It’s no secret that the key to staying focused is to remove distractions—but what if there are psychological distractions that you don’t even consciously notice?
Some distractions are obvious—the email pop-up notification you get while busy at work, the text message from a friend, the ever-present social media tab that’s only one click away. But what about those that are not so obvious? The pile of paper sitting on your work desk, the bundle of clothes sitting in your lounge room, or the other bits and pieces floating around your work or home spaces. How do you beat those distractions? What about your own thoughts; how do you get away from those?
The answer to the first question is easy (at least in theory): de-cluttering. Tidying your work spaces is not the tool of the master procrastinator; it will actually help you stay on task. And as for your own thoughts…well it turns out that taking breaks are also not just for the procrastinators; well-timed diversions can actually help you keep your mind focused and attentive too.
The photos on our walls, the books and trinkets on our shelves, and the personal items we surround ourselves with create a sense of “psychological home” where we can see our sense of self reflected. In fact, attachment to your home can foster greater wellbeing. However, too much clutter can start to resemble a threat to your personal space and contribute to feelings of stress and displacement.
While stress can negatively affect your ability to focus, clutter can also impact your ability to concentrate more directly. Our visual system is only capable of processing a limited number of items at any one time. This means that the more items there are in your field of view, the harder it is for your brain to focus on any one of them. While it might not seem like it at the time, while you are trying to focus your attention on your work, your brain is also trying to process the letter sitting on your desk next to you, the photo of your children next to your computer, and the coffee mug next to your keyboard. No wonder you have trouble focusing!
Have you ever felt like the more you focused on a long or difficult task, the more difficult it seemed to become? Well you are not alone—psychologists have long been interested in the fact that our focus on tasks tends to deplete the longer we are trying to pay attention. Furthermore, researchers may have also stumbled upon the cure: doing something else.
Researchers have described the loss of focus as a little bit like how you get used to sensory experiences. For example, when you first put your shirt on in the morning you can feel how it sits on your body, but you soon forget about that feeling and will not notice it again for the rest of the day. So what’s the best way to start noticing how your shirt feels again? Put a new one on.
Paying attention for long periods of time works the same way—after a while you just stop paying attention. But just like the shirt on your back, moving to a new task, even briefly, can renew your focus on the original task. One study found that people who took a very brief break in the middle of a task showed no decline in focus at all, while those who did not take breaks all lost focus.
Of course, don’t take this too far. We all know how the “five-minute break” that lasts four hours can end up!
References available upon request.