Do you find that first thing in the morning you plan to complete several tasks, and yet, despite your good intentions, some tasks remain undone? It often puzzles us when we do not do what we intended to do, such as continuing with a work project or an academic assignment.

At other times, we know the tasks are beneficial even though we may not like to do them, such as paying bills or getting housework done.

We are now used to having our phones with us all the time. They enable us to connect with others and have access to information. Phones (and other digital devices) have significant advantages, but they also can limit our capacity to pay attention.

Research shows that just having our phone within our range of vision is distracting (Ward et al., 2018). As a result, our work suffers.

It takes longer to finish things and we may miss deadlines, leaving us feeling frustrated and concerned about potential negative consequences.

Sometimes we think we can multitask, going from one task to another, having a sense that we are being productive. However, the constant switching is demanding on our energy resources as it takes effort to bring our attention back to the task, plus the time delay to refocus and find our place to continue with what we were doing.

Being distracted not only affects our work, but it also impacts our relationships and sense of wellbeing. When distracted, we miss being in the present moment. It deprives us from connecting with people and experiencing events.

We can miss what is being said in conversations, and others are likely to notice that we are not listening, having a negative impact on our relationships.

Being present, focusing on what is happening now, is essential to maintain our relationships. When we pay attention, we can immerse ourselves in the conversation and feel a sense of connection and wellbeing (Jha, 2021).

We want to pay attention in situations where we know we must keep track of our train of thought and follow through with our actions. We need to identify what to focus on and disregard other stimuli so that we can concentrate our effort on what we need to do.

Why do we get distracted?

We are hard-wired to pay attention to salient elements in our environment, to detect whether or not something is dangerous to protect ourselves. For example, we react automatically to noise or sudden changes in our environment.

We need to check if it is something we need to respond to, and if all is ok, we can continue with our tasks.

We also get distracted by external and by internal triggers. Often, our attention drifts to other topics or thoughts about other things interrupt our concentration.

It also distracted us when we notice we are cold or tired. It is not unusual to be reading a text for a while, only to realise that we have lost track and do not understand the content, so we have to read it again.

In evolutionary terms, our brain has been designed to move away from what is uncomfortable and choose what is easier and comfortable to save energy for survival. So, when dealing with difficult tasks, we are more likely to get distracted and prefer to do another activity that is easier or entertaining (Jha, 2021).

Fortunately, our brain is malleable and we can train to sustain our focus on a task. We can develop the skill of concentrating for longer by noticing when we get distracted and learn to tolerate feeling uncomfortable when tasks are hard, and gently return to the task without self-criticism.

As we practise changing our responses to distractions, we get used to noticing and persevering with our efforts, our ability to understand and remember information will improve (Styles, 2006).

Eyal (2019) illustrates our actions during the day as if in a dimension. There are situations where we can experience forces that pull us away, distracting us from what we want to do. And we can experience forces that pull us towards our goals, which create traction so we can keep going in the direction we intend to go.

So, to make progress in our work, we need to identify what actions or behaviours have traction – what will enable us to stick to our task and pull forward. One way to engage us in a task is by being curious about what we can learn.

How can we boost our capacity to concentrate better?

Practice self-awareness: When distracted by thoughts, feelings or physical sensations, notice them without judgement. When we keep in mind that these distractions are transient, we can learn to let them go by without viewing them as labels that limit us.

The practice of being mindful can reduce stress and improve health and our ability to concentrate. When we pay attention to what we are doing now, we can experience events and learn from them (Dixit, 2008).

Reframe the task: Instead of focusing on how difficult the task is, or on how frustrated or nervous we feel, we can focus on why we want to do the task. What are the benefits of completing it? It is also helpful to engage our curiosity by asking questions.

For example: “How can we apply the content in a specific situation?”, or “How can we link the content to other material we have been looking at?”

Acknowledge the difficulties: We spend time and effort frustrated by the difficulty of the task, almost wishing it to be easier. Or, we wonder if it is hard for us then it must be because we cannot do it, further eroding our confidence in our abilities.

Keeping in mind that when learning something new, we are stretching beyond our comfort zone so tasks will be hard, as they are unfamiliar to us. We can then focus our efforts on understanding the task, find ways to problem-solve challenges and persevere with our efforts (Jha, 2021).

Create cues: Having reminders of what we want to do will prompt action. For example, a post-it note with a message reminding us of what are our priorities, and details of the steps we will take to complete the task. Cues help us follow through with our intention (Eyal, 2019).

Leave the phone out of view: Just having the phone in sight is distracting. We can see it in the periphery with its potential for providing an easy distraction.

When we shift from the task to our phones, it interrupts our train of thought, making it harder to problem-solve the next step in our task. Keeping our phone out of view reduces stimulation and distraction (Ward et al., 2018)

Focus on one task: We need to select a task, direct our attention to it, and block out other stimuli. For example, if working on a report or a dissertation, we can choose a section and then a topic with it, while letting noise from traffic or people chatting next door in the background (Jha, 2021).

“It is of the highest importance in the art of detection to be able to recognize, out of a number of facts, which are incidental and which vital. Otherwise your energy and attention must be dissipated instead of being concentrated.” (Sherlock Holmes/Conan-Doyle)



Dixit, Jay. “The art of now: six steps to living in the moment: we live in the age of distraction. Yet one of life’s sharpest paradoxes is that your brightest future hinges on your ability to pay attention to the present.” Psychology Today, vol. 41, no. 6, Nov.-Dec. 2008, pp. 62+. Gale General OneFile, link.gale.com/apps/doc/A188795581/ITOF?u=rdg&sid=summon&xid=ae9562fd. Accessed 11 Feb. 2023

Eyal, N. (2019) Indistractable. How to control your attention and choose your life. London: Bloomsbury Publishing.

Jha, A. P. (2021) Peak mind. 12 minutes a day to find your focus, meet the change and be fully present when it matters most. London: Piatkus.

Smallwood, J., McSpadden, M. & Schooler, J.W. When attention matters: The curious incident of the wandering mind. Memory & Cognition 36, 1144–1150 (2008). https://doi.org/10.3758/MC.36.6.1144

Styles, E. (2006) The psychology of attention (2nd edition). London: Routledge.

Ward, A.F., Duke, K., Gneezy, A., and Bos, M.W. (2017) Brain drain:The mere presence of one’s own smartphone reduces available cognitive capacity. Journal of the Association for Consumer Research 2017 2:2, 140-154 

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