How to Find Focus Time in a World of Distraction


Let's face it: keeping your productivity game strong in this age of perpetual pings, pop-ups, and push notifications is like trying to meditate in the middle of a mosh pit. 

If you're waiting for calm to focus, you're out of luck. The time won't just appear—you need to schedule focus time, or other tasks will snatch up your spare moments, especially if your default is reaching for your phone. 

As Dr. Gloria Mark said, “People can develop habits of checking social media, email, news, and shopping. And it can be difficult to break habits.” As Chancellor’s Professor Emerita at the University of California, Irvine, Dr. Mark’s newsletter and book—Attention Span—dive into the impact of multitasking, interruptions, and mood with digital devices. 

With Dr. Mark, we're diving deep into the art of intentional attention—exploring the benefits of focus time in a distracting world and best practices for making focus time work for you. 

What is focus time?

If it seems you can never dig into deep work, start by setting aside focus time. Focus time is a scheduled time in your day where you minimize distractions so that you're left with pure, unadulterated concentration.

The ultimate goal of focus time? Achieving a “flow state”—that glorious feeling of being wholly absorbed and “in the zone.” Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi defines this “flow state” as a heightened focus, where you're fully immersed in activities such as art, important work, or even play. 

It's about more than just time management and getting things done. This intense focus leads to a greater sense of fulfillment and happiness. So, not only do you crush your to-do list, but you also feel pretty darn good doing it.

Benefits of focus time

Dr. Mark makes it clear: focus time is tough to secure, but the returns are substantial. “The biggest win is having the time to dive deep into work. It takes time to get oriented to a task,” she said. “I learned that I can accomplish quite a bit when I plan in advance to have a set focus time daily.”

What are these wins she's talking about?

  • Spark creativity: Use a clear, focused mind to generate innovative ideas.
  • Reduce stress: Reduce mental chaos by focusing on one task at a time.
  • Balance work and life: Reclaim personal time for what brings you joy.
  • Boost productivity: Finish tasks faster and mark daunting projects off your to-do list.
  • Master your craft: Improve your skills, deliver standout results, and learn complex subjects.

The benefits of focus time are compelling. But what happens when we don't safeguard our attention? What's the cost of losing focus in our distraction-filled world? 

Impacts of being distracted

Whether it's a chatty coworker, a pinging phone, a wandering mind, or stress about other tasks, distractions pull our attention away from what we're currently doing. 

Think of the amount of time you spend in team meetings—for each meeting scheduled, you have less time for uninterrupted work. 

Now, this constant tug-of-war for our attention has some serious consequences. So, let's dive into understanding the impacts of being distracted. And speaking of distractions, let's address the usual suspect in this scenario—our phones.

Dr. Mark’s take on why your phone distracts you:

  • Our access to more people and information than ever before in history is seductive.
  • As social creatures, we crave interaction. And with digital communication, there's often an expectation to respond quickly.
  • Algorithms today are advanced. They use our online activity to build profiles about us, which helps them show us information that's likely to catch our eye.
  • When we're tired, our brain's executive function struggles. It's the part that helps us focus and ignore distractions

The impacts of being distracted are far-reaching, affecting various aspects of our work and personal lives. Here's how:

  • Reduced productivity and quality of work: Distractions interrupt the flow, so it takes longer to complete tasks, and you make more mistakes.
  • Increased stress and procrastination: Constant distractions cause stress and cause you to delay important tasks in favor of more appealing activities.
  • Impaired decision-making: Distractions compromise your decision-making abilities, resulting in more oops moments.
  • Strained relationships: When distractions make those around you feel less prioritized, it can lead to tension.
  • Lower creativity: Distractions can stifle creative thinking and innovation.

Dr. Gloria Mark's research highlights that trying to work faster to compensate for distractions only leads to more stress. So those pings, dings, and wandering thoughts are more than just annoyances—they're barriers to our best work.

How focus time affects productivity

We've talked about the negative impacts of distractions, and it's clear they're not our friends when it comes to being productive. But what about the flip side? What happens when we manage to carve out uninterrupted focus time? It's not just about avoiding the pitfalls of distractions—it's about unlocking a whole new level of healthy productivity. Let's look closer at how focus time can supercharge our work and learning efficiency.

Focus time allows you to:

  • Zero in on a single task without interruptions
  • Embrace mono-tasking to reduce gear-switching
  • Dial into tasks so you can produce a quality product
  • Manage time effectively with scheduled slots and priority tasks
  • Boost motivation because daunting tasks feel less intimidating
  • Thoroughly explore solutions to problems
  • Grasp complex subjects with ease

To illustrate, consider air traffic controllers. According to the Federal Aviation Administration, they only manage live traffic for about four hours out of their eight-hour shifts. This focus time allows them to perform their high-stakes, high-precision work more effectively. In our diverse roles, we can benefit similarly from dedicated focus time.

