How to Stay Focused in a World of Distractions

How to Stay Focused in a World of Distractions

“Real work and real satisfaction come from the opposite of what the web provides. They come from going deep into something — the book you’re writing, the album, the movie — and staying there for a long, long time.” Steven Pressfield

I must admit, that staying focused in a world full of distractions has been a struggle for me for a long time.

In the last two years I have been experimenting with different methods to stay focused. Only now I am starting to figure out the best ways to regain control of my life.

Social media has wired my brain to crave dopamine whenever I am bored. The internet has become my gateway for endless consumption. Everyone has the ability to distract me through push notifications.

We live in a time, where Attention has become the biggest commodity for companies (The Attention Economy). Companies make money from your attention.

The more time you spend on Instagram or Facebook, the more ads they can show to you, the more money these companies make.

In an attempt to maximize revenue, these products have been designed to be addictive.

Even Sean Park (early investor in Facebook) came out publicly and pointed out how addictive Facebook is:

“It’s a social-validation feedback loop … exactly the kind of thing that a hacker like myself would come up with, because you’re exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology,” Parker told Axios.

Hopefully you now are aware of the value of your attention. If you don’t protect your attention, someone else will consciously take advantage of it to make money.

The result is a life full of distractions. Slowly you lose control of your focus. It gets harder for you to engage in deep, meaningful work. You compulsively check your phone and life becomes a blur of notifications and distractions.

Distracted work vs Concentrated work

I am writing this post to tell you that it is possible to regain control of your life. It’s a fight against billion-dollar companies, so be aware that it will not be an easy one.

A major effort will be required for you to pull this off. It’s not easy. It’s a daily process of attentiveness to not get distracted. Try to become better at removing and dealing with distractions every day.

Now I will show you four concrete steps (ascending in importance), how to stay focused in a world full of distractions.

With all habits, it’s best to participate in a 30-day challenge. Later in this post I will explain to you the best ways of actually applying the four steps to remove all distractions in your life.

1. Disable all notifications

I like to start with this step because it is the most obvious and easiest one: Disable all notifications on all devices.

Two things make notifications so effective:

  1. In a connected world everyone has the ability to distract you as long as you have notifications turned on.
  2. Notifications release dopamine. And oh by the way, your brain craves dopamine in case you forgot.

Companies are aware of this. As a matter of fact they consciously exploit this by optimizing their notifications to get you onto their app.

It’s not a coincidence, that notifications always pop up at the right time, triggering some extremely intriguing action in you.

The best way to combat notifications is by radically turning them off.

Action steps to take right now:

  1. Make “night-shift” your default mode (on both phone and pc).
  2. Go to all application settings and manually turn off push notifications.

I often get asked how to deal with emergencies? You need to be instantly available for emergencies right?

In my opinion it is completely fine to turn on notifications for phone calls. There are valid concerns if you are not available instantly.

However make sure to communicate to your peers, that phone calls are only for emergencies. Make them respect your time and most importantly your attention.

Either way, I think there is a better way to deal with calls. I will explain this later in Step 4 “Remove all devices”.

Let’s end this first step with some thoughts about the future of notifications:

If you don’t disable your notifications, it will only get worse from now.

Companies like Facebook or Google are constantly in the process of “understanding what you want, before you know that you wanted it”.

Think of the Instagram Featured tab or the Google Discover App. These algorithms have gotten so sophisticated, that they know exactly what you want to consume.

Recommendations are highly personalized based on your past behavior. These companies try to get as many data points about you as possible, to become better at predicting your future behavior.

Now with the arrival of new smart devices like Alexa, internet-connected-fridges or Oura rings, big corporations will have an even wider array of data points to more accurately predict what you want.

Additionally with the arrival of AI, this anticipation of behavior will get even more optimized and more personalized. AI will further enable behavior prediction on a massive, more personalized scale.

Remember that these corporations are doing this to get you hooked into their application. Hooked into their ecosystem. The further you are entrenched into their ecosystem, the harder it will become for you to escape.

2. Delete Social Media Apps

After you have successfully disabled notifications, the next step is to delete Social Media Apps from your devices.

This is a no-brainer, yet most people don’t do it. It’s also probably the trickiest one to pull off.

Cal Newport (author of “Deep Work” and “Digital Minimalism”) has an awesome TED Talk on the implications of Social Media. I highly recommend you to watch this talk.

You probably ask yourself: “How should I go about deleting social media from my devices?”

The main implications I had to face:

  1. I need Social Media for my professional life.
  2. I need Social Media to stay connected with my friends.

My advice: the more radical you can remove social media, the better. 

Distractions vs Connectivity

Deleting Social Media is full of tradeoffs. The more “connected” you want to be, the more distracted you will become as a consequence.

We all want to get different things out of Social Media. Therefore it is so crucial to ask yourself what you want to get out of it. Try to rationalize the benefits of your social media consumption. Also compare the pros with the cons.

Soon you will have a list of social media platforms that you can immediately waive and certain platforms that you are not ready yet to delete, but willing to change your consumption behavior.

Once you figured that out, it’s time to declutter.

So let me explain to you now, how to delete Social Media.

