5 Ways to Deal With Distracting Thoughts

In Deep Work, Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, Cal Newport puts forward the Deep Work Hypothesis:

The ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare at exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy. As a consequence, the few who cultivate this skill, and then make it the core of their working life will thrive.

Newport defines deep work as ‘Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that pushes your cognitive capabilities to their limit.’ These efforts, he says, create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.

Shallow work in contrast is “Noncognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted.”

Sounds familiar? Yes, it does. In Newport’s view, these efforts do not create much new value in the world and are easily replicated.

Deep work is a valuable skill

deep-work-cal-newportDeep work is a valued and valuable skill in the New Economy; something winners cannot do without.

Deep work helps us learn complex things quickly. And it gives us the ability to produce at an elite level, in terms of quality and speed (whatever it is you are working on). Our competitive edge depends on how to quickly we can master complicated things. Those who fail to cultivate the ability for deep work are likely to fall behind as technology advances.

The good news is that anyone wishing to cultivate a capacity for deep work can do so, with effort.

The bad news is that our modern tools and lifestyle, unceasing connectivity and the desire to be or to be seen as connected makes us less capable and, more alarmingly, less inclined to engage in deep work.

The book, Deep Work, is a compelling read. The final chapters discuss rules that can help you cultivate the skill of deep work.

Distraction, the enemy of deep work

Distraction is the enemy of deep work and deep thought. It is not just our environment, tools and societal expectations that make us into totally distracted beings. It is also our complicity, our willingness to get by with just shallow work.


At the bottom of everything is the idea of free will. Despite all the distractions and shallow-work expectations, what if we want to stay from being distracted? Any brave souls who want to attempt this?

Five time-tested ways to defy distraction

Here are five time tested ways to defy distraction; to get your mind to focus on what you want it to focus on. These are methods that Buddhist monks have used for thousands of years to focus their minds on the task at hand: meditation.

Despite all our technology and worldly sophistication, we are still battling with our own minds, when it comes to avoiding distracting thoughts and concentrating on the work in hand.

Try these, beginning with the first ones, and progressively moving towards the latter ones for especially cumbersome and sticky distractions.

This article is strictly about dealing with your thoughts. It is not about distractions that you can easily get rid of, like the ping noise or buzz on your smart device which you can easily silence at will.

1. Think of something else

The human mind can focus on only one thing at a time. So nature and science are with you on this one. If you are able to take your mind off something, its urgency immediately drops. It is your focus that fuels the desire to continue being distracted. So focus your mind elsewhere, preferably on a less distracting thought. This gives your mind the time to rest and stabilize so that it can concentrate better on what you must get done.

2. Think of the drawbacks

What are the disadvantages of being distracted at this moment, in the middle of this task? What have you to gain by concentrating and what do you lose by distraction? Weigh pros and cons.

Thinking about advantages and disadvantages of concentrating on the task in hand can really clarify its importance to you, your life, work, goals, family and values.

3. Ignore the unwanted thoughts

You close your eyes when you see things you don’t like; be it an accident or a violent scene or part of a horror movie. In the same way, close your mind to the distracting thought, just as you would close a window pane against wind or rain.

Doing this is going to be slightly easier than trying not to think of a pink elephant, but it can be done. If you ignore something, deprive it of attention, it vanishes into the background. Its ability to draw your focus, and its self-importance disappears. Without focus, the urgency withers away and your mind can settle down to concentrate.

Who knows, you may even end up getting some deep work done.

4. Try thought fabrication 

If that sounds like a mind game, that is because it is.

If you are uncomfortable while sitting, what do you do? You shift positions. You change your position once, and then again until you find a more comfortable position. Thought fabrication is similar to this shifting of positions. It engages your conscious mind in a series of other thoughts.

One way to do this is to look to the source of your distracting thought. Where is it coming from? And instead of reflecting on the thought itself, and granting it validity, reflect instead on what makes it distracting.

And if all these methods fail, there is always the last resort.

5. Beat the unsavory thoughts out of your mind

If denying the unwelcome thoughts reflection and attention seems not to work, it is time to remove them out of the mind by force. Crush it out with your will. Clench your teeth, press your tongue against the roof of your mouth and thrash it out of your system as if it were evil. Such beating down does work at times.

Do so with awareness and positive intentions. In all this, remember, the goal is none other than getting rid of distracting thoughts to focus on your task in hand, be it studying, finishing a report or relaxing in mindfulness.

A few articles on distracting thoughts

Here are a few articles I came across on the topic of negative and distracting thoughts. They offer further tips of achieving focus and concentration.

I’d like to hear your thoughts

Which of these five methods have you tried when distracting thoughts plague your productivity? Which have worked and which have not?

I look forward to hearing your comments. Please share our thoughts with us.

Wishing you Success, Significance & Satisfaction (#3S)



About rcullen2015

I am an author, attorney, mediator and Professor of Law at the Santa Clara University. My first book was 'The Leading Lawyer, a Guide to Practicing Law and Leadership'. Now I am working on a book about 3S: Success, Significance and Satisfaction for the 50+ crowd.
This entry was posted in #Success, Brain, Personal growth, Success, Work and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s