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4 Ways To Focus While Facing Distractions

Written by Alex McMurray

Image by Michał Parzuchowski on Unsplash and Tyler Doupe from Student Life Network

Hey! You! Yes, you! Are you able to focus on ANYTHING anymore? Are you even still reading this sentence? Bananas. Rocket ships made of bananas. Rocket ships made of bananas delivering bananas to a planet where everyone is a sentient banana. Did you even notice how weird that was? Perhaps not. Perhaps you’re just skimming through this article like you might skim through your life, missing the details, accomplishing less than you’d like to. And please, don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to talk down to you. This is my problem, too. Some would argue that this is our whole society’s problem now. As Forbes points out, our attention span as a species, at least in technology-focused society, seems to be declining as time goes on. We’ve somehow been beaten out by goldfish in that ability! Do you feel less able to focus than a goldfish? Sometimes I do.

For me, there’s only one time when I really feel like a goldfish couldn’t even attempt to focus as long and as well as I do: when I’m producing music. While that sounds incredibly specific, there are some things that I do when producing that could apply to any activity that requires razor-sharp focus, from coding to writing an essay. I’m going to break down the basics of that for you right now.

1. Set Aside Time To Get Stuff Done

To begin, scheduling is essential. You can’t sit down with plans to write an essay for the next four hours if you’ve got other pressing needs or plans you already made for that time. When I produce music, I set aside the majority of an entire day. For what you need to get done this may be overkill, but that’s the idea: set aside time. Free up some time so that you’ll have enough of one of the most critical resources for completing any task. Nothing gets done without spending some time on it. Make sure that you have some.

2. Protect The Time From Distractions

Once you’ve set aside the time, you need to protect it! Think of the time you set aside as rations on a boat in the ocean. Imagine if you were to figure out that you can make your food last for three weeks if you eat a certain amount per day, only to have some seagull come and try to take it from you. You’ve got to stop that gull! You need that food! In this metaphor, the seagulls can represent a lot of things, but in modern times they mostly represent the various flashing lights and sounds coming from your cell phone.

If you stop what you’re doing for every notification, you’ll never achieve any kind of meaningful focus. You might still get some stuff done, but you won’t do it anywhere nearly as efficiently as you could have otherwise. Plus, the quality of your work would likely suffer. A recent study from Middle Tennessee State University titled, “Does personal social media usage affect efficiency and well-being?” concluded that “The results of the study indicate that personal social media usage leads to negative effects, both on efficiency and well-being. Specifically, social media usage is associated with lower task performance, increased technostress, and lower happiness”.

When I’m making music, I solve this social media distraction problem in two ways. Sometimes, I go for the full package, and I just turn off my phone. However, you may be wondering how you can do that when the work that you’re doing requires your phone. I’m sure there are legitimate reasons to keep a phone on. For me, the issue is social media presence as an artist. Producing new tunes is a great excuse to share some quality content on my Instagram story. When I first started doing this, I noticed my tendency to completely lose focus midway through a track when I became proud of something and went to share it online.

My solution? Just as I’ve set aside the day for music production and I defend the boundaries of that territory, I set aside some specific times during my music production where I allow myself to share one video. If I just filmed a video a moment ago, I refuse to acknowledge my phone and the desire to share on social media and in this way I defend my focus. If possible, figure out when it makes the most sense to allow these needs or social media related goals to interrupt you, and make sure to limit yourself to nothing more than the interruptions that are necessary to advance your other goals.

PS. Are you still reading?

I can only assume that in our society of little to no focus, everyone has stopped reading by now. So, I’m going to take this opportunity to transition into my Spongebob fan=fiction titled, “Squidward’s Lover.” It was a dark and stormy night in Bikini Bottom, and the rain pounded on Squidward’s windows. However, it wasn’t nearly as loud as the pounding inside… wait. Are you still reading? Wow! Congrats! Amazing focus. I guess I’ll finish the article for you, my bad…

3. Take Control Of When You Rest To Focus Better Afterwards

Another tactic you might have heard about for helping to stay focused for long periods of time is the controlled break. This means that you can take breaks at specified intervals for certain specific amounts of time, as opposed to not working whenever you don’t want to for as long as you feel like browsing Instagram or reading Reddit. Personally, I think this is still dangerous. It’s one thing to set a time limit and another thing altogether to actually respect it. If you can do it, congratulations!

On the other hand, it’s common knowledge at this point that various online time-sinks are designed to acquire and retain your attention as often as possible, for as long as possible. For me, the breaks that I give myself are much more straightforward: I just stand up. I stand up out of my chair, I stretch, I mute the song to give my ears and mind a break from the task, and then I either look out my window or just stretch my muscles a bit and allow my mind to wander. Different things work for different people, but I find that I’m mostly fine to take a break when it feels natural.

The main point here is that working forever without any kind of break can make you overtired and ruin the quality of your work. However, most people don’t want to work for long periods of time when they could be watching TV or otherwise relaxing, so don’t just let yourself kick back all the time! A structure is the common thread here. Creating a structure helps to prevent accidental loss of time.

4. Maintain A Focus-Strengthening Environment

The final consideration which I would advise you to plan for is all-encompassing: your environment. Now, this is a delicate area because I realize that many students have little to no control over their situation. Perhaps you share a room with a sibling or a few siblings, or maybe the crazy party dudes down the hall seem always to be yelling “bro!” and “duuuuude!” while shotgunning beers, assuredly everyone has their issues. If possible, when you want to be efficient and focused, you should do everything in your power to limit factors of distraction in your environment. Thankfully, many schools have libraries with “quiet floors” where people are heavily discouraged from distracting others. If your school doesn’t have one of these, or if there’s no space in there, you can always look for some other peaceful corner of the world.

In a worst-case scenario, I find that a good pair of headphones and some quality house music will drown out a lot and help me to focus on what I’m doing, at least when I’m not making music. Don’t forget to regulate the most important environment: your mind and body. I make sure to eat regularly and healthily on music days, and I do what I can to get my mind into focus-mode. This will be different for everyone, so I encourage you to examine yourself and do experiments to figure out how best to get yourself “into the zone.”

Stay Focused, Get More Done

In conclusion, it’s clear that distraction can destroy potential productivity. I’ve spent dozens of minutes of time that was supposed to be spent making music on my phone or doing other things. I’ve slowly learned what causes the worst of these periods of wasted time and I have made great strides toward eliminating or at least improving my reactions to them. While this may seem unattainable for you, trust me, it isn’t. The brain is a muscle, and like any other, it can be worked out. You can practice and exercise it and see gains from your labour. And hey, if you managed to finish this article, as sad as it is to say, that sets you aside from a lot of people in our society. There’s hope for you! Stay focused, my friends.

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*Opinions expressed are those of the author, and not necessarily those of Student Life Network or their partners.