Start with your phone. It’s the most dangerous device so take care of it first. Immediately delete all Social Media Apps that you don’t need to use anymore.

Keep the Social Media Apps that you still need to use. Be aware that you keep them solely for your desired purpose. If you fall back to your old consumption behavior, make sure to re-evaluate. Instagram for example was the hardest one for me:

I have struggled a lot to figure out how to deal with Instagram. At the time I still wanted to use Instagram to post content for my Personal Brand. However I also wanted to limit my consumption of other people’s content.

I have tried to keep the phone on my app. It didn’t work.

Every time I wanted to post something, I automatically used it to catch up with my friends. This app is so well engineered to hook you, it’s crazy.

After a couple of days I realized that this approach won’t work well. I had to make a radical decision: Keep the app or delete it?

I decided to delete the App. I think that the pros just simply outweigh the cons. You have to make a decision.

Now, take care of your PC. Depending on which Social Media platforms you want to keep, I recommend you to install some helpful tools, that help you get your desired output.

  1. Block Site
Block Site Chrome Extension

This Chrome Extension is a simple one: It blocks certain websites you don’t want to use anymore. 

Every time you get weak, they show you a powerful image, reminding you that the website you want to access is in your “blocked site list” and is probably there for a reason.

Block Site Image reminder

This Chrome Extension is cool, but can lose its power if you don’t use it consistently. Many times I have just turned off the extension or edited my list. That’s a no-go.

If you get weak, don’t edit your list or turn off the extension.

2. Distraction Free Youtube and using Youtube Studio

Distraction Free Youtube Chrome Extension

If you are not ready to completely abandon Social Media, then the next two extensions will be useful for you.

Often I still wanted to use Youtube, to watch tutorials, therefore I couldn’t block the site. Distraction Free Youtube blocks out all recommended videos on Youtube.

Youtube Studio

Also I recommend you to use the Youtube Studio. It’s an awesome dashboard created by Youtube for creators. You can’t watch any Youtube videos from here. Its sole purpose is to upload or edit your videos and engage with your subscribers.

Quick Tip: Block youtube.com with Block Site and whitelist studio.youtube.com. This way Youtube will be blocked, yet you can still upload content to your channel and engage with your community. I love Youtube Studio. Also make sure to use the Youtube Studio Phone app.

3. News Feed Eradicator for Facebook

News Feed Eradicator for Facebook Chrome Extension

This last Chrome extension blocks out your Facebook feed and replaces it with some cool quotes.

Blocked Facebook feed

Oh and trust me: Reducing (instead of completely removing) time on social media doesn’t work. In the past I have tried numerous times to use the “time-limit” feature inside Apple’s Screen time. It doesn’t work.

As long as social media apps are on your phone you will most likely be hooked to them. It’s crazy how amazingly well those apps are engineered. Every time you are bored, you will use them. It takes incredible amounts of consciousness and willpower to not use these apps.

So my recommendation is to delete your social media apps altogether. Everything else just doesn’t work (at least for me).

Action steps to take right now:

  1. Figure out what you want to get out of Social Media.
  2. Remove all unrequired Social Media Apps on your phone.
  3. Install “Block Site” or “Distraction Free Youtube” and “News Feed Eradicator for Facebook” on your pc.

One more tip: If you plan on deleting your account altogether, make sure to download all memories that are saved in the cloud of the app. I kind of regret that I have deleted my old Snapchat account with tons of memories on there. Also realize that these “archives” are purposely built into applications to prevent you from deleting your account in the first place.

3. Minimize time on the internet

Disconnect — Is this possible you might ask?

Here is some great inspiration from Paul Miller, which shows that it is indeed possible to disconnect.

Decide where you want to be on the “Distractions vs Connectivity” scale.

I personally can’t afford to completely disconnect from the internet (although I would love to). 

Therefore I recommend trying your best to minimize time on the internet.

I have realized that I unintentionally open my internet browser to start my consumption. I know that on the internet anything I want, I will get. It’s a gateway to endless distraction.

Usually I started my work session on the internet by checking email, social media, analytics of my projects, stock prices or news.

I completely screwed my focus the second I got on the internet. 

I realized that first of all I had to limit my time on the internet, since it’s an endless opportunity for distraction.

Second I had to be on the internet intentionally. I only wanted to be on the internet if I am doing specific work that requires me to be connected.

Ask yourself when you need to be on the internet. Schedule your internet sessions beforehand. Only in a scheduled work session you are allowed to connect, the default mode should be offline. Then try to further minimize your time on the internet.

Action steps to take right now:

  1. Figure out when being connected is required
  2. Turn Wi-Fi off. Make “being offline” your default state
  3. Continue minimizing time on the internet

4. Remove all devices

This is the last step to a life without distractions: Remove all devices (that are connected to the internet). You probably think this is impossible, but let me tell you that it is very well doable.

Again like steps 2 and 3, it’s a matter of where you want to be on the “Distractions vs Connectivity” scale. The two most important devices to remove, obviously are your phone and your laptop (or pc).

Here is how I would go about this:

Before removing your laptop completely, I recommend you to start working on a desktop PC instead of a laptop. The danger of distractions lies in the mobility of your devices.

