Concentration – how do you regain it and how do you cope with distractions?

The majority of us knows the feeling. “I’ll only take a peek” at my Facebook page, or at the news portal … and all of a sudden half an hour’s gone by. I catch myself asking me: “How did I get here?”. I try to be on my guard, but this helps only for a while. Finally, at the end of the day, I find out just how much time I’ve lost…

How do we get distracted?

We all know these scenes – if not from our own lives, then definitely from observations of others. I start doing something concrete and specific. An idea comes to my head. I only want to take a moment and see if the idea is feasible. So I open a website concerning the topic in question and read it awhile. And then just one other tab. But a quarter of an hour later I find that I don’t remember how I got here, nor what I was doing before I got distracted. I get a bit angry with myself, feeling overpowered.

I write an e-mail and want to add an attachment. But I need to find another message – the one which contains it. So I go to my inbox. From the corner of my eye, I see two new and unread emails. So I think to myself: “I’ll only take a peek”. And I do – it’s nothing important, just as I suspected. Thus, I return to … precisely – what was it that I was doing? I suddenly remember that I was writing an e-mail. But when I get to it, I remind myself of the attachment. And so I go round in circles – many times a day.

The telephone buzzes, informing me of a new message. Someone’s just commented on my photo! So I check what he wrote, and write back. Making use of the opportunity, I’ll just check to see if there’s nothing new. A moment later I can’t at all remember what I was doing, and I just can’t get back to focusing on my work.

I’ve just started on a major task. It’s drawn me in. Finally, my work is progressing. But an animated discussion in the office disturbs my rhythm. Today they’re talking politics, even though yesterday they were going over the last football game. I get mad and put on my earphones, but it doesn’t help. I feel the frustration growing inside of me.

Familiar with the situation?

Sources of distraction and what causes us to lose concentration

In actual fact, our lack of concentration is directly attributable to our inability to say “no” to distractions. Let us explore the issue. Our distractions do have a few distinct sources. I would divide them as follows:

  • Internal – those that no one else sees and which concern only you.
  • Indirect – the ones that are external to your body, but over which you have practically complete control.
  • External – those over which you usually have no direct control.

Internal distractions

The source of some distractions lies squarely within us. Do any of those listed apply to you? Probably yes – but most of us are blissfully unaware of the fact!

  • Anxiety and reminiscences. You want to get down to work but your emotional state generates such a “buzz” that you’re simply unable to concentrate for any length of time. You’re overcome with painful memories, pent-up emotions, phobias, and fears. When trying to focus, you feel as if you were pushing a heavy rock – such is the immense energy required to keep all these thoughts and emotions at bay.
  • A new idea just came to my mind. Whenever you knuckle down to a task, your mind immediately starts to produce new ideas. You think that they’re interesting, and this leads to a dilemma: should you start working on the new, cool idea, or stick to the task you’re on? Just deliberating this distracts you so much that you are unable to continue.
  • Tiredness. You want to do one more task, but your body is giving you signs that you should take a break. Suddenly, your chair becomes more uncomfortable than usual. You’re irritated by sounds. Your mind wanders, enveloped in a foggy mist. Remembering names start to be a problem. You make simple mistakes.
  • A trained habit – “I’ll just check”. Before you take up a task you usually surf the internet for a while, checking the most recent news. Your mind loves the influx of new information, and so you scan through the social media or the headlines of the news portal. Sometimes this scanning draws you in so much that it becomes difficult to work.

