Does distraction interfere with your productivity?
Celebrate with me
The Productive Woman turns 5 years old on July 1, 2019. I’d like to celebrate by putting together an episode featuring feedback from the TPW community. Would you consider sending me a message I can share with listeners in the upcoming episode and tell me a little about what The Productive Woman podcast means to you? Feel free to share why you listen, what your favorite episode is, or what key lesson or takeaway you picked up from the podcast. You can also do this via voice message–use the voice memo app on your smartphone to create an audio file you can email to me, or click on “Send me a voice message” on the right side of this page. I hope you’ll participate–send me your email or voicemail message by June 5, 2019. If you send a voice recording, please keep it under 2 minutes and make sure to introduce yourself so I know who to be grateful for!
Understanding and managing distraction
I’ve noticed lately that I’m more easily distracted from work, from personal tasks, and even from conversations. I started thinking about how easy it is to be distracted and decided to do a little investigation into distractions and how to deal with them.
What is a distraction?
A distraction is “a thing that prevents someone from giving full attention to something else” or (according to Webster) “something that distracts: an object that directs one’s attention away from something else.” Synonyms include diversion, interruption, disturbance, intrusion, interference, obstruction, hindrance.
Notice the definitions don’t assign value to the thing that’s distracting or the thing that’s being distracted from. Both are neutral. Good things can distract from good things, or even from better things. Good things can also distract from bad things, as in the case when medical professionals using distraction during painful or uncomfortable medical treatments. But when it comes to being productive, distractions come with a cost.
The impact of distraction
Digital distractions, for example, come with an economic cost. According to one source, social media alone costs the US economy $650 billion.
In another article, The True Costs of the Distraction Economy, the writer points out the economic costs of the “distraction economy,” described as “one where people have prioritized technology over people.” According to this article, our efforts to connect through technology result in us disconnecting as we’re focused on the tech rather than the people we’re actually with.
This particular article was written in the context of business and talks about the risks for leaders: setting a poor example for those we lead and failing to establish focus. I thought these ideas could be applied in our homes as well.
“If a leader is constantly distracted and not paying attention, they’re telling the rest of their team this is an acceptable standard. . . . Leaders operating without focus and intentional attention risk damaging relationships, missing key performance objectives, losing top talent to other organizations, [and] customers choosing other companies [and] vendors taking advantage of their distracted state.”
Distraction costs us on a more personal level as well. For example, it:
- Prevents us from doing our best work
- Can impair relationships
- Prevents us from being present (maybe distraction is the opposite of mindfulness)
- Can actually endanger us and others (e.g., texting while driving; watching TV or talking to other people while handling sharp objects or potentially dangerous equipment)
On a physiological level, “Attention is a limited resource. Every time you focus your attention you use a measurable amount of glucose and other metabolic resources. Studies show that each task you do tends to make you less effective at the next task, and this is especially true for high-energy tasks like self-control or decision making. So distractions really take their toll.” (from “Easily distracted: why it’s hard to focus, and what to do about it”
Causes & Sources of distraction
- Unmade decisions
When I have a decision to make, especially a significant one, it’s hard to focus on anything else. It keeps running through my mind as I weigh the pros and cons and the consequences if I do or don’t. It’s hard to get work done, hard to focus on conversations, and hard to sleep when you have unmade decisions.
Brooke Castillo, the host of The Life Coach School Podcast, asks an important question in Episode 264: Decision Debt: Do you want to use up your brain’s finite energy reconsidering the same decision over and over, or would you rather use it for something else?
An unmade decision is a distraction in a way that a made decision is not. Learning to simply make the decision and let it go instead of taking lots of time to agonize over decisions is key to getting past this distraction.
“A daydream is when your mind wanders and your attention shifts from the task at hand whether it be physical or mental, to a place that is entirely your own. Daydreams consist of little videos of yourself in past, future and present events. What you wanted to happen, replaying certain events over and over again, daydream about future events where you see yourself in 10 years and even daydreaming about what you will be doing later tonight. It has been noted that about 30 to 47% of our conscious day is spent spacing out, drifting and daydreaming.”
Daydreaming isn’t always a bad thing. There are studies that show daydreaming can enhance creativity and help us “rehearse” for an important event.
The article Daydreaming: what is it, why do we do it, can it be dangerous explains how daydreaming works physiologically:
“When you daydream your brain is actually using a different network called the default network. This network includes areas of the brain such as the medial prefrontal cortex which helps to imagine ourselves and the thoughts and feelings of others, the posterior cingulate cortex which shows personal memories from the brain, and the parietal cortex which has connections to the hippocampus that stores episodic memories. The default network is only activated when people switch their conscious mind from an attention-demanding task to wandering or daydreaming. For this reason, this network is considered our default setting, when our brain is not paying attention to the present, it reverts to this setting. . . . The default network is extremely active when we do not notice we have lost focus and our mind wanders on its own.”
- Emotions (Unresolved Drama, Worry)
When we’re feeling strong emotions (positive or negative), it’s hard to stay focused on anything else. Our minds keep going back to the thoughts that created the emotion in the first place, and the situation or circumstance that led to those thoughts.
“Replaying upsetting, frustrating, or distressing events over and over again—especially when doing so frequently or habitually—can make our minds race with thoughts or stir us up emotionally, severely taxing our intellectual resources. In addition to impacting our cognitive functioning, brooding (also known as ruminating) can present real dangers to our emotional and even our physical health.”
