Always feeling distracted? Do these 3 things when you can’t concentrate

Can't concentrate
Mind map mindmap
Journal journalling journaling
free writing

Everything around you is designed to keep you distracted

Perhaps you’ve noticed this, but everything around you, everything you consume is engineered to keep you plugged in and distracted.

This means that you’re distracted every damn waking moment. This is the digital equivalent of bread and circuses.

And all of this means that concentration is now a superpower. If you can learn to concentrate and overcome the constant noise and distraction you’ll be able to get down to the DEEP WORK that you really crave.

Deep work is that kinda work that feels good… where you lose track of time… find your flow state… and actually get hard shit done. More than concentration, the ability to do deep work is the real secret to productivity and success.

Deep work is hard to describe and if you do try and describe it you end using new-age mumbo jumbo adjective phrases. I’ve already used too many of them so I’m gonna stop that right now.

But never mind that. I must be getting distracted. Let’s get back to the problem.

  • You always feel distracted.
  • Your thoughts are disorganised.
  • You can’t concentrate.
  • Your mind is racing and won’t settle.
  • You can’t focus on a single task for a sustained length of time.
  • You’re not doing the DEEP WORK that you need to do.
  • You feel like crap at the end of the day because you know – in your heart of hearts – that you achieved nothing.

Each of these bullet points above essentially says the same thing. You need to break this cycle of distraction if you want to be productive. Or even if you just want to get your life back.

Especially if you want your life back.

And here’s how. Or, at least, here’s how I do it. There are three things that have worked for me when it comes to dealing with the distracted and disjointed nature of work in the 21st century.

Usually, I need to do one or more of these PRIOR to getting down to doing the DEEP WORK or concentrating for any length of time.

None of this is rocket science. But you need to hear it otherwise you wouldn’t be reading, right? Here we go:

  1. Wearing headphones to block out sounds.
  2. Using mind mapping to do brain dumps.
  3. Journalling to increase the signal to noise ration inside your brain.

Wear headphones to block out distractions

If you don’t already, you should consider wearing headphones when you’re working. There are a whole bunch of advantages.

If you have to work in an environment with other people around, every interruption is like a system reset. It takes a lot of mental resources to deal with each distraction and then get back on task.

Wearing headphones sends a message that you’re “busy” and you don’t want to be distracted.

If you’re working at home, at the kitchen table, and you’ve got kids around then it’s a message that “Dad’s at work right now” or something similar.

Sometimes, I don’t even put music on… I just pop the headphones on or earbuds in. If you have nice noise cancelling headphones this is blissful. But even if you haven’t it still kinda feels nice and helps block out some sounds.

Often, though, I will put a single instrumental track on repeat. If that sounds weird, I guess it is a little. One track on repeat… the same thing again and again and again…

Instrumental is important… No vocals or lyrics – at least none that you can understand.

If you have to write or think, you probably need to use the language processing part of your brain. And if this part of your brain is trying to decode the lyrics of your favourite singer then you’re not going to be able to focus properly on what you have to write or think about.

It’s all about resource allocation.

There are some exceptions to this, of course. If you are a graphic designer or an artist, then you might not need to use the language processing part of your brain to work. In fact, you might be able to listen to podcasts or audiobooks without being distracted.

However, most of us will need to allocate resources from our audio cortex to whatever it is that we’re writing, creating or thinking about.

I like to put on something hypnotic, like Tycho or – often – synthwave, like this playlist. Not all synthwave is instrumental, but usually any vocals are in the background.

When you put one track on repeat, it eventually fades into the background. You’ll stop noticing that it’s there. I said it was weird, but try it a few times and you’ll see I’m right.

When you do this it’s a bit like meditation. The repetition of the same music tends to stop me from being distracted, helps me “zone out” and gets into a flow state where I can write without other thoughts distracting me.

Of course, the music also helps to block out all other noises and audible distractions that might be happening around me.

Distracted…? Put that synthwave on.