Indirect distractions

The second category of distractions lies outside our bodies, however, we have near complete control over them:

  • Messages delivered by applications – computers, telephones, tablets, or even watches.Your telephone vibrates or gives off a sound, so you pick it up and check what’s going on. You do so many times a day. As result, you are “up to date”, however the time during which you worked continuously can now be counted in seconds – not minutes.
  • Text messages. The sound announcing an incoming message tells you that you must pick up your telephone right away and see who’s writing and why. You like to write back quickly. You don’t want to “let the occasion slip”. But each message jolts you out of the rhythm of the work you’re trying to concentrate on.
  • Communicators. As soon as you see a new message on Slack, Skype or Messenger, you enter the app and read. Sometimes you write back. Afterwards you get right back to work. But if you were to count how many times you go through this cycle in a day, it could easily turn out that more than 100!
  • Telephone. Your telephone rings. You take each call. It doesn’t matter whether you know the number or not – any call could turn out to be really important. You do not consciously refuse to pick up the phone when it rings.
  • A new e-mail – a pop-up or a sound. After all, you did switch on “pop-up alerts” and sounds to inform you of incoming mail. And you practically never switch off your mail client. Indeed, when you ignore the notification but then see an icon on the taskbar informing you of a new message (thus making you unable to concentrate), you take a look and read – after all, it could be important!

External distractions

The third category includes distractions over which we have very limited control and which are frequently associated with other people:

  • The people who surround us.While working, we perforce interact with others. We hear them talking. Oftentimes, their discussions are rather loud – and concern topics unconnected with work. Only infrequently do we tell these people that what they are doing disturbs our work; after all, they could say that I’m carping at them, right?
    And to make matters worse, once in a while someone pops round to chat with you. It doesn’t matter whether you’re doing something really important or not, you stop working and attend to him or her – one does have to be helpful and friendly!
  • Noise. Noise causes you to lose concentration – its sources can be the discussions of others, music turned up a notch too loud, sounds from the kitchen, a drill working, and many others. The people around you seem to be much more tolerant of noise, whereas you just can’t manage to concentrate. Sometimes you put on your headphones, but usually this doesn’t help one bit.

Concentration – what does out brain have to say on the matter?

As regards distractions, our brain has a few important limitations of which we really ought to be aware.

The power of veto

First of all, our “power of veto” – when we’re fighting a potential loss of concentration – is definitely short-lived. If we fail to react at once and decisively, we’re lost. Fortunately, this ability can be trained and developed like a muscle – all you need to do is apply it early on, quickly and frequently.

Our “brake” is very sensitive

Our ability to say “no” to various distractions is one of the functions governed by the prefrontal cortex – a most interesting lobe of the brain. The good news is that we can say “no” to many things, from unhealthy food down to a buzzing telephone, but the bad is that this is one of the most fuel-hungry systems of our brain.

In order for us to be able to say “no” quickly and firmly, our brain needs glucose and oxygen. The prefrontal cortex uses them up at an astonishing rate, and thus each such action costs us a lot of energy. For this reason, people who kick habits must regularly block their impulses, and in consequence, they walk around irritated and often burst out. Can you imagine a car which by the end of the day has hardly any brake fluid and can barely be stopped? It is the same with us:

We can refrain from eating sweets all day long, but if we do snap, it usually happens in the evening, when we’re running out of “brake fluid”. And, similarly, we are more prone to outbursts in the evening than in the morning. Evenings are reserved for doing the silliest things, which we have successfully stopped ourselves from doing throughout the day.

Our brain likes novelties

Our brain likes things that are novel and interesting. They spark it into life. Thus, the mechanical repetition of activities that do not interest us is in fact like asking the brain to react and find something more stimulating.

Our brain chooses things that are urgent

Once, there were no things in nature that were both unimportant and required an immediate reaction. A child crying, strange sounds in the bushes, the roll of thunder – all could spell sudden death.

Over time, the number of things which must be done in a short time and yet have no real significance increased (at this point I would like to refer you to the article about the Eisenhower Matrix which explores the differences between “important” and “urgent”). Unfortunately, our brain continues to react strongly to things that require an immediate reaction. Which workshop would you consider more interesting: “An interesting workshop about productivity”, or “An interesting workshop about productivity. Only two months left”?

If therefore the deadline is distant and the pressure of time is not yet upon us, we will be considerably more susceptible to distractions. In actual fact, our efficiency at work will increase along with the pressure of time – before taking a nose-dive at some point.

