Eleven Tips for Boosting Your Sense of Quiet Focus.

Every Wednesday is Tip Day.
This Wednesday: eleven tips for boosting your sense of quiet focus.

We all know the feeling of being overwhelmed, of being beset by distractions.

The problem is – too many things are clamoring for your attention. People are trying to reach you, by phone, email, text, Twitter, IM, or old-fashioned yelling up the stairs. There are the interesting subjects you want to learn more about, on the TV or the internet or the newspaper. Noises in the background occasionally catch your ear, from the TV or radio. Your kids all talk at the same time. Colleagues interrupt. You need to update, check in, post, or ping. Ads jump at you from the most unlikely places. Devices buzz, ring, chirp, and vibrate.

It’s enough to drive you crazy. You lose your train of thought, you forget what you’re doing, you have trouble re-engaging in a task, you feel besieged.

But there are steps you might consider to quiet the buzz in your brain – even if you don’t want to take up meditation.

In addition to feeling calmer and more focused, you’ll probably be more efficient, too. Turns out that people aren’t very good at thinking about two things at once. One study showed that when people were interrupted to respond to email or IM, it took about fifteen minutes for them to resume a serious mental task. So consider taking steps like these, at least occasionally:

1. If you keep the TV, radio, or music turned on in the background – while you’re getting dressed, say – turn it off.

2. I have a sticky note in my bedroom that reads, “Quiet mind.” Whenever I see it, I drop my shoulders, relax my jaw, and try to smooth out my thoughts. It actually works.

3. During family time, divide up your children among adults. If possible, have one child per adult. And don’t check your emails or the internet while you’re with your child!

4. Cut down on the multi-tasking. Don’t talk on the phone while you’re doing dishes, don’t check your email while you listen to a conference call, don’t sort the mail while your child explains the school project that’s due next week.

5. Turn your cell phone ringer off. Hearing your cell phone ring – or even imaging that you’re hearing it ring – is a big source of jumpiness.

6. Take a break from doing errands. Keep a list, but don’t try to cram them in throughout your day.

7. Only use the internet to look up specific pieces of information; no jumping from link to link, no browsing.

8. Turn off your email for some parts of the day.

9. Twyla Tharp had an interesting approach: occasionally, for a week, she’d “stop counting.” She avoided looking at clocks, contracts, bank statements, bathroom scales, or anything to do with numbers, in order to let the other part of her brain take over.

10. Exercise. I find that if I don’t exercise regularly, I’m too jumpy and restless to sit still and concentrate. I keep popping up and down. It’s true that taking regular breaks is good for focus — but within limits!

11. Flee temptation. I find it hard to work in my home office, because my family, the phone, my email, and the internet constantly beguile me away from my work. So when I have serious writing to do, I go to a library near my apartment which has a study room with a strict rule of silence.

It’s important to have space in which to think. Yesterday, I overheard someone complain, “I left my Blackberry at home, so I was so bored during my cab ride home. I just had to sit there.”

There are few things that I love more than looking out the window of a car, train, or bus. One day, when I was gazing out of a bus window, I was struck by a thought: “What do I want out of life?” “Well,” I thought, “I want to be happy.” It occurred to me that I never thought about whether I was happy or not, or how I could be happier, or even what it meant to be happy. “Zoikes,” I thought, “I should have a happiness project!”
If I’d been checking my emails, I might never have had the idea for the happiness project.

What other strategies have you found to help you keep a quiet focus?

* Gratitude is extremely important to happiness, and keeping a “gratitude journal” is an oft-recommended exercise, but my gratitude journal never had much effect on me. I just found it annoying, and my journal was very dull. On this charming site, Thxthxthx, however, the writer manages to be very funny and engaging — and also show genuine gratitude.

* It’s Word-of-Mouth Day, when I gently encourage (or, you might think, pester) you to spread the word about the Happiness Project. You might:
— Forward the link to someone you think would be interested
— Link to a post on Twitter (follow me @gretchenrubin)
— Sign up for my free monthly newsletter (about 39,000 people get it)
Buy the book
— Join the 2010 Happiness Challenge to make 2010 a happier year
— Put a link to the blog in your Facebook status update
— Watch the one-minute book video
Thanks! I really appreciate any help. Word of mouth is the BEST.