Use a mind map to do a brain dump

Mind mapping allows me to do a mega brain dump of what’s in my head at any particular time. If you’re new to mind mapping then do a search online for examples and have a play with different styles.

For me, it’s the mental equivalent of tidying my desk in my office. Or sorting a huge pile of files. Mind maps are great for reining in your distracted thoughts.

I use big branches for big tasks, events, projects or ideas. And then I use smaller branches with LOTS of detail… as much detail as I need to capture everything else that is swilling around inside my brain.

Sometimes I need to have several goes at this if there’s a lot of information. This may sound tedious, but the process of redoing a mind map means that you are organising, categorising and re-organising the information.

This helps you declutter your distracted thoughts. It’s like Marie Kondo for your brain.

Use free writing to get started journalling

I’ve written a lot about writing both here on my own blog and elsewhere. But I want to zoom in on two things that are related in my mind. These are free writing and journalling.

Journalling is a lot like weightlifting. It allows me to build writing muscle.

But to get really fit I need to concentrate (and make sure I’m warmed up) so I use a kind of journalling called Free Writing.

Free writing is super simple and really helps if you’re feeling distracted and don’t know how to beat it.

Anyone can do it. And you’ll see results if you are consistent. Just do this one thing on it’s own and you’ll end up less distracted.

  1. Set a timer for 10 minutes.
  2. Write with a pen on paper. 
  3. Don’t stop.
  4. Write anything even “I don’t know what to write I don’t know what to write I don’t know what to write”
  5. Stop when the timer goes off
  6. Count your words words and log them.
  7. Repeat every day for 1 month

Most people find it help to do this kind of writing at a regular time every day. This might be first think in the morning or last thing at night. It doesn’t matter too much but – just like going to the gym or working out – you need to find a routine that works for you.

If you really want to get into this, you might find it interesting and useful to graph your word count. I’d advise you to set some goals as well but be aware of what is going to happen over time.

For example, most people – in my experience – can double or triple the amount that they can write in 10 minutes.

So, set a goal: 2x or 3x whatever you write on the first time. But also beware of the following:

  • You need to commit to doing this kind of free writing journal writing for the 10 minutes every single damn day for at least one month.
  • You will hit a plateau after awhile. You’ll see this clearly if you make a graph of your word count.
  • Your hands will cramp but this will get better as you build up the muscles you need to hold a pen for 10 minutes and write without stopping.

And yes, you have to use a pen. No, you can’t use a pencil. If you make a mistake just ignore it. Or put a line through it and carry on. Don’t be a crybaby about this. Just trust me.

There you have it… three actionable strategies you can implement right now to combat the distracted thought patterns that are plaguing you.

Want some more?

If you found that useful, there’s more here below in a series of guest posts I wrote when I wasn’t feeling distracted:

And if you’re feeling distracted and looking for a diversion from all of this then you might enjoy this piece I wrote on Creativity.

I’ve also written an eBook on how to get started writing long-form content. It’s called:

In my book I discuss free writing, mind mapping, using outlines and a whole lot of other stuff about how to write long-form content for the web.

If any of this was useful, please leave a comment below or reach out to me on Twitter. You can find me here: @smith_graeme or check out some of my projects here.

I’m also shilling my cartoon manifesto of entrepreneurship and education at the moment. You can pick up your FREE copy by going here and signing up to my email list.

Author: Graeme Smith

Education, technology, design. Also making cool stuff...

3 thoughts

  1. You spoke my language on this article.
    Searching “why have I become so much more easily distracted than before” led to a plethora of moronic, time wasting, low I.Q. articles of the kind that now form 99.9999999% of the world wide web.
    So it was lucky to have encountered this article, written by someone with an actual mind. Phew!!
    Thanks man. Seriously. Thank you!

    1. Hi Jim. Thanks for that. I’m pleased it resonated with you. Thanks for taking the time to post your thoughts. Cheers, Graeme

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