So you’ve unplugged the television and disabled your Internet. The baby is taking a nap, your coffee is cooled, your notes are out, and a blank Microsoft Word document is on the screen in front of you. You’ve got a good couple of hours to knock out the speech you need to send to your boss as soon as possible…but already your mind is wandering back towards the basketball game last night. You get up and stretch, see a headline on the front cover of a magazine that catches your eye. And next thing you know, the baby is howling for a bottle, your window of opportunity is gone, and you find yourself rhetorically asking, “Where did the time go?”
You’re not alone. We’ve all been there. Sometimes reducing and / or eliminating distractions is not enough to keep our minds from wandering and impairing our performance. Sometimes, we need just a bit more to keep us on task.
No, I’m definitely not talking about performance-enhancing drugs. Sometimes all it takes is a bit of mindfulness, focused attention, and related techniques to increase one’s ability to concentrate on a task at hand. The next time you are preparing for a major project, start by eliminating distractions. Make sure you have a realistic goal set, as being overwhelmed by the enormity of a task, can definitely drive one to distraction. Further, arm yourself with the following:
Rewards: Before you begin the project, set a reward for yourself. It can be delayed gratification – not watching the ESPN Sportscenter highlights until you finish your project. Or it can be a singular reward – treating yourself to a nice meal or allowing yourself to buy that new watch Amazon keeps serving you ads for. Whatever it is, when you feel yourself starting to drift off course, remind yourself of your reward. Keeping a picture of the reward in front of you may help as well – as long as it itself does not become a distraction.
Affirmations: Sometimes, our distraction has roots in fear. We may fear our ability to complete a task. Or we may fear our ability to do a good job. Or we may fear that when we complete it, there will be a negative consequences – for example, a work memo our boss asked us to complete may result in a co-worker getting disciplined. No matter the case, when we fear a task, our minds often distract us as a way to avoid engaging in that task.
Knowing this beforehand, we can use affirmations as a way to talk ourselves into the task. We can take a sheet of paper and write a statement that both frames the task in a positive way, states convincingly that we will complete it, and includes a positive outcome of its completion. For example, an affirmation for the completion of a business plan might be:
“Today, I will complete the last section of this business plan, the first step towards my path towards owning my own business.”
Take that statement and display it prominently near you to keep yourself focused.
Personally, I often take a little more convincing and write my affirmation on every line of a single sheet of looseleaf paper. The act of writing and rewriting the affirmation helps it sink in and convince myself of the truth of those words. After having written and rewritten my affirmation 26+ times I often no longer need the physical paper in front of me. I also often find myself fairly fired up (albeit with a slightly sore writing hand).
Accountability: When we fear our ability to get our task done, we may hide our very efforts from our loved ones. That’s not only dishonest, it robs you of a very powerful motivator. Telling your wife or your kids that you are going to get something done in two hours, makes you that much more motivated to actually get it done in two hours. Do you really want to listen to your five-year old needle you over dinner about how you didn’t get something done?
After spending nearly a decade and a half doing communications work, I now work in government relations. However, I still dabble in communications work, as an active freelancer. I'm also a husband and proud father of two boys.