Our brain has two modes

Our brain operates in two modes: let us call them the “narrative” mode and the “here and now” mode. In the former, we process facts, information, and speech, and an internal monologue (or even dialog) appears. In the latter, the brain is preoccupied with analyzing the data that it receives through the senses and, to use a simplification, has no resources available for thinking. These are the moments when we are completely immersed in sounds or spectacular views, or focused on driving a bike or on steadying our breath.

It is worth mentioning that the regular training “here and now” training helps considerably lower the level of stress and anxiety, and also our internal “buzz”, thus allowing us to concentrate better.

Concentration and strategies of coping with distractions

Below are 7 methods and a few tools which may help you gain a better understanding of the issue of distractions.

1. Physiology – satisfy your body’s needs

Since our brain reacts to oxygen and glucose (and relations!), we must make sure that it is adequately provisioned if we want to stay free of distractions. Each blockage of distractions will cost the brain valuable energy without which it will be unable to cope in the longer term.

Thus, if you have trouble concentrating, you should invest in sleep, good nutrition, and physical exercise. Your brain must receive premium quality fuel. Eat high-quality food and do exercises to improve your circulation and thereby ensure that nourishment reaches those parts of the body which need it most. And catch up on your sleep once a week. It may turn out that it’ll be easier for you to concentrate – and also that you’ll have more patience with children and others around you.

However, watch out for the “quick snacks” that provide you with energy quickly, for in the long run, they cause more harm than good. Bad nutrition, a lack of exercise and low-quality sleep are, most, unfortunately, a strategy based on the premise “today I’ll borrow from tomorrow”.

2. Look after your mental condition. Lower the level of stress. Train your attentiveness.

Before I proceed to other, more practical strategies, I must write a few words about our psyche. Problems with concentration may in actual fact point to a high level of internal anxiety. This is like some very loud and obtrusive music, the source of which is within us.

Sometimes, the best possible investment in our concentration level will be to sign up for therapy or perhaps relieve our anxiety amongst close friends. If you have been accompanied by anxiety for any length of time and feel that this causes you to have trouble focusing, you should cut your suffering immediately!

I highly recommend that everyone, irrespective of the degree of their internal stress, start training their attentiveness, that is switching your brain to the “here and now” mode. Guests of Tim Ferriss’ podcast mention it as the habit most closely associated with people of success. I think that this is no coincidence.
I can also recommend two applications that help train your attentiveness: Headspace and Calm.

Listen to the interview with Andy, the creator of Headspace, and Jimmy Fallon (3 minutes 17 seconds):

3. Develop the habit of taking notes without interrupting your work

If you have a problem with ideas that come to your mind during work and cause you to completely lose focus, you must work on the “note down and continue” habit.

After a few weeks of training you’ll develop the reflex of noting down each new idea, so as not to lose them, and returning to work. And you can return to these new ideas when you finish your current task. Since the brain likes novelties, a fresh idea will always seem very attractive. When you work on this habit, you’ll soon see amazing results and, over time, come to the conclusion that it was worth it.

Obviously, you have to develop a system for processing such “written down ideas”, or otherwise your mind will continue to worry.

4. Block all sources of (automatic) notifications

Now we come to one of the most important issues – why must we control ourselves and our reactions to sources of a distraction if we can simply shut these sources off?

Mute your phone for some time. Hide it so that you don’t see it. Install a plug-in or an application that’ll block specific programs and websites. Close down your mail program. Switch your communicators to the “do not disturb” mode. If internet access is not indispensable for your current task, switch off Wi-Fi and data transmission in your phone. Having done this, try working for some 20-30 minutes; I’m sure you’ll be amazed by the result (take a look at the article on the Pomodoro technique). You can reply to your messages or call back – if necessary – at a later time.

