This way you can concentrate on your work without digital distractions

We all find long-term focus on one task much more difficult today than it was twenty years ago. Distractions lurk around every corner. Don’t live your day at the mercy of notifications, work more efficiently and claim your private time for things that really bring you satisfaction with a few tips.

In 2004, an employee spent an average of 2.5 minutes on a single task before switching. After 2.5 minutes, a spreadsheet gave way to a web page, a web page to an email, the email to an internal application… Doesn’t that sound like a lot? By 2012, the average time spent on a single task had already dropped to 75 seconds. Today, according to the New York Times, we are at 47 seconds.

In addition to being indispensable tools, our computers have also become sources of distraction. Emails, instant messages, notifications about meetings you may or may not want to attend… As if that wasn’t enough, we all have a loud pocket computer to and from work. WhatsApps from friends or colleagues, Instagram, multiple emails… It just had to be important. It is very difficult for our brain and therefore ourselves to ignore such stimuli. They are signs of something new, whatever it is, and we want to know what.

Express train to a burnout

It gets worse. Research shows that it can take up to 23 minutes after a break before you are fully focused on a specific task again. With average blocks of uninterrupted work lasting barely a minute, most people don’t get there. The good news: working with all these interruptions is possible. In fact, in some cases you can even finish a task faster.

Working with frequent interruptions creates more frustration and stress.

The downside: not only does the quality of work decrease, research shows that working with frequent interruptions leads to more stress, a feeling that the workload is much higher, more frustration, more perceived pressure and more effort. So the way notifications and other forms of distraction dominate our daily lives is a path to burnout.

Learn to focus again

So the problem is that we all find it difficult to focus on one task for a long time, even though it is the healthiest way to solve a task. This applies not only in a work context, but also after working hours, where smartphones definitely interrupt other activities. Even watching television is difficult for many people without scrolling through an app at the same time, and it’s mentally draining.

Time for solutions. Simply ignoring notifications is not the answer. It creates new stress. Focusing is something you can (and perhaps should) relearn, and you can do so with the help of some digital tools.

Windows helps (sometimes)

Big companies are starting to realize that too. Microsoft offers the most help with the feature Focus, although Windows Builder partially solves a problem of its own making. Focus saves you from a deluge of distracting notifications in the Windows 11 notification center.

Focus can be found in Windows 11 via the notification center in the taskbar at the bottom right. The feature turns off notifications, tells you when to pause and, if desired, integrates with your to-do list and Spotify.

When you activate Focus, you switch automatically Do not disturb i. This will turn off most notifications. In addition, applications on the taskbar no longer flash and no badges appear to indicate notifications. In other words, Windows 11 stops the bells and whistles that prompt your primate brain to quickly click on something.

Focus is in the notification center on the taskbar. If you click on it, a timer will appear where you can set how long a session can last. You also immediately see your tasks when you use that function, and you can set a daily goal. Focus not only helps you work without distractions, but also encourages you to take breaks.

You must learn to concentrate

That brings us to another point. Concentrating for long periods of time is not something everyone can do overnight. Think of it like a sport: if you never run, you won’t immediately complete the 10 Miles of Antwerp with willpower alone. You need training. Concentration can exhaust you and you need to replenish it. So start with short focus intervals of, for example, fifteen minutes and then take a five minute break. Build it up to 25 minutes.

Sets of 25 minutes of uninterrupted focus followed by a five-minute break have a name: the Pomodoro Technique. The message is to be strict: you must not interrupt a focused session that has started, or you must start again. Reverse the rest intervals and take a longer break after four sessions. The focus function in Windows automatically sends you a reminder of such a break.

You are welcome to let yourself go during that break. Grab your smartphone, scroll through your feeds, click on all your notifications… If you feel that urge and it gives you peace of mind, then it’s a good break.

Read a book

Struggling to focus for 15 minutes or 25 minutes? Read a book. So a physical book. Yet other research shows that our brains react differently to printed text. You usually read them more thoroughly with more critical reflection. It contrasts with the way we read content on a screen. New information, volatility and rolling take precedence.

Because we do it so often, it has become our default way of reading. By consciously reading a book for twenty minutes every day, you can turn it around. Again: Don’t expect miracles from day one: Train and persevere is the message.

