I blog on Brain-Based Learning, Metacognition, EdTech, and Social-Emotional Learning. I am the author of the Crush School Series of Books, which help students understand how their brains process information and learn. I also wrote The Power of Three: How to Simplify Your Life to Amplify Your Personal and Professional Success, but be warned that it's meant for adults who want to thrive and are comfortable with four letter words.

Achieving And Maintaining Focus In The Age Of Distraction And Anxiety

Achieving And Maintaining Focus In The Age Of Distraction And Anxiety

Do you ever pick up your smartphone to do one thing and end up doing five other things before you get to the one thing you really need to do?

Or worse, you set out to do one thing but become distracted by all the other things gifted to you by our technological advancement and you completely forget the one thing you really wanted to accomplish?

Some experts call it digital dementia and while it sounds cool it isn't that great. As we are becoming more accustomed to outsourcing our brain functions to digital devices and losing abilities such as being able to compute in our head we are also allowing ourselves to be more distracted.

It doesn't just happen to us. While it may seem that way it is in fact us who allow ourselves to become more distracted.

As the blue light emitted by the screen flashes across our field of view and the dopamine floods our brain we check out. We immerse ourselves in the digital world that opens up right in front of our eyes and if we don't consciously consider what is happening (and we most often don't) we lose touch with reality. That other world becomes our reality. 

Don't worry. I'm not about to start making a case against smart phone use. I love my iPhone and have a hard time imagining life without it. I use it for communication, entertainment, and self-improvement. I just notice that when I am not mindful of how I use my phone and when, I become easily distracted and get sucked into the virtual and pulled away from whatever real project I'm supposed to be working on. 

And, while the phone can be a distraction it's not the only distraction. There are many others you have to manage.

I use the word manage because eliminating all distractions is impossible and if you want to maintain focus when working on a particular project you'll need to have contingencies in place to manage the different distractions life will throw at you.

Dealing With Phone Distractions

I found the best way to avoid being distracted by my phone is to use it. More specifically, I give it a job. Say I'm writing a blog post like now. I put my phone in airplane mode and use it to time my work sessions. I use a productivity app that allows me to set 25-minute chunks of work time and 5-minute breaks. I hit start and then I work for 25-minutes on one thing only: writing. 

Dealing With People Distractions

What do you do when you're in a place where it's easy to be distracted by other people?

Say you’re in a busy place such as work, cafe, or house bustling with activity. Let everyone around know what you’re trying to accomplish. Ask the waiter, or the coworkers, or your wife and kids to give you 25 uninterrupted minutes. Close the door or find a remote corner if you can. Then work on only one thing; the task you set out to work on.

Dealing With Workspace Distractions

First, keep your workspace organized. Make sure the surface is clean so you’re eyes do not keep wandering to that dried out banana bread crumb or week-old coffee stain.

Remove all clutter. If possible, remove all but the few things you need to accomplish your task. While doing so may seem unnecessarily sterile your brain will be glad you reduced the number of things it can be distracted or overwhelmed by.

Dealing With Other Distractions

The truth is that you can't always know all the sources of potential distractions, but if you accept they will happen you can plan for them.

With experience you will get good at identifying potential distractions and preemptively striking to avoid them. This will depend on the environment you choose to do your work in.

For example, if noise bothers you you might choose to buy noise cancelling headphones. If a guy sitting at the nearby cafe table is giving off inexplicable odors know that this will distract you more than once and move away. Just make sure to maintain a subtle pleasant smile as you do this to avoid hurting his feeling and feeling guilty for avoiding his person.


Lighting plays a key role in maintaining focus as well. Experts suggest you find natural light and avoid the enervating fluorescent light so often present in hospitals, places of work, and schools. Good luck with that!

But seriously, using a cool or blue light desk lamp is a better alternative if you do not have access to natural light. Scientific studies indeed suggest that cool color lighting, which has higher temperature, improves mood and attentiveness leading to higher productivity. Avoid dim lighting as it can make you drowsy and hurt your focus.