Photo by Debby Hudson on Unsplash

What is the best time to schedule focus time?

The best focus time varies from person to person, but aligning your schedule with your natural body clock increases productivity. What kind of person you are depends on your circadian rhythm:

  • Morning people find it easier to focus early during the first few hours after waking. 
  • Mid-morning, between 9 am and 11 am, can be an ideal time for focused work as you're fuelled by breakfast and free from lunchtime distractions.
  • Night owls might find their peak focus time in the afternoon or evening.

We’re all different, so adapting your schedule to align with your circadian rhythm will enhance your productivity.

If you're after a one-size-fits-most answer, a study by the IZA Institute of Labor Economics pegs 1:30 p.m. as the time for peak performance (especially for STEM students and problem-solvers). Watch out for a dip in focus around 4:30 p.m., though. 

Photo by Morgan Housel on Unsplash

5 best practices for setting up focus time

Now that you've identified your focus time, the question is, how do you make the most of it? According to Dr. Mark, the key is consistency and the right environment. Let's delve into these and other best practices that can help you transform your focus time into a productivity powerhouse.

Make focus time a standing appointment

“The single most important component of success with setting aside a time each day to focus is making this a regular habit. It’s important to be diligent and set aside this time every day,” Dr. Mark said. Even if simply making it a recurring appointment in your Google Calendar, consistency is the first step towards making the most of your focus time.

Split your work sessions into “deep” and “shallow work”

Borrowing from productivity expert and author of Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, Cal Newport, split your work sessions into "deep" and "shallow" work. Deep work involves cognitively demanding tasks that require your full attention, while shallow work includes less demanding jobs that you can do while slightly distracted. 

The key is to use time blocking to bundle your shallow work together and reserve your peak focus time for deep work. Keep in mind the benefits of scheduling short breaks to take quick walks or meditating to re-energize for the next focus session.

After each session, take time to assess your progress. This self-reflection can keep you motivated for future sessions.

Create a serene environment

Since Dr. Mark is an expert in distraction, she knows what breaks focus and how to plan for it. “Another component of success is to make sure the environment is quiet and that you won’t be interrupted by noise or other people,” she suggested. Here are some of her recommendations for creating a fortress of focus:

  • Close doors.
  • Turn on ad blockers.
  • Have a cup of water nearby.
  • Set up a clutter-free workspace.
  • Leave your phone in another room.
  • Listen to focus music or white noise through noise-canceling headphones.
  • Turn off IOS text, social media, Slack, Microsoft Teams, and email notifications.

Set the expectation for zero distractions

Dr. Mark suggests setting boundaries with folks who might be a distraction. “Set aside a regular time each day for focused work,” she said. “If it’s at home, then instruct your kids that you can’t be bothered, and be strict. If it’s at work, let your team members know you can’t be bothered from X time to Y time.” 

Likewise, toggling your phone to do not disturb mode during the workday can alert those calling or sending texts that you’ll get back to them soon.

Interruptions should only be made for emergencies (blood, fires, and flying axes certainly qualify).

Why is this so important?

It’s mental white space. Uninterrupted time to reflect on what’s going on in your life and refocus your goals to help you get to where you want to go. Making time for it goes a long way toward preventing burnout. 

On the flip side, hollering kids, chatty colleagues, and constant pings are a one-way ticket to frustration town. 

Add productivity power tools to your tech toolbox

Some may get by with a little help from their friends, but when it comes to focus, you can also get by with a little help from your tech. Tools like the following can help you prioritize and eliminate distractions: 

  • To-do lists track your focus time’s priorities.
  • Time trackers help you know exactly how much time you spend on each task.
  • Pomodoro timers alternate longer focused work with 5-minute breaks.
  • Sunsama’s daily digital calendar makes it easy to schedule focus time.
  • Sunsama’s focus bar helps you focus when you’re on other pages.
  • Sunsama’s focus mode shows a focused view of your current task in Sunsama.

After all, mastering focus in a world of distractions isn't easy. But it is an essential skill. With these focus time best practices, you’ve got everything you need to build your productivity toolkit.

But here's the key: these are not just ideas—but actionable steps. 

And the first step? Scheduling focus time blocks as calendar events because waiting for it just to happen won't cut it. 

Wondering how to oversee all of these tips and focus on deep work? Sunsama’s dedicated Focus Mode tool makes it easy because it takes the wheel so you can focus on what matters—deep work. Here’s what Focus Mode can do for you:

  • Mute notifications
  • Block time in your calendar
  • Set a timer to motivate you to complete one task at a time
  • Automatically move on to the next task when your current task is completed

By scheduling focus time with Sunsama's digital daily planner, you can not only navigate but conquer the mosh pit of distractions, transforming your productivity game from chaos to harmony. Try out Focus Mode with Sunsama today. 

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