(206) 686-4400 ext. 13

(206) 686-4400 ext. 13

Henley Leadership Group Blog

How To Reclaim Your Focus In The Age Of Distraction


Distracted? Is your day out of hand? Follow this recipe to focus your brain.

Technology promised to make us all more productive and help everything run smoothly and efficiently. Calendar apps. Organization apps. Workflow apps. Dictation so you can send messages while driving. Zoom so you can meet with colleagues without leaving your desk. Slack, What’s App, Instant messenger, texting, email, voicemail. Odds are, you use most—if not all—of them. And your typical work day might look something like this:

Wait, did that important message come in an email or Slack? Now you’re going to have to spend the next fifteen minutes hunting for it. Meanwhile, you’re already late for a Zoom meeting because the app is performing an update. When you finally arrive, flustered, you’ve forgotten to turn on the audio, leaving your team to wait patiently for you. On the phone later, as an automated recording cycles through a menu of options, you miss the prompt three times because you were simultaneously ordering something online. 

It's become part and parcel of our professional and our personal lives. Distraction. Overwhelm. Multi-tasking. Saying yes too much. Or not saying no enough. Committing and then not getting as much done as expected. Too many things on the to-do list and not enough hours in the day. And now it’s the holiday season and everything is on turbo-charge.

My finger traces the list of ingredients on the recipe as I retrieve and add each item to the mixing bowl. Somewhere between adding the flour and cinnamon, my cell phone lights up with a text. Without thinking, I reach over and respond to it. And that’s how I miss adding a key ingredient — salt — to my blueberry muffin recipe. 

“Never mind,” I tell my husband as I slather a hot one with butter after pulling the batch out of the oven. “Just sprinkle a little salt on top. It’ll be fine.” 

It wasn’t. 

I have a friend who puts her cell phone in the trunk of her car when she goes out so she won’t feel the urge to text or scroll. I’ve got my own version of this that doesn’t involve leaving my office: I use airplane mode or the “Do not disturb” setting so I have an uninterrupted block of time to work. But this can get me into trouble when I forget to flip the sign back over when I’m available again.

“I’ve been trying to reach you for hours. We need to get that urgent email out,” my co-worker snaps when she finally reaches me. This is when I know things have gotten out of hand. I need to regroup and make some changes. I know what to do; it’s just a matter of doing it. Even when it is as simple as “follow the recipe.”

Reclaiming Your Attention 

If any of this sounds familiar to you, here’s what you can do when things get out of hand.

1.     Get back in touch with your priorities: Figure out what’s important and prioritize tasks rather than trying to squeeze more into your day. Identify the culprits that keep you from getting things done. What are you paying attention to? What has a hold on your attention that’s getting in the way? 

2.     Slow down and stop multitasking: People often think that they can save time or get more done by doing two things at the same time, but research informs us that this simply isn’t true. Juggling multiple tasks can lead to flooding in the neocortex, thereby reducing your ability to process information and making it harder to remember things. After an interruption, it can take over 20 minutes to return fully to the original task. In other words, it impedes your progress rather than making you more efficient. What’s more, chronic multitasking can lead to increased stress and burnout as the brain is continuously pushed to its limits. Concentrate on one thing at a time to give important tasks the full attention they deserve.

3.     Set clear boundaries: Turn off the phone for a specific period when working on a project — but feather in check-ins and don’t forget to recharge during breaks. Commit to arriving or leaving work at a certain time. This may mean saying no, but remember: Too many yeses can lead to overwhelm.  As Warren Buffet has said, “The difference between successful people and really successful people is that really successful people say no to almost everything.” 

4.     Make all of this a habit: Good habits put a structure in place that supports your priorities. As research and real-life experience show, by intentionally building good habits, you won’t have to use willpower or drain your brain on things that matter to you. 

You’ve likely heard these strategies before. It’s just a matter of remembering them and then doing them — like following a recipe. Be the unicorn in the age of distraction by cultivating focus, clarity, and, as a result, effectiveness every day in your work. Others will notice.

Previously published on Forbes