You can take your laptop anywhere with you. That means you can be distracted anywhere. A normal desktop PC allows you to separate work from the rest of your life. 

(Alternatively you can also fixate your laptop onto your working desk and pretend that it is a desktop PC).

The next step is to remove your phone. This probably will be the hardest one. If you have made it this far into the decluttering process you will realize however, that you are only using your phone for a few applications like Maps, calls or the Google Authenticator app anyways.

The fewer apps you are currently using, the easier it will be to say goodbye to your phone.

So it’s time to do it: remove your phone from your daily life. If you still need to be available for contact, go ahead and buy a brick phone:

Awesome Nokia 105 – Btw writing during sunrise is beautiful 🙂

The last step will be to remove your PC. This step is the most radical one, and probably only a few people can afford to do it.

It’s a life long goal, to have so many money-making assets, that you don’t need to “digitally work” anymore.

You have made it really far. Removing your last devices such as your desktop PC will be the last step to fully remove distractions and reconnect to the “real-world”.

Action steps to take right now:

  1. Remove your laptop and start working on a desktop PC again (or fixate your laptop onto your working desk)
  2. Remove your current phone, buy a brick phone
  3. Remove your PC if you can afford to do it

Applying the four steps for a world without distraction

First of all: There is no right time to start your disconnecting process. I highly urge you to start now, otherwise you most likely will never start.

The easiest way of applying my recommendations is by engaging in a 30-day distraction detox.

It probably won’t be practical for you to radically remove your phone and laptop right now or to disconnect from the internet. You have some good reasons (liabilities or responsibilities) to not go offline immediately.

Instead I recommend you to start slow by thinking which tradeoffs you can do today. Not willing but able to do.

Everyone can turn off notifications. Everyone can delete a smartphone app and instead use the desktop version with content blockers. Everyone can limit his time on the internet.

Figure out which tradeoffs you are able to embrace and which ones you are not ready yet. After the 30-day detox you will have the opportunity to continue to remove distractions from your life. Again remember that this is a process.

Action steps to take right now:

  1. Pick out the exact habits you want to apply to your life, write them down and start your 30-day detox today.

I believe that removing distractions is a life long process. You start today and continue to remove distractions.

Sometimes new distractions will come up and then you need to take action to remove them again. It’s an endless process.

The ultimate goal is to go to Nepal, become a monk, meditate all day, removing all stimulation and stopping the endless cycle of consumerism.

Ok, I am just joking but that probably is the ultimate form of removing distractions from life. We all decide how far we want to go.

Reasons for Disconnecting

Hopefully you liked my advice. Here are the five main reasons to remove all distractions

  1. You are more focused, hence more productive

You will be able to get more stuff done in less time. It’s crazy to see how much time we waste all day with the consumption of unnecessary media. Only this alone will give you back multiple hours every single day.

Additionally since you are more focused, your work will be done in a much more efficient manner. You simply get stuff done faster. An obvious one, but I wanted to point that out as well.

2. Focus enables meaningful work

Because you now have the ability to work multiple hours straight, it’s now more probable that you can go deep into topics. 

“Real work and real satisfaction come from the opposite of what the web provides. They come from going deep into something — the book you’re writing, the album, the movie — and staying there for a long, long time.” Steven Pressfield

3. You become more aware, you can fully take on life

Removing distractions enables you to become more aware of your surroundings. You start to observe life clearer.

4. Relationships become more meaningful

Removing shallow connections on Social Media allows you to more gratefully experience real-life relationships.

The next time you meet with someone you are more present, can go deeper into conversations and don’t stare at your phone all the time.

5. A happier life

Removing distractions enables you to recognize the beauty of things. Walking through nature, cooking and eating awesome meals, spending time with friends. It all get’s a much more joyful experience, since you can fully immerse into your activities.

How removing distractions has made me a happier person

Removing distractions has become my peace. I went deep about this in my latest post “State of Mind 2020”.

My brain was extremely stimulated and as a result I felt unconscious and unaware.

I felt disconnected from reality in an artificially connected world.

The process of removing distractions has helped me to understand what I deem important. It led me to focus on the things that I really want to work on.

Here is a list of everything that gives me bliss right now (in no specific order):

  • Early mornings (Sunrises, Coffee, Reading, Writing, Journaling, Working Out, Jumping into the ocean)
  • Amazing meals with people I love
  • Meaningful work
  • Learning and trying new things. Traveling. Being creative. Ticking off goals on my “LONG TERM GOALS” list
  • Family, friends and all meaningful relationships
  • Being calm, privacy and intimacy, being close to nature

Getting control back of my life has made me a much more peaceful person. 

I am still in the process of removing distractions. Currently I am very happy with the state of my distractions and I don’t feel the urge to declutter further (like going completely offline or removing all internet-connected devices).

Recommended Books

If this article has sparked your interest to declutter your life, here are three must-read books that go deeper into the subject of distractions in the 21st century. I highly recommend you to read all three of these books 🙂

Deep Work — Cal Newport

Digital Minimalism — Cal Newport

Hooked — Nir Eyal

Written by
Richard Hopp
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