  • The best tip I ever got was when I’m on the treadmill to cover all the numbers/read-out information with a towel.
    I get so focused on whether I’ve burned enough calories or if my pace is good, etc that I forget to enjoy the run.
    I’m not a serious runner by any means. I have no need to run 5 k in a specific time at a specific pace. I need to run as a way to eliminate stress and to exercise.
    So, by not looking at the numbers I find an incredible amount of peace and enjoyment in my running (okay, probably jogging). And when my music is really good I throw in some dance moves for good measure.
    (I’m at the gym at 5am)

  • Relating to the person feeling bored without their blackberry, isn’t amazing how identified with technology we can become now-a-days?

    We’re bored with ourselves…?

    If I may add a tip, what helps me stay present sometimes, is to program an alarm in my cell phone. For example, 12:30 pm, alarm set, with message: “stop and just be”

    You can come up with your own message, but this has helped me. I’m going to try your sticky note idea.


  • Sara S.

    Great post!

    I find it difficult to work on my laptop (especially while trying to write) without constantly checking email/Google Reader/etc., so I’ve started using a great app called Concentrate to help me focus. It helps eliminate distractions by “disabling” access to specific sites that you choose to block for a certain duration of time. You can, of course, gain access to the sites again with just the click of a button, but I find that it’s just enough to help me focus on the single task at hand and not to fall further and further into the link-to-link rabbit hole.

    Here’s a link: http://getconcentrating.com/. The app is $29, but the site offers a very generous free trial, and it’s worth it to me since it helps me manage my single biggest source of distractions: the internet!

  • Anne Lupton

    My ultimate “quiet focus” was going to a silent retreat one weekend at the Cenacle Retreat House in Houston. Getting used to the silence, especially when sharing meals, was harder than I expected it to be, but it also was a very eye-(and mind-)opening experience. If you ever get the chance to go on a silent retreat, take it!

  • Meditation is the best, I think. And you can meditate anywhere. In the car, at your computer anywhere. Just remind yourslef to stop for 3 -5 minutes and focus on your breathing. There you are meditating!

  • LaraBoBara

    I am horrible about quietly focusing at work (but then, I hate my job). However, I think the need for focus is what I love about knitting and Ukrainian egg decorating. With the knitting, I used to want to learn to knit faster so I could finish projects faster, but then I reminded myself that I find joy in the process of knitting – so why rush? I love the feel of the soft yarn and pretty wooden needles in my hands, and I am sometimes able to tune everything in the background out (even the TV) as I catch myself thinking nothing more than “knit, purl, knit, purl”.

  • LaraBoBara

    Oh! I meant to also ask – have you heard of Grace in Small Things? I participated in it for a little while and really enjoyed it.

  • I do not have any clocks, TVs or any other technology in my bedroom. This is the best way for me and my husband to spend time together, to have a rest from a busy day or just to forget about the outside world.
    Another way to find focus for me is to go outside. I can go out in the yard, go for a walk or drive to the beach and enjoy some time in solitude. This time always brings inspiration and creativity into my life and lets me focus on the right thing at the moment.

  • Jess

    The problem doesn’t end with exterior distractions. My mind keeps racing even without the emails, I’m so used to constantly getting them. My difficulty is usually in getting my mind to rest, with or without emails. Some nice connected ideas on this: http://www.pandalous.com/topic/how_to_shut_my_brain_off

    Your tip number 5 is a double edged sword. silencing the ringer can make you constantly check the phone if anybody called.

  • Kelly

    Great reminders; I think many of us (myself included) have developed technology-related ADD, in which our addiction to our TV’s / gadgets / desire for information has made it increasingly difficult to focus on any deep, sustained thinking.

    Your bus window story reminds me of J.K. Rowling, who thought up Harry Potter during a four-hour train delay. She has credited her lack of the simplest technology (a functioning pen) with allowing her to imagine fully the details of Harry and his world, without stifling them by trying to immediately capture them.

    Thanks for the tips!

  • #3 and #4 are right on! When it comes to the kids…silence everything else and just listen to them, or else you won’t hear them and then they have to yell!

  • ciawy

    Walking helps me quiet my mind. I always find myself walking during my office breaks and I feel recharge whenever I get back to my desk. I’ve tried meditation before but it doesn’t seem to work for me.

  • Michael W

    Gretchen I just don’t understand why you refuse to try meditation. It is exactly what you are looking for here. You don’t have to accept all the New Age mumbo jumbo if you don’t want to. You don’t have to do it for hours on end. Even 10 minutes when you need it, is enough to make your mind extremely still. You really have to try mindfulness meditation. Please.