Dealing With Stress and Anxiety

While you might not have previously known how different lighting affects your mood you probably realize how stress affects it. It is nearly impossible to focus when you’re constantly stressed because of the stress hormones cortisol and norepinephrine wreaking havoc in your brain. While normal levels are necessary for maintaining health, alertness, and even focus too much cortisol and norepinephrine does the opposite.

The human brain’s ability focus and link new neurons is severely compromised when it experiences anxiety. This leads to decrease in creativity leading to the decrease in productivity. Thus, minimizing stress is key to maintaining your top performance.

Perception Vs. Reality

Awareness is the first step to managing stress. While most people experience anxiety few consider the fact that most events we fear never materialize. A Cornell University scientists discovered that 85% of that which we fear never happens and an additional 12% of our worries always turn out better than expected. The catastrophic thinking we experience is a result of the dangerous human past that has stuck with us despite the fact that we have been the top predator in our environment for thousands of years now. Armed with this knowledge you can take more risks and stress less.

Feed Your Mind The Right Stuff

Another way to minimize stress is to be conscious of what you feed your brain. And while brain-healthy diet is important - so make sure to eat avocados, eggs, blueberries, walnuts, salmon, and green leafy veggies - it may be even more crucial to avoid the constant input of negative and sensationalized information most news channels focus on.

Instead, consume books, audio, videos, and other material that focuses on personal and professional growth, uplifts, and spreads hope. I am not saying you should ignore all of the bad news. What I suggest is that you become conscious of the pervasiveness of it and that you limit your intake.

Stress Reduction Techniques

Research proves that decreasing stress can be as simple as using auto suggestion and visualization. One way to use these tools is to spend a few minutes each day imagining various positive outcomes that will happen and telling yourself things you might be anxious about will turn out okay. It may seem weird or corny but it works.

Meditation is another proven method for stress reduction. And, it does not need to be a huge undertaking. Allowing 5 to 10 minutes to quiet your mind and listen to yourself breathe works magic. In fact, just taking deep 4-second breaths will aid stress relief as you oxygenate your body and mind. 2 second in. 2 seconds out. Yes you can.

The last two are no brainers: sleep and move.

Getting adequate sleep equates 7 to 9 hours of sleep for adults. Everyone is different but it is clear that we focus better, produce more, and are more creative when we’re well rested. Besides the desired formation of neural connections while we sleep our brain relaxes and allows brain fluid to flush out the pesky metabolic toxins that otherwise slow our processing, cloud our judgement, and contribute to stress buildup.  

And even as little as four minutes of exercise in the morning helps regulate cortisol release which in turn leads to better stress management and helps you focus, be more productive, and positively impacts your sleep cycle.

Achieving And Maintaining Focus

As it turns out, the two overarching themes to achieving and maintaining total focus are being intentional and planning. It all starts with careful consideration of your work environment and how you use your work tools. It involves planning what you will work on, how you will minimize distractions, and how you will manage stress in advance. Finally, achieving total focus is directly related to what you feed your body and mind so when it’s time to be productive your performance is optimized because your entire being is nourished, rested, and alert.

What is perhaps the best news in all this is that you can train yourself to focus. You can improve your focus. If you’re a complete mess right now start small. Maybe instead of doing 25-minute pomodoros begin by planning and performing in 10-minute chunks of time. Then, slowly build up to 25 minutes. The key is to start building the focus muscle and to keep exercising it.

Just as Rome wasn’t built in one day Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson wasn’t always buff. He can even sing a little too.

But don't take my word for it. Just grab your phone and look up "Moana Soundtrack" on YouTube. Or, if you need to get something done pronto, put it in airplane mode, set the timer to 25 minutes, and get to work.


I hope you found this article helpful. If you did share the info with those who may benefit. I frequently write about learning, teaching and training, and success strategies so if you'd like to receive my future posts sign up for my newsletter below.