Image: Nubelson Fernandes

You open your laptop, sift through your priorities, and get started with your workday. Things begin smoothly, and you sense that you likely have a full, productive day ahead. Then, your phone pings with a text. Four emails arrive in a flurry. And you decide to check your social media feed, just for a minute. Before you know it, the day is gone. And with only a handful of items successfully ticked off your to-do list, you’re left asking yourself: “Why do I get easily distracted?”

You’re not alone if you get distracted from time to time. In fact, according to a Harvard study, most people spend 47% of their time thinking about something else. And in the workplace, the typical office worker gets interrupted or changes tasks every three minutes. Since it can take over 23 minutes to get back in the zone once after a distraction, this makes for disjointed and disrupted workdays.

The consequences of this are far-reaching. Distractions make it difficult to stay focused, invest in deep work, and be productive. If you don’t put steps in place to address your distractions, they can ultimately impact your success.

Let’s take a look at why you might get distracted easily, and what tips you can use to limit your distractions.

Why do I Get Easily Distracted? Some Possible Explanations

There’s no one-size-fits-all answer to why people get distracted. The reasons differ from person to person, and from day to day, and even from moment to moment. While some distractions are internal, others are external.

Internal distractions

Your internal distractions are your thoughts and feelings. You might have an important personal matter on your mind, something you need to do or a problem you need to solve. Or you might be feeling anxious about money, your relationships, your career — even, ironically, productivity itself. These preoccupations can take you away from the task at hand.

Here are a few examples of internal distractions:

  • Stress. Feeling stressed about a particular issue isn’t only emotionally taxing, it’s also terribly time consuming. Whether you’re worried about something that’s work related or not, stress can pull your attention, and limit your efforts to be productive.
  • Exhaustion. If you’re tired, you’ll find it hard to concentrate. A study from the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine has shown how difficult it is to maintain your cognitive function when you’re tired. A healthy and regular sleeping routine is critical for productivity.
  • Hunger. Your brain depends on a healthy well-balanced diet to function properly. Without the right nutrition, you could battle to make decisions or problem solve, and you’ll likely experience fatigue and brain fog. Feed your body well, on the other hand, and your alert and happy brain will reward you with high-quality work.
  • Illness. It’s very difficult to stay focused when you’re not well. And while you might think that your work is important, it’s never more important than your health. If you’re sick, make sure you take the time to recover fully.
  • Mental health conditions. Certain mental health conditions, like depression, anxiety, ADHD, and OCD, can make it difficult to concentrate. It’s important to reach out to a friend, family member, manager or therapist if you’re not coping.

Image: Christian Erfurt

External distractions

External distractions come from sources outside of you. Technology often plays a big role here, but certain working environments can be distracting, too.

These are some of the key culprits:

  • Technology. Your phone, social media, games, online shopping and streaming platforms can swallow up hours of your time. These time sinks need to be carefully managed if they’re not going to distract you from your work.
  • Working environments. Being distracted by colleagues, regular meetings, and an endless slew of emails is common in the workplace. Even if you work asynchronously, the constant ping of notifications can be enormously distracting. Be conscious of these issues and put firm work boundaries in place to help you stay focused.
  • Family. If you’re responsible for children or other family members, managing their schedules and caring for them can pull you away from your work.
  • Background noise. While some people find certain music helps them work, others find music and other background noises very distracting. As far as possible, try to cultivate quiet working environments.

Maximizing Productivity: 8 Tips for Limiting Distractions

Fortunately, there are a number of things you can do to help you if you’re easily distracted.

At the start of every workday, make a plan to prioritize your work, eliminate distractions, stay on task, and finish the day feeling accomplished. Follow these tips to get the best possible outcome out of your day.

Tip 1: Put your phone on airplane mode

Your phone is likely one of the most challenging distractions for you to overcome. One study showed that the average American checks their phone 80 times every single day. And you can bet that a good portion of these notifications are during working hours.

Part of this, of course, is because notifications are kind of fun. They send a little dopamine-fueled signal to your brain that something more exciting than what you’re doing right now is waiting for you. And all it takes is a glance at your screen or a simple swipe to discover what that might be. But the truth is, these nanosecond distractions can add up, costing you your attention, focus and time.

Putting your phone on airplane mode can help give you the technological silence you need to stay on task. If this all-or-nothing approach feels a little daunting, and you don’t want to risk missing an important phone call or text, at least turn off your push notifications. Picking up your phone when you choose to, rather than when it tells you to, can be empowering.

Image: Malte Helmhold

Tip 2: Stop checking your email

Checking your email incessantly might feel like a productive, critical activity to your workday.

It’s not.

In fact, glancing at your inbox every time you receive an email can decrease your productivity, and prevent you from completing important tasks. One study showed that when people check their email only three times a day — compared to the average of 15 times a day — they feel less stressed and more accomplished.