  • Michael W

    The chief insight that I have taken from meditation is that it is perfectly OK to do nothing. Just sit there. The world will continue on just fine. It’s an incredible relief for someone that may tend to be on the over-ambitious side.

    • gretchenrubin

      Yes — as the saying goes, “Don’t just do something. Sit there.” It’s harder than it sounds!!

      • Michael W

        But oh, so worth it!

  • What wonderful and useful tips and what an important topic. Modern existence is riddled with distraction and keeping that “quiet mind” is far easier said than done. Great food for thought, as always. Thanks, Gretchen!

  • DavidL31

    I keep my clocks turned away from my bed. I know they’re still working because I have to set my alarm to wake up in the morning, but if I have to use my room at any other time it’s like they’re not there. This also helps when I’m having a bad night under the covers, which still happens on occasion but not nearly as bad as before.

    I also find it helps to just stop for 10-15 minutes, when possible, in midday to just let go and clear my head. I find that if I don’t squeeze in one break (sometimes I need two) I’ll burn out long before it’s time to turn out the light.

  • Diana

    Sometimes though, a little distraction can improve focus. I do a lot of my writing at coffee shops instead of my very quiet office–something about bustle is reassuring and helps quiet my inner voices. (Natalie Goldberg talks about this in her writing books.) I noticed the same phenomenon with my kids (in second grade). I used to have them do their homework in a completely quiet environment–but they would often get frustrated & upset. I decided to let them turn on relaxing music & it really seemed to help. Tonight–miracle of miracles–they got all their week’s math homework done listening to the Beatles. It is sometimes helpful to be distracted from your distracting thoughts.

  • sandy

    I have purchased your book and you are my favorite writer.I have shared it with my 2 adult daughters.

  • This week, I discovered that setting a timer – an actual old-fashioned makes-a-ticking-noise-and-chimes-at-the-end timer – allows me to focus for a set period of time. I can distract myself endlessly while trying to write — make a snack, check my email, go to the bathroom, pour a drink, file my nails, check facebook, see if anyone’s commented on my blog, send a text message, answer a phone call — but when I set a timer for an hour, I can say NO to all those things for that amount of time. There is nothing that cannot wait an hour (except maybe going to the bathroom, so I try to do that before hand). It’s amazing how much that setting that prescribed amount of time helps me just be quiet and focus for a while.


  • Tip I normally use for quiet focus is when taking a bath. I love to do mindfulness meditation during that time 🙂

  • courtney_sl

    This is such a timely post for me. Just yesterday I let myself get distracted by incoming text messages when I should have been focusing on the matter at hand (getting a horse ready for exercise). The occurrence led to a combination of feeling guilty and feeling stretched too thin, and it threw my entire afternoon off balance. I’m typically a person who keeps her cellphone on vibrate so that I can be gently notified of incoming calls/messages without them disrupting my activities. Lately I’ve definitely felt pressure to answer immediately, but it has taken away from my focus and overall peace of mind. Thank you for this reminder that it’s ok, and healthy even, to refuse to become a slave to the cellphone. While I realize that phones are often necessary, I definitely think it’s the phone more so than the internet that causes us to disconnect from other people and environments.

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  • Nice post. I tend to limit using e-mail for 1 hour a day, 8 am in the morning and 5pm in the evening for 30 minutes either time. That helps me a lot in my opinion.

    The stop counting idea really has me thinking, I study psychology but I’ve never though how getting rid of logical/left brained stimulus would evoke the creative right side. Thanks for that.

  • alexsondra

    I’ve been doing most of those things. We think alike.

    But after I read about your happiness project, I had to recognize something in me.

    I am very grateful, and yet that does not always play out to mean happy.
    I think grateful comes first, because it comes from somewhere deep. happiness seems to be that gratitude in motion. I suppose i have kept my gratitude in secret at times, not allowing it to have it’s own expression. Fortunately, real gratitude persists with a life of it’s own and the flood gates have been opened.

    Thank you,


    I love looking out the window, any window.all windows..

    my mother said, late in life, ” I’m so sorry if I didn’t tell you the importance of daydreaming.” She said that when she was dying.

  • Great ideas. Thanks for the advice. I could definitely use it.

