Trying to focus with a computer? 7+ tips to keep you on track

Eric WestonProductivityLeave a Comment


You sit at your computer with the best intentions to write, design or plan. But an army of distractions awaits… Use these tips to avoid the traps, stay focused and get more done.

Get comfortable

Physical comfort is one of those things we often take for granted. So much so that sometimes we even accept a certain amount of discomfort without realising it, through sheer force of habit in our daily routines. But discomfort can be very distracting.

Discomfort is not only bad for focus – symptoms may hint at potential health issues that you should look into. Give it some thought – it might prompt you to make changes that improve both your performance and your well-being.

If you have health issues that cause you ongoing discomfort then hopefully you’ve already gotten some professional advice and support that help you make the best of it. Even so, you may yet uncover other factors that you can control to make things a little easier on yourself.

Think for a moment about when you become uncomfortable, irritable or especially tired at the keyboard. Are there any physical factors you can change to counter this?

There are all sorts of ergonomic factors you might consider. Here are a few thoughts to get you started:

  • How’s your posture? Bad posture is a major cause of shallow breathing, tiredness and various aches and pains. Once you know the cause the remedy may be as simple as adjusting your furniture or changing a small habit. Or, you may benefit from a better chair, a standing desk, wrist support or a foot rest. Just be sure to find the root cause and consider simple measures before you jump to any conclusions and insist on expensive office equipment. You don’t want to be that guy/gal.
  • When did you last get your eyes tested? Eye strain can easily lead to headaches, and you might need some glasses. It happened to me – I started getting some nasty headaches at work, so I had an eye examination for the first time in years. It turns out I have a slight muscle imbalance in one eye, leading to eye strain when working at a computer screen. I now wear glasses when working at a computer and haven’t had those headaches since.
  • Are your pants too tight? Seriously, make sure your clothes fit right and don’t chafe, whatever your style. Constantly wriggling around in your seat and adjusting yourself? You don’t want to be that guy/gal either! Consider whether your fashion choices are costing you too much in concentration.
  • Too much light? Strong light and reflections can overwhelm the image on your screen. Squinting, dodging and shielding is no way to get things done.
  • Too cold/hot? Too stuffy/drafty? Add/remove layers of clothing, or adjust the heating/air conditioning. Open/close a window. Just do the decent thing and check no-one else minds before you interfere with things that affect other people too, lest you incur their wrath!
  • Are you eating properly? Eating the wrong foods, skipping meals or eating at the wrong time of day can all have a bad effect on your energy levels, and thus your ability to focus and be productive.
If you work for an employer, find out if they offer any assessment of your workstation. This should cover the fundamental concerns and will put you on the right administrative path if any changes or purchases are appropriate.

Develop a ‘thought capture’ system you can rely on

How many times have you lost your place in a task after something important popped into your mind? I bet you didn’t actually need to deal with the important thing right then – you just got side-tracked in planning or organising because you feared you would forget.

The fact is, sometimes an important thing will pop into your head at an inopportune moment. You can’t prevent this, but you can deal with it more effectively:

  1. Get it out of your head, fast: Write yourself a short note – just enough to prompt you later.
  2. Forget it, for now: Put this note somewhere you know you’ll find it again at a better time – so you can relax and forget about it for now.
  3. Get right back to what you were doing. You should be back on track quickly, because you took swift action to clear your mind of the distraction.

It doesn’t matter whether you use paper and pen or software like Microsoft OneNote for your notes. Just make sure you have close to zero friction – don’t try to ‘organise’ notes whilst you’re supposed to be focusing on a task. Organise later. And stick to a reliable method – otherwise you won’t trust yourself and you won’t be able to let go of the thought when you try to get back to the task.

Hang out the ‘do not disturb’ sign

focus - thinking please wait photo

Image by wadem

Taken literally, this works best if you have your own office. But I’m thinking of more subtle ideas you can adapt to your situation:

  • Wear headphones – even if you’re not actually listening to anything. It won’t always work, but often people will think twice before interrupting you. Don’t overdo it though – you won’t win respect by making yourself too unapproachable and assuming your time is more valuable than everyone else’s.
  • Set expectations that encourage people to respect your time. For example:
    • Consider asking colleagues to make their queries or requests in batches. Batch-processing tends to be more efficient for just about anything – and they might prefer it too.
    • Let people know the times you are best able to help them. Be thoughtful and attentive at these times, and gently discourage them at other times. You might use phrases like “Afternoons are really busy for me – unless it is urgent, can you come back tomorrow morning? I can give you my full attention then.”
  • Start earlier than everyone else – it is amazing how much you can get done in the hour before most others arrive at work. I’m not suggesting you become a workaholic – perhaps you can bring your working hours forward? I like this approach since I enjoy getting home earlier too!
  • Get away from your usual spot for a bit. It can work wonders for your productivity on solo tasks if you can shut yourself away in spare meeting room for a while.

Ditch the distractions

This should go without saying, but… notifications and social media are bad for focus. Devastating in fact.

focus - weapons of mass distraction image

Image by birgerking

Try this approach – if not permanently then at least during your focus periods:

  1. Turn off all your notifications, and put your gadgets away.
  2. Close the social media tabs in your web browser (or better yet, shut it down entirely along with any other apps you don’t need right now).
  3. Check email and important notification channels only at set times, perhaps twice a day (and not first thing in the morning when you would otherwise be most productive).

If you’re an update junky then your fear of missing out will make it hard to disconnect at first . But stick with it, it’s worth it. Anyway, do you really need to be involved in every inane conversation about the latest internet meme?

Use virtual desktops

This is a good alternative if for some reason you really can’t shut down all the other applications that might distract you.

Virtual desktops offer a convenient way to both organise and separate your activities. A little like having two computers you can switch between at will.

You could have one virtual desktop with only applications essential to your writing or whatever, and another desktop for the rest.

Many 3rd party virtual desktop options exist. Or, virtual desktops may even be built-in with your operating system (as with Windows 10).

Try a special editing mode

Many applications have a special full-screen or ‘distraction free’ editing mode. These help you focus on your writing by reducing visual clutter (typically by dominating the screen space and/or simplifying the user interface).

Scrivener and OneNote both have features of this type. As of version 4.1 even WordPress has a distraction-free mode (though this can only reduce clutter within the confines of the browser window you’re viewing it in).

Annoyingly, Microsoft Word only has a full-screen reading mode. But you can still get a fairly plain editing mode – it just takes a little more effort:

  1. Maximise the window.
  2. Hide interface elements such as the ribbon interface.
  3. Consider choosing a different mode from the ‘view’ menu – most people default to ‘Print Layout’ view, but ‘Web Layout’ is a little less cluttered.

If all else fails…

Sometimes you just can’t get in the right frame of mind for a particular task, no matter what you do. Don’t be down on yourself or give up, try a change for a bit:

  • Get up and walk about for a minute or two. As contradictory as it seems, sometimes the best thing for maintaining focus is to take a (smart) break. It is good to do this regularly anyway, to stretch your legs and rest your eyes (recall what we said about comfort above).
  • Switch to another worthwhile task instead. Consider doing something small and easy to complete. Finishing a task as small as tidying your desk can give you a psychological boost. You just might perk up enough to tackle something harder again*. Procrastination is the enemy, but ‘constructive procrastination’ can actually be a great way to get other tasks done!
*I find it useful to always keep some small non-urgent tasks back for these moments.

Over to you

Have you tried any of these ideas? How did you get on? Do you have something else that works for you that you can share?