Shut down your email application or browser window, and set a schedule for checking your email. Ultimately, you’ll be able to handle your emails in batches rather than addressing them piecemeal. And you’ll find that you finish projects and tasks much more quickly.

Tip 3: Find a distraction-free workplace

If you work from home, you’ll likely be familiar with both the benefits and risks of this arrangement. You get to wear comfy clothes, avoid commuting, and manage your engagements with colleagues.

However, your home might not be the best place to write a proposal or wrap up a project. Distractions abound. There’s laundry to do, meals to prepare, a dog to feed, a bathroom to clean, a TV to watch.

Take a close look at the environment you create. If necessary, find another location where work is the only task at hand. You may find that you’re able to remain more focused and productive in a coffee shop, a library, or a co-working workspace. Experiment with different settings on different days, and use an automatic time tracking app (like Timing!) to assess where and when you were most productive.

Timing’s Stats tab, for example, will demonstrate your productive days, and even your productive hours within those days. Over time, it might be useful to correlate your levels of productivity with where you work. It might help you identify the places and times of the day that suit you best.

Of course, offices can be distracting places, too. If you find the constant interruptions from your colleagues disruptive, seek out a quieter, more secluded space. Your managers should understand — it’s in their interest that you work in a distraction-free space.

Tip 4: Use a website blocker

If you find yourself easily distracted by online shopping, games, or the news, try using an app to block distracting sites. The website blocker Focus, for example, will help you to stay on track by temporarily blocking the sites or applications you choose.

Tip 5: Set goals

If you feel overwhelmed by the number of tasks you must accomplish every day, you might feel less focused. And become more susceptible to distraction as a result.

Every morning, set three to five attainable goals that you can accomplish by the end of the day. Reminding yourself of those goals throughout the day will help you remain on task and avoid interruptions.

Tip 6: Take short breaks

Taking breaks may seem counterintuitive if you’re trying to stay focused and work hard. But the truth is, you’re unlikely to sustain your productivity if you don’t take regular work breaks.

A 10 or 15-minute break can give you the mental space and clarity you need to work quickly and efficiently. Again, take a look at your productivity score on Timing to see when your productivity dips and try taking breaks during these times.

Tip 7: Listen to music or wear noise-canceling headphones

If you find that a bit of ambient noise helps to keep you focused, try finding an album or Spotify playlist that works for you. If you prefer to work in total silence, wear a pair of noise-canceling headphones to block out sounds of conversation, music, traffic, and anything else that might interfere with your concentration.

Tip 8: Use an automatic time tracking app

You might not even be aware of how distracted you are during working hours. Having an automatic time tracking app running in the background can help you keep track of the tasks you’re working on, and how efficiently you’re making your way through them.

Timing shows you exactly how much time you’re spending on different apps and websites, and provides you with the information you need to assess whether this time is being used productively. This means that if you spend an hour on social media in the middle of the day, it’ll pop up on your Activities tab.

Insights like this can help you to identify trends in your behavior, which makes putting steps in place to remedy them easier. It also helps you stay accountable for how you spend your time.

If you suspect that your phone is one of your biggest distractions, make sure you use Timing’s Screen Time integration feature. This integrates the time you spend on your iPhone and iPad straight into Timing. It means you’ll be able to tell how many times you’re picking up your phone each day, and which apps you’re spending the most time on. Are they work-related apps, like Slack and your email, or are they social media and news sites that are sapping your productive energy?

The Bottom Line on Not Getting Easily Distracted

Learning to cut out distractions takes time and patience. Eventually, however, you’ll learn to avoid the traps that cause you to lose focus, and gradually develop a rhythm that helps you get your work done efficiently.

Following the tips we’ve outlined above will help. Start by downloading Timing for a free 30-day trial and watch how your distractions dwindle and your productivity soars.

Why Do I Get Easily Distracted? Frequently Asked Questions

Why do I get easily distracted?

People get distracted for different reasons — some of them internal and some of them external. Internal distractions refer to thoughts and feelings, like stress and anxiety, fatigue and hunger. External distractions refer to outside sources, like technology, working environments and background noise.

How do smartphones and digital media contribute to my distractions?

Technology can be a significant time sink for many people, swallowing up whole hours in what feels like minutes. If you think your phone might be an issue for you, keep track of your usage by integrating Screen Time with Timing.

Why am I more distracted at certain times of the day than others?

We all have periods of the day that are generally more productive than others. While some of us are morning people, others tend to experience a mental boost in the late afternoon or evening. Knowing your body’s natural rhythms can help you to work when you’re most likely to be focused.

What strategies can I use to minimize distractions?

Start by identifying your distractions. If technology — like your phone, your email, or certain websites — is an issue, put your phone on airplane mode or install a website blocker. Using an automatic time tracking tool like Timing can help you spot your distractions and work when you’re most alert.