Take responsibility for your emails

What about your emails and meetings with colleagues? Structure and good agreements are essential. We have already listed tips on how to manage your inbox efficiently, but they are not enough if you immediately jump on every new email. If your work schedule allows, schedule email moments. For example, go through your mailbox two or three times a day: in the morning, before or after dinner and at the end of the working day.

also read

How can you schedule emails in Outlook and Gmail?

After a while, you will learn how much time you have to stretch to keep your mailbox in order. That time is also focus time: When you go through your inbox for 25 minutes, you get more done than when you try to do everything at once, and it gives you peace of mind again. Is it really urgent? Then a colleague should approach you in a different way.

Asynchronous meetings

The second way often takes the form of a chat message via Teams or Slack. Such messages are also distracting, but of course work is often a social activity. It is not always possible or desirable to cut oneself off completely from colleagues. This is exactly why you set focus time at certain times of the day.

If someone really needs your attention during focus time, for example, they can send a priority report via Teams, which still gets through. You will notice that this does not happen very often. In Teams, you do this via the exclamation mark at the bottom: Set delivery options.

If you really have to, you can still ask for the attention of colleagues.

You can also look at the importance of meetings. Are they really useful? Salesforce is heavily committed to asynchronous communication with Slack. With Slack Clips, for example, someone can ask a detailed question on video without you needing to be present. You listen to the question when it suits you, look up what is needed if necessary, and send back an answer at a time that suits you. After all, many meetings are about project updates, and these can be processed perfectly asynchronously.

Silent smartphone

That leaves us with the pesky smartphone. You have to put that away too. Setting the device to silent already helps. When your mobile phone doesn’t vibrate, you don’t have to deal with the almost involuntary reflex to pick it up. Some employees must be available by phone 24/7, but most are not. So you are welcome to turn off notifications completely during the focus time via Do not disturbfunction in Android or iOS. But what if your partner calls or the little rascal is in distress? You can perfectly add contacts as an exception.

Again, none of this means you should ignore notifications and messages. As we mentioned above, this is entirely possible for short breaks. As long as notifications don’t constantly disturb you. You decide when to look at your phone, not the other way around.

All dependent

In practice, it is easier said than done. The latest Digimeter shows that 42 percent of Flemish people feel dependent or addicted to their smartphone. Do you feel accused? So don’t go cold Turkey. Conscious handling of the phone is the solution. As mentioned, try to use your device during the breaks so that you are not disturbed during activities. This applies not only at work, but also at home. There you can follow a similar schedule: 25 minutes of reading, eating with the family, watching TV… followed by five minutes of using your mobile phone.

Hours also help. Do you open Instagram or your work email because you need to? Or out of habit? If you set a mobile timer on apps that suck up too much of your time, you’ll get a better handle on it. You can still ignore such a timer, but the message forces you to think, “do I really want to scroll through this app again right now?”

Sarcophagus for your phone

Is that not enough? Then you are still not alone. Before the holidays, we received an email from Stolp: a start-up from Antwerp that has essentially developed the world’s most expensive flight mode. Stolp is a very nice Faraday cage in which you place your smartphone.

Post is essentially a Faraday cage.

With the lid on, notifications no longer come in and your phone is out of sight. The ritual helps to really distance yourself from the smartphone. We fitted a self-diagnosed smartphone addict with a Stolp over Christmas, with positive results. “When the smartphone is down, you really think twice before you grab it, and I usually don’t,” it says. Placing the device under it effectively remains a challenge.

In your organization, you can help cultivate such a habit, for example by encouraging people to effectively put their phones away during lunch breaks, or by keeping smartphones out of reach during a (useful) meeting.

Focus and ambition

At least there is light at the end of the tunnel. Digital distractions are everywhere, but with the right strategy and a little digital help, you can minimize them. Let’s summarize the essence:

  • Schedule blocks of focus time during working hours, ban all forms of messaging.
  • Breaks are as important as focus time, it’s okay to spend it on notifications.
  • The focus function in Windows is a handy tool.
  • Decide for yourself when you go through your mailbox.
  • Put your smartphone away from time to time and ask yourself why you open a particular app.
  • You need to learn to concentrate (again), reading a book is good exercise.

With these tips and a little ambition, you can go far. The end goal does not have to be perfection. If you manage to regularly plan efficient blocks where you can work on one task without interruption and without stress, this will have a positive impact on the way you experience your work.

If you are also worried about your relationship with your smartphone outside of working hours, the tips and routines will help you get better control of what you do, when and with how much attention.

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