Lab Rat: How Can A Social Media Addict Find Focus?

It started as early as “Study Skills” class in elementary school, where, along with the merits of color-coding Post-Its, we were taught the importance of focus. The message was simple: to be successful and productive, learn to train your mind on one subject without distraction, then walk away and switch gears.  Yet, after years of practicing this mode of thinking, we enter the working world, where the day isn’t divided into neat little chunks of focus time, and we’re expected to integrate “distracting” activities seamlessly into our workdays.
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s Behance’s Community Manager, my job requires me both to dig deep into several brainy projects, and to embrace interruptive activities like keeping up with social chatter and emails as the voice of our brand. When I took a step back recently, I realized I’d become a pro at being on-call and timely in the social media department – but it was coming at the expense of bigger picture projects. Long-range focus had fallen by the wayside as I gave in to the Twitter feed, Email account, and Facebook posts. Most dangerous of all, I could easily rationalize checking the social chatter over and over again.I decided to experiment with two different solutions to increase my focus.

EXPERIMENT #1

Use a laptop to keep “distracting” social media work (e.g. Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, customer service emails) in a separate location, while making desktop computer my “focus area.” Try for one week.

What Happened:

I rolled into work early Monday morning invigorated and immediately made a list of the bigger projects I’d been neglecting recently as my focus had lagged. I usually jot down my to-dos as soon as I get to work, and I made sure to incorporate at least one of these “thinkier” tasks into the daily plan.

Around noon, I checked in on my laptop, giving each account a once-over and responding to urgent items. Then, I devoted myself to social media management for another hour at the end of the day. By Monday evening, I had made progress on a project that had been nagging me for weeks. In fact, I was feeling so confident about cutting down on distractions that I skipped my usual pre-bedtime blog reading/photo viewing/emailing session that night.

By Monday evening, I had made progress on a project that had been nagging me for weeks.

Tuesday, I held strong to my two-screen system, but found myself swiveling over to the laptop far more often. This wasn’t just a result of a less rigid focus (though that was also true); there were more fires to put out and questions to answer in the social media realm that day. As I responded to emails, tweets, and inquiries on my 12-inch screen, I had to admit a hard truth to myself: these activities took longer to complete on a smaller computer.You can imagine how the rest of the week went: A downward spiral. By Friday, my laptop had basically turned into a distraction machine, and was almost certainly not helping me become more focused.

EXPERIMENT #2

Make my Laptop my “focus area,” and take it with me for two hours each day to work on a project requiring intense focus. Try for one week.

What Happened:

On Monday, after a few hours of productive work, I consulted my list of bigger projects, and prioritized them. Instead of picking up a to-go coffee mid-afternoon, I took my laptop to a nearby café and settled in for a focused work session. I got a lot done, and relished the welcome change of scenery. The week went on successfully, and I continued to chip away at big projects and brainstormed new ideas that I recently hadn’t had the mental clarity to consider at my desk.

Breaking up the workday by leaving the office made both halves of the day much more manageable, and gave me the chance to “reset” my workspace and mental state. Forced to leave my desk (and its pile-up of open web browser tabs), I had no choice but to slow down and stop madly clicking between things.

Breaking up the workday by leaving the office made both halves of the day much more manageable.

If leaving the office isn’t possible for you, I found that even a simple change in environment (like ducking into a conference room) enabled me to focus more intently. After a few minutes of absorption, I also found myself much more excited to work on big, meaty projects than usual.Also, taking a break from people helped. Although I find working in an open-plan office to be fun and welcoming, I’m often distracted by phones calls, co-workers IMing me a question, or even pulling me over to laugh over the latest YouTube meme. With this experiment, I was not available for interruptions simply because I wasn’t there. Not only that, but I had nobody else to blame for my lack of focus besides myself.

By Friday, I had made progress on all of the big projects on my list, and finally felt a distinction between time spent thinking deeply, and time spent maintaining the community.

CONCLUSIONS

After experimenting with regaining focus while also performing the more distracting elements of my job, there were a few things that I found worked (with or without a two-screen system):

  • Slow down, and choose one thing to work on at a time. By multitasking to the extreme and constantly switching between projects, you may think you’re being productive, when, really, you’re being frantic.
  • Mimic a “school-day” calendar by creating blocks for different types of work during the day. If you have 2 different projects to work on, block off 1-2 hours for each, with a hour in between when you can catch up on social media and email.
  • Leave your desk. Even if this means simply bringing a pad of paper into the conference room at your office, physical separation from your distractions will help you gain clarity as you start a new project.
  • Consider your old techniques for productivity and carry a few specific ones over to your workday. Even if social media is at the core of your job, don’t let yourself off the hook from remembering how you used to get your work done.

How Do You Manage Social Media Distractions?

Do you have any special techniques for keeping your social media distractions to a minimum?

What do you do to cut through the noise?

More insights on: Focus, Task Management

Sarah Rapp

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In addition to contributing regular interviews and tweets to 99U, Sarah keeps her finger on the pulse of Behance's immense network that stretches around the world. Aside from keeping Behance's customers happy and increasing our web presence, she searches for new ways to engage our members, both on and off-line.
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