There was a time when we despised interruption – the phone call in the middle of dinner, the disruptive employee with another urgent question, the kids wanting something just when we’ve sat down to read our favourite book.

Now days, if we don’t take a call during dinner, check something on Google whilst out with friends, read our messages during meetings or reply to a work email from bed, we get jittery and restless. All of a sudden, we can’t get by without distraction. I can’t even write this article without responding to a text, checking my emails 10 times, a quick coffee, a sudden drive to tidy my desk and a chat with my colleague about the pitfalls of distraction.

I convince myself I’m being efficient by multi-tasking, or getting better results by taking some well-deserved breaks. But in reality, I’m not only slowing down the completion of my task, I’m exhausting valuable mental energy by switching my mental focus back and forth between activities. And in the process, I’m rapidly losing the skill I was taught back in primary school – to concentrate.

Watch a cat stalking a mouse or a pride of lions planning to take down a kill. These animals have honed mental focus in its extreme, their survival depends on it. Watch any highly successful person – an elite athlete, a musician, an artist, a skilled technician or a great manager – and it’s obvious that in addition to talent, they have mastered the skill of mental focus. How else does Roger Federer keep winning points when he’s 2 sets down, the crowd’s against him, it’s thirty-six degrees, his left calf is throbbing and his stomach’s in knots? Does he:

  1. phone a friend for a chat
  2. reach for the smart phone to check what the temperature’s doing
  3. post a tweet about how he’s feeling and what he had for breakfast
  4. maintain a supreme state of mental focus on the most important thing in that moment – his game, his opponent and the unfolding match?

We don’t all have the talent of an elite athlete, but we can all cultivate the skill of mental focus in order to be the best we can be at what-ever we’re doing. Start by being aware of your distractions – those you’re in control of (including what you’re doing and what you’re thinking) and those brought about by external factors that seem less in your control. Once you’re aware of what distracts you, you can start to recognise the impact these distractions have on your productivity, your energy and the quality of social interactions. Then you can plan what to do to minimise them:

  • Finish each task before starting something new
  • Plan how long you’ll work on a task before being tempted to check emails or social media
  • Commit to being completely present when you’re with people – in meetings, on the phone or in day to day interactions
  • Set boundaries with others to minimise unplanned distractions, such as times when you ask staff or family not to disturb you
  • Be clear about your goals, both big life goals and smaller day to day goals – they motivate and help focus your attention
  • Practice mindfulness – focusing on what-ever activity you’re doing in the present moment, rather than stewing over the past, worrying about the future, or thinking about what else you should be doing
  • Spend time on work or leisure activities that really absorb and engage you, so concentration is effortless (read more about the state of flow)
  • Learn to mediate.

Learning how to maintain focus and concentration is a key to success and enjoyment in any of life’s domains – sport, business, leadership and even relationships. The ability to ignore distractions – both the things going on in our external world as well as our internal feelings and mental chatter – is an invaluable and learnable skill. What small change will you make to hone your ability to focus?