have a task to do? Scrolling through social media when you should be focused in a meeting? Or do you find it hard to go more than a few minutes without the urge to check the news online? If so, you could be dealing with digital distraction. 

It can feel like we’re all addicted to our phones and digital devices, and it can make it hard to stay on-task and focused. But luckily, there are ways to break the spell. So, if you’re suffering from digital overload, keep reading to find out how to find your focus again.

What is digital distraction?

Digital distraction is a fairly new phenomenon – after all, it’s only been in the last decade or so that everyone has had a device in their pocket. It refers to the way that so many of us are interrupted by our tasks, activities or focus by the use of digital devices and technologies, including smartphones, computers and tablets.

One of the major reasons behind the rise of digital distraction is constant connectivity. We’re always online – which means that it can be very hard to shake off the urge to regularly check messages, emails and social media. 

Not only are we constantly connected, but we’re also overloaded with notifications. From messages, likes and comments on social media apps, to updates from shopping apps, we get a huge number of pings on our phones throughout the day – which can break our focus and divert our attention from what we should be focusing on.

On average, people check their phones 58 times per day, and almost 52% of all phone checks happen during work hours. With so many distractions at our fingertips, it’s no wonder that so many of us struggle with concentration.

Social media platforms are addictive, thanks to dopamine. Dopamine is sometimes known as a ‘feel good’ chemical. It plays a crucial role in functions like reward, pleasure, motivation and mood regulation – and is released by our brain during exercise, when we eat good food, and when we get social media engagement.

When social media users receive positive feedback, such as likes on a post or positive comments, it can lead to a release of dopamine, creating a sense of validation and pleasure – which can lead you to check your phone more and more, like a craving.

The rise of digital distractions also goes hand-in-hand with the fear of missing out (FOMO). The fear of missing out on important information or social interactions makes it hard to live in the present moment and can drive people to constantly check their devices.

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Impact of digital distractions

With all of these factors at play, it comes as no surprise that digital overload is so common – or that it can have such a big impact on our time management and concentration. 

Constant interruptions from digital devices and notifications can lead to a decrease in overall productivity. It becomes challenging to stay focused on tasks and complete them efficiently. Plus, the constant pinging of notifications and picking up of devices can contribute to a shortened attention span. A recent study found that half of the public (49%) said that they feel as though their attention span is shorter than it used to be.

And it’s not just during the work day that our devices can have an impact on us. The use of digital devices, especially close to bedtime, can interfere with sleep patterns. This is due to the blue light emitted by screens, which can disrupt the production of melatonin – the hormone that regulates sleep. 

“I think the best thing – if we can, is to get off those screens. Particularly those tablets and phones,” Dr Rangan Chatterjee says in his BBC Maestro course. So, if you’re prone to scrolling in bed, you could be ruining the prospect of a good night’s sleep.

How to avoid digital distractions

So, if you want to get on top of your digital distractions, feel more refreshed in the morning, and improve your focus throughout the day, you need to put some strategies in place. Here are some of our top tips to reduce your reliance on technology and get more done during the day.

1. Ditch the devices

The best way to reduce distractions? Remove your devices, from your pocket, bag, or room. Out of sight, out of mind after all. You could try designating certain areas or times as tech-free zones – for example, if you’re working at home, keep your phone in another room during work hours, and keep your bedroom free of screens. 

2. Designate digital detox days

As well as establishing no-tech zones, you should consider going device-free for one day a week. Oliver Burkeman is an expert in time management, and in his BBC Maestro course on Time Management, he recommends trying a few different strategies to see what works for you:

“It can be useful to experiment with your own rules: not using digital devices for one day per week is a popular one. Simple is best: that way, you’re less likely to forget and slide back to your ordinary behaviours.”

3. Turn off notifications

If you can’t ditch your device entirely – if you need it in case of emergency calls, for example – you can turn off all non-essential notifications, such as those from social media apps. If your phone isn’t lighting up every few minutes with a new (and often non-urgent) notification, then you may find yourself reaching for it less often – meaning you can get more work done, distraction-free.

4. Limit or block apps

If putting your phone or tablet in another room doesn’t work, and you’re not having any success when you turn off notifications, you may need to take more drastic measures. There are lots of apps out there that block you from going on the internet or using apps, or only allow you to spend a certain amount of time scrolling before cutting you off. These can help you to reduce your internet or app usage, helping you to create healthy new habits.

5. Schedule your work

Using a calendar or a paper diary, create a schedule each day and write down a to-do list. Rather than one endless to-do list, you might find it more manageable to separate it into ‘urgent’, ‘important’ and ‘other’ tasks. This will give you more of a focus on what you should prioritise for the day. 

When you’re scheduled to work on a particular task, try to stay focused. One of the key ways to do this is by scheduling in time for breaks and movement – as often when we’re bored or restless, we turn to browsing the internet or checking our phones.

6. Use the Pomodoro method

If you find it hard to stay on task, even with time blocked out in your calendar, then using time management techniques like Pomodoro may help. It’s a technique that aims to improve productivity and focus by breaking work into short, manageable chunks of time. Here’s how it works:

●      Choose a task to work on

●      Set a timer for 25 minutes

●      Work on the task with full concentration and no distractions until the timer rings

●      Take a 5-minute break

●      During the break, do something non-work-related, like making a cup of coffee, stretching – or even checking your phone

●      Repeat the process within another 25-minute timer

●      After completing four rounds of this, take a longer break, typically 15-20 minutes

Breaking work into short, manageable intervals should help to maintain focus and prevent burnout – and because you know you’ll shortly get a break, you should be less inclined to check your phone during your 25 minutes of focused work.

7. Set goals and priorities

Define your daily or weekly goals and priorities. Knowing what you need to accomplish can help you stay focused and resist unnecessary digital distractions.

8. Create a distraction-free workspace

Organise your physical workspace to minimise distractions. Keep only essential items on your desk and consider using tools like noise-cancelling headphones to block out ambient noise. The fewer things there are around you that are likely to distract you, the more likely you are to stay focused on the task in front of you.

9. Give yourself rewards

Creating a reward system for yourself can be an effective strategy to enhance motivation and reinforce positive behaviours, including staying focused and minimising digital distractions. Set goals for yourself to achieve on a daily, weekly or project level. For example, if you need to write up a big report, and you manage it by the end of the day, you could treat yourself. If you’re a foodie, the reward could be taking yourself to a new bakery in town, or if you’re a movie lover, it could be a trip to see the latest blockbuster. 

Rewarding yourself in this way can act as positive reinforcement, strengthening the connection between the behaviour of staying focused and the reward – making it more likely that you’ll repeat the same behaviour in the future.

10. Set realistic expectations

Recognise that you simply won’t be able to always eliminate all digital distractions. Set realistic expectations and focus on managing and minimising distractions, rather than striving for perfection.

It’s also better to start slowly and try to build better habits, rather than throwing yourself in at the deep end – which can often lead to failure. Building new habits takes time, so start with small adjustments and progressively increase their impact.

Reduce digital distractions and improve your productivity

Whether you’re struggling to focus at work or find your hours at home slipping away from you, taking control of your device usage can help you to find your focus and improve your productivity – but remember that reducing digital distraction is a personal journey, and different strategies work for different people. Experiment with these tips and tailor them to fit your lifestyle and preferences.

If you want to improve your approach to time management, Oliver Burkeman’s Time Management course has got you covered. You’ll learn practical time management skills including productivity techniques, task organisation, goal setting and how to procrastinate better. But most importantly, you’ll understand these are only tools that help… once you learn to embrace imperfection.

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