Masters of productivity work in exactly such blocks of uninterrupted focus. A few times a day they cut themselves off from all distractions for periods ranging from 20 minutes to as many as two hours, and work with complete concentration. Quite obviously, certain matters do require an immediate reaction, and must, therefore, be provided with a separate channel of communication. But the majority of telephones have a “do not disturb” mode, in which you can determine the exceptions that will get through to you.

For many of us, the worst thing is trying to fight off the urge to constantly check news, and for this reason, it is highly recommended to erect a barrier that will provide some degree of protection. The following plug-ins and programs ought to help you focus:

5. Agree on principles of teamwork

Since we have no control over distractions that originate in other people or in the noise which they generate, the only option available to us is agreeing to certain principles of teamwork. Everyone complains about distractions and others getting in their way, so it is definitely worth working on coherent rules that could make everyone happy.

Think of them as the equivalent of traffic lights, which bring cohesion and order to the way we pass through intersections – their functioning is based on clear, easy to understand rules which free us from the burden of constantly watching our backs so as not to get run down.

I know teams that have developed a rule that between 10:00 and 12:00 they avoid having discussions in their room or open space. Some do not touch upon topics such as politics, sports or religion before lunch. Others use signs which are clearly visible to others (e.g. placed on their desks) and inform unequivocally that “I am absolutely focused. Please do not distract me – unless the matter is REALLY IMPORTANT”. Others still leave the common space if they have a telephone call lasting longer than 3 minutes. Each team is different and therefore each one should develop its own unique principles. The most important thing is for the rules to be fair, jointly agreed on, and observed by all.

6. Add some time pressure and make things a bit more interesting.

Since our brain likes things that are interesting and prefers a slight degree of time pressure, we can occasionally provide it with these stimuli in order to avoid distractions.

Shorten the time you have for completing a task or project. And make use of the opportunity to learn something. Think how you can make a task more interesting in and of itself. Your hormones will do the rest. An interesting project with a short deadline can generate immense – and unexpected – focus.

7. Prepare a strong emotional jolt.

When nothing seems to help, you can still fall back on a strong emotional jolt.

Sit down and imagine yourself in 10- or 20-years’ time if you had done nothing with the matter at hand. Imagine yourself looking back on these years, seeing chaos and nothing concrete or substantial. You’ll see hundreds of hours spent on Facebook and news portals, and dreams that have not, in the main, been fulfilled. See how your children or grandchildren took after you and cannot concentrate on one thing for even 10 minutes because they’re constantly jumping from topic to topic, while instead of reading books they go from one browser tab to another.

This strong emotional jolt will be helped by installing a plug-in that measures the time spent using various programs or wandering through websites:

Here is an example that shows that over the past six months or so I spent nearly 4 days on Facebook. But before then it was worse! Can you imagine yourself spending a week or two weeks per year (without sleeping or eating!) on social media? Years later, is this what I would really like to remember?


Everybody is different. For some, external distractions are the ones that they are absolutely unable to cope with, while others have no problem doing so. Some like to work wearing earphones, others simply cannot. And some of us struggle with internal anxiety, but for others the issue is nonexistent. For this reason everyone has to find specific solutions which will work best for him or her. What is effective for one person may not necessarily perform well for someone else.

I hope that the present article has provided you with a broader perspective of the issue of distractions, and also with specific methods that will allow you to fight back and regain full concentration.

PS The article was written in the course of 5-time blocks, during which I did not take 2 telephone calls (I called back) and did not reply immediately to 6 SMSs (one had to wait for nearly an hour), at the same time receiving 20 emails and 15 messages over social media.

Piotr Nabielec, PRODUKTYWNI.PL
Piotr Nabielec
Piotr helps people organize chaos, stop procrastinating and find the time for hobby and dreams. For the last 3,5 years, he leads with online and offline courses, webinars and blog. Before that he spent 10 years as a software developer and manager in IT. He loves practical hints and solutions and is a fan of the Slow movement. TEDx speaker. As a hobby, he plays drums and guitar, travel and does various kind of sports.