  • Clare

    Oh Gretchen… I can’t tell you how timely this was. Thank you. Now I am turning off my email and the internet and taking advantage of a quiet house to start working on my final paper for one of my classes… (right after I check Facebook…) 🙂

  • I love your list! I crave peace and quiet. This is often hard to find with three kids 5 and under. I completely agree with just focusing on your child. Once my kids have received my full attention they are much more likely to go off for a while and play together or by themselves, giving me some much needed me time. I also found by turning off everything through out the house it makes it so nice and quiet. No computer humming, No dishwasher, washing machine, dryer, radio, or TV. Just peaceful, relaxing silence. I realize emails need checked and dishes and clothes washed, but just a little while of silence can really energize me.

  • i love these suggestions. although i’m new to ‘the project’ i do follow these things because my brain just craves silence sometimes. i do see people that are just attached to their mobile devices and it just makes me sad for them.

  • Guest

    hi Gretchen, I love your blog and I intend to buy your book at some point too. I’ve been on a journey to find happiness since I went through a particularly rough spell with lots of unexpected hugely sad events all happening in a very short time period. I’ve been reading your blog for quite a while and I love pretty well everything about it, but the other day something finally struck me: a lot of your tips assume that one has a partner and a family.

    obviously since you have a husband and two daughters, and this is YOUR happiness project, your tips are going to come from your experiences. but, could you do a post for single and childless people too? I would really enjoy reading that. I am 32, have no partner in sight, and I really wants kids someday, so my challenges are sometimes different from yours.

    overall I’m very happy. I thank insight meditation for that. I saw Michael W’s comment on it; I agree with him! I am pretty much the MOST pragmatic, practical person ever and I LOVE meditation. I do not like weird hippy junk. meditation is not weird hippy junk. it has changed my life. it’s more than just sitting there. I’ve learned that I can only be in the moment, that I can’t change the past so there’s no point dwelling on it, that sadness is okay and it’s better to just let it be than to try and push it away. I recommend taking a class on meditation, because it’s a very complex thing that just seems so simple. I took a class called Healing Through Meditation. phenomenal!

    anyway, thanks for all that you have been doing 🙂 keep up the great work!

  • While twitter, e-mail and texting provide us with helpful ways to stay connected and inspired in our daily lives, but I can really see the need for moments of quiet without distraction. It is extremely tempting to be constantly tapped into conversation via technology, so thank you so much for reminding us of the importance of peaceful quiet time away from all of the chatter. Prioritizing quiet, while difficult at times, indeed seems integral to well-being.

  • One of my favorite strategies is journalling first thing in the morning, an idea I got after reading the book _The Artist’s Way_ by Julia Cameron. I had often journalled before, but usually at the end of the day and on days I felt I had something I wanted to write about, when the focus tended to be on things I’d already thought and experienced. Writing in the morning instead whether I have something to say or not allows me to write from a place of much greater spaciousness and openness. Things flow into my mind from all over and the feeling is completely different. It’s a great way to slow down and experience my own thoughts.

  • jacquelinezr

    No browsing on the Internet!!! Aw, come on, Gretchin!!!

  • Celia

    I almost always have the tv or radio on in the morning for company. I have 2 hours between my husband’s very early departure for work and my departure for work, so that is my time to exercise, clean, pay bills, etc. Lately, however, I have begun to find the constant noise annoying, so I leave it off. (I also get to feel virtuous about saving electricity!) Sometimes, though I will turn on the small tabletop water fountain my husband gave me last Mother’s Day. I find the sound of gently trickling water very soothing.

  • Donna

    IT is hard to learn the art of “being still”. Love your Happiness Project.

  • Rachel

    What a great post. I find being interrupted when I’m answering emails or doing admin very frustrating and it takes me ages to pick up my train of thought. I read a tip once (from Real Simple, I think) to put a Do Not Disturb sign on the back of your chair. I tried this one evening when my head was buzzing with emails to answer, lessons to plan, bills to pay and other computer stuff. I put the note on the door, my husband left me to finish without interrupting and I was done in record time.

  • My cat wakes up every morning happy and ready to start her day. She is never grumpy or mopey. I realize she isn’t under the pressure we humans are (she has yet to get a job), but I am inspired by her great attitude.

