How to Stay Focused in a Digital World

23 Feb How to Stay Focused in a Digital World

Human attention is one of the most sought after commodities in the world today. Advertisers, gadget manufacturers, app developers and employers are scrambling for a share of this scarce and transient resource.

The Attention Economy has resulted in what is called “hyper-fragmention”, with digital distractions increasingly finding their way onto our desks and into our pockets. Consider all of the sensory inputs that compete for our attention every day (app notifications, social media alerts, email, text messages, instant messenger, chat apps, calendar reminders, phone calls).

Behavioural designers have mastered the art of “attention-harvesting”, which means they know how to get us hooked. Unless we develop the skills required to navigate modern information density, we can quickly start to feel overwhelmed. This leads to confusion, inactivity and lowered resilience.

Being aware that digital distractions are impacting productivity is the first step towards countering their influence and progressing toward our dreams.

Be Wary of Digital Rabbit Holes

Author of The Attention Merchants, Tim Wu, warns that we should avoid falling prey to the seduction of endless digital rabbit holes. An example of a rabbit hole is the trend towards “infinite scrolling”, as seen in Instagram and Facebook, where you seldom reach the bottom of the timeline.

Equally distracting are apps that boost dopamine levels by creating a sense of expectation and reward. Mauricio Delgado, Associate Professor of Psychology at Rutgers University, observed that social media stimuli have a similar neurological effect on consumers as securing the staples of life. This means that if you’re getting positive feedback in social media—likes, shares and retweets— you will be likely to seek out more social reinforcement.

Professor Delgado said, “Often, if you have the earliest predictor of a reward—a sign of a social media alert, like your phone buzzing—you get a rush of dopamine from that condition stimulus. That might trigger you to go check out the outcome, to see what it is. That type of reinforcement is something that you now seek out.”

Rise Above Reactivity

To gain presence of mind and distraction-free focus requires preparation, practice and persistence.

The first step is to rise above reactivity. When you feel distracted or overwhelmed by sensory inputs: pause, exhale, relax the body, and soften the face. Simply drop your mind into the feeling of breathing. Watch the rise and fall of your belly. Complete the exhalation fully and seek quietness in the moment.

Dr Sven Hansen, Founder of The Resilience Institute, said, “The mind tends to dart about, scanning the environment for stimulus. Thoughts, sounds, chores and feelings intrude. Attention training is learning to direct your attention. Imagine this attention like a sharp, focused and steady beam of torchlight. Now be the force that controls the torch.”

Developing presence is manifested as a wide-angle awareness. You are the holder of the torch, alert and aware of all sensory stimulus, feelings and thoughts. The skilled practitioner of attention control knows how to resist attachment to objects beyond the beam of focus. A mind that becomes distracted by unimportant details will quickly drift into the past or future.


Energy Flows Where Attention Goes

In David Rock’s book, Your Brain At Work, he reports that employees spend an average of 11 minutes on a project before being distracted. After an interruption it takes them 25 minutes to return to the original task, if they do at all.

Every time you focus your attention you expend a measurable amount of glucose and other metabolic resources. The more you are distracted, the less energy you have for subsequent tasks. In a highly-distracted environment this can quickly result in exhaustion, with slim resources available to effectively tackle energy-intensive tasks like self-control and decision-making.

If we look to the world’s top performers – individuals who regularly reach flow state awareness – a common characteristic is that they are calm, well-prepared, and distraction-free. This is our objective.

7 Practical Tips for Achieving Focus

So how do we learn how to focus, accomplish more and, ultimately, experience flow?

1. Sleep well, stay fit and eat breakfast

To be resilient requires fine-tuning several skills and habits. Sleep, fitness and nutrition provide the foundations for optimal performance, including attention control.

2. Practice Focus

Take time each day to direct 100% of your attention to something. Start with bursts of five minutes and work up to 30 minutes. Pick a meaningful focus to work on (e.g. a single task).

Multitasking is unproductive, so even if you are under pressure, focus on one thing while keeping the list of other things “out of mind” until complete.

3. Disconnect devices and disable notifications

This includes Email, Phone, Skype and Facebook. Productivity master Tim Ferriss recommends checking email once or twice per day, and setting a time limit for this task. By committing to a low-information diet you allow yourself space to focus on output instead of input.

Experiment and find a balance between connection to the outside world, and time allocated for deliberate productivity.

4. Take regular recovery breaks

Taking time to rest and rejuvenate between tasks is essential. Give yourself permission to switch off the beam of focus and to relax completely. Like a muscle, your attention control will keep growing stronger.

5. Make your work meaningful

Whether you use reframing techniques to change how you view your work, or make significant life changes, it helps if you can find meaning in the tasks at hand. As Steve Jobs said, “I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?” And whenever the answer has been “No” for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.”

6. Use technology to help

Technology is not all bad. Some devices, like those created by Heart Math, are designed to track heart rate variability (HRV) and vagal tone. You receive visual heart rhythm feedback and training in real time, to help you shift into more focused and positive emotional states.

Apps like Offtime for Android, Forest for iPhone and Hey Focus for Mac help you disconnect, blocking your devices, so that you are able to work distraction-free for predetermined periods of time.

7. Learn techniques from an expert

Distractibility causes you to lose focus on your key goals and results in productivity loss. Relaxed effectiveness is the goal. Dr Sven Hansen teaches how impulse control, emotional intelligence, positivity and attention control are deeply linked. Mastery of what he terms “Performance Mindset” is a vital step towards achieving flow, which will transform your life and place you in the realms of expert performers.


Experience the High Performance Toolkit, which is a video program delivered by Dr Sven Hansen, covering all of the techniques mentioned in #7 above.

Bradley Hook is a writer with over 18 years of experience working within the digital landscape.