  • What jumped out at me from this posting is the person you overheard who felt bored at not having his Blackberry. A very sad commentary, but one that probably rings true for many in today’s world. We’re so used to distractions that we feel “naked” without them and therefore don’t know what to do with ourselves.
    We need to feel comfortable with being with ourselves; within the quiet of ourselves; to be able to hear our inner voice. Meditation is a wonderful way of connecting and training ourselves to be comfortable in the quiet. It may be uncomfortable in the beginning, but all the more reason to continue with the practice. It does get easier and for me at least has become a period in my day that I look forward to. It’s a respite from the overstimulation of all that surrounds and penetrates us.
    Mindfulness also helps in quieting the mind as you become aware of the moment and your presence and activity in it. It helps you focus and brings awareness to the forefront. So for instance when you shower, you savor and therefore appreciate the hot streaming water, without your mind jumping hoops through the list of to-do things for the day.
    Walking, without headphones, is also a wonderful way of quieting the mind. But again, you have to begin to be comfortable with “hearing” your own thoughts and feelings that arise, some of which may be surprising and/or disturbing. Instead of pushing these thoughts/feelings down with our wonderfully advanced distracting devices, we allow them to surface and along with the negativity that may arise, new and creative ideas also bubble up. We have to be willing to “go with it all”.
    So….meditate, be mindful and walk with yourself. You will find peace within the quiet times.

  • QuarterlifeEran

    I recently spent 3 weeks traveling in France and due to my crappy cellular telephone provider, my Blackberry did not work there. So, no blinking red email light, no texting, no phone calls – it drove me insane for the first few days! When my husband would leave me alone for a few minutes to go to the restroom or something, I had no idea what to do with myself. I had to learn how to just “be alone” with myself and enjoy my surroundings – it was very eye-opening because one day I realized how CALM I was!

    I will definitely be trying to adopt some more of your tips now that I’m home 🙂

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  • surfhwy1

    Great tips! Usually I watched TV in bed and just flip channels for an hour. Now right before I fall asleep, I put on classical music. Not only do I sleep better, but I wake up with a clear and peaceful mind.

  • A sense of quiet on a regular basis is such a blessing in general sense of well-being. Thank you for your excellent post!

  • Jilly

    I really love this post! It is so relevant to my job that I had to stop and think about how it applies to me outside of it!

    At work, I am often distracted throughout the day by a constant barrage of email, chat, my colleague over the cubicle wall who needs information from me or help clarifying a question, a colleague who is having a rough day, or general office noise.

    If I am in correspondence mode, it isn’t as disturbing, but it still takes me a few moments to get back to the task I was doing in the first place. Sometimes, I need a piece of information in an email to continue with my task, but then I see an email come thru that needs to be addressed and I’m suddenly on another tangent. If it’s a day of hour-long tasks, then it often takes me longer than expected to complete it because I’m being pulled in so many different directions.

    It’s quite interesting to see the statistic about it taking 15 minutes to get back to the original task at hand. By my recolection, that’s not far off the mark!

    Despite the first tip, I often find that putting on headphones helps me screen out background noise and focus on what’s in front of me, but that’s in the office. When at home, I prefer peace and quiet.

  • Thank you for the reminder about not multi-tasking constantly! I am definitely someone who can only give her full attention to one thing at a time. Sometimes I forget this and think I can talk on the phone while grocery shopping, which means I forget something and it takes longer than doing both of those things separately.

    It’s true that when I’m doing more than one thing at a time, I’m not doing either one of them well.

  • Fantastic tips for people not quite wanting to embrace a mindfulness / meditation practice – but can still reap the benefit of an occasional “quiet mind.”

    Lisa Brookes Kift, MFT

  • Nicole Larsen

    I have been looking for ways to increase focus. I was slightly aware of this before your project/book, but am becoming increasingly so. I notice my husband texting through dinner or answering his phone in the middle of a conversation. I feel bad thinking my son might feel like our phones are more important that he is!
    For financial reasons, we cut out the satellite and internet at home, what a blessing! After work, our precious few hours are spent playing, building, coloring, jumping, or tickling, rather than sitting and watching TV. And AT work, I stash my phone, and forbid FB or IM (I warned people in advance, though they still tend to get frustrated, but they get used to it). I’m sure I don’t need to tell you how much more productive I am… 🙂

  • pamwalter

    I have been very distracted and undisciplined of late so I printed these out to read later…when I’m not so distracted…and undisciplined. http://www.satisfiedsole.com

  • Steph

    Thank you for the tips 🙂

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