The stress that can come with strong emotions (and the disruption to our productivity that results when those emotions distract us) can have physical effects:
“Chronic stress floods our nervous system with cortisol and adrenaline that short-circuits important cognitive functions. Researchers have studied the negative effects of stress on focus, memory, and other cognitive functions for decades. The findings are consistent – short-term stress raises cortisol levels (the so-called stress hormone) for short periods and can jump-start our adrenalin and motivate us to perform more efficiently in response to impending deadlines. Long-term stress, however, can lead to prolonged increases in cortisol and can be toxic to the brain.”
- Multiple inputs
Noise, screens, information sources! It is easy to get sidetracked when you go looking for an answer to a question and find so many resources with potential answers.
“While the “Age of Information” may have made us better connected and informed, it has also made our lives more rushed, hectic and distracted. Research is now proving that the brain is not quite coping with the amount of information we receive, and our ability to disconnect from the outside and be present in the moment is actually decreasing, according to Adam Gazzaley, MD, PhD., a renowned cognitive neuroscientist and a professor of Neurology, Physiology, and Psychiatry at University of California, San Francisco.”
We live in an amazing age with technology that makes our lives easier in so many ways. We have supercomputers in the palm of our hands, 24-hour news sources, smart cars, immediate communication . . . All this technology is miraculous, but it’s also a great source of distraction.
“we have all these new technologies which are very good at distracting us, which our human habits have not caught up to. The challenge is that we have not realized the true cost of distractions: they use up what is actually a limited supply of attention each day, and make us far less effective if we need to do deeper thinking work. For example, a university of London study found that being always connected impacts your IQ equivalent to losing a night’s sleep or taking up marijuana.”
- Other people
Whether it’s people calling or dropping in or just nearby, it’s hard to resist the distraction they present.
“Brains desire social interaction: Dr. Paul Atchley of the University of Kansas puts it best: “There is nothing more interesting to the human brain than other people. I don’t care how you design your vehicle or your roadways, if you have technologies in the vehicle that allow you to be social, your brain will not be able to ignore them. There are only two things we love, serotonin and dopamine, the two reward chemicals; that come along with all those other things that make us feel good. There is really nothing more rewarding to us than the opportunity to talk to someone else.”
- Physical needs
Fatigue, hunger, pain – our survival instincts mean that bodily needs will often take priority in our brain’s attention mechanisms.
How to manage distractions and stay focused
Getting distracted is normal and human. It doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with you. There are studies that show the human brain can only focus on a given task for a limited period of time (one article says around 2 hours) before it needs a break to renew and reset. So it’s normal, rather than a character flaw or lack of discipline. And you can’t bully yourself into ignoring distractions and staying focused. But you can take action to create an environment that makes it easier to recognize and overcome distractions and spend more time focused on what matters to you.
- Notice when you’re distracted and investigate why. Is it something you don’t want to do? Why? Learning to be uncomfortable (mentally or physically) for a while is a key to achieving the things you want in the long term
- Practice being aware of your mind. What are you paying attention to, and where do your thoughts go when they wander? If you daydream, daydream positively. Focus is a skill that can be improved, but it starts with awareness.
- Take action to deal with emotions that are distracting you.
Do a mind dump. Download the emotions onto paper, process them, feel them.
If you’re upset with someone, process that and consider talking to them. Seek resolution where you can.
If you’re worrying, intentionally turn your thoughts to solutions rather than focusing on the thing you’re worried about. Finding a solution lets your brain let go of the worry and move back to the matter at hand.
Recognize that whatever circumstances might have triggered the emotions the real source of the emotions is your thoughts. You can’t always control circumstances, but you can learn to manage your thoughts. (Listen to Brooke Castillo’s The Life Coach School Podcast, starting with episode 1, for a helpful explanation of the process of learning to do this)
- For external distractions, remove temptation. Put your phone in a drawer. Turn off notifications. Use the Freedom app or another app that blocks access to social media and other sites that distract you. Unsubscribe from email chains, marketing lists, and e-newsletters
“Yes, we need technology, but think about what we need it for: it should enhance our lives, strengthen our relationships and help us find more time for things that are important to us in life. If you don’t feel like a particular app or device is adding value to your life, consider it a distraction and aim to limit your interaction with it.”
- Declutter your workspace
Every article I read, every expert cited, affirms that physical clutter distracts us, making us less efficient and less effective.
“Keeping a clean work environment, both physical and digital, is essential to your ability to stay focused. At work, put everything in a drawer. Create folders on your desktop to get rid of all the random files, and keep only the most important 8–12 apps on your home screen. Turn off all unnecessary notifications (here are tips for Android phones and for Apple phones). Don’t let yourself get distracted by all the clutter — you will stay focused for much longer.”
- Work smart
To the extent you can, work around your own physiological rhythms: Work on complex, focus-requiring tasks at the time of day you’re most focused and energetic and less likely to succumb to distractions
In TPW episode 173, we talked about the value of learning when you’re more naturally able to focus:
“Become more self-aware. Track it for a day or two and keep a log. When do you catch yourself working with sustained focus on a project, or easily powering through your to-do list without becoming distracted? Make a note of the time of day, how much sleep you got the night before, what the weather was like, etc. Keep a log of what you were doing, or what you should’ve been doing instead. Observe when you find yourself ignoring your important work projects to check Facebook or watch YouTube videos or something else. See if you can find patterns. Which hours of the day are you most focused? When do you start to lose focus? Then if you can, adjust your work plans accordingly so you can work on the important things when you’re naturally more focused.”
Recognize that attention (focus) is a finite resource. Do the work that requires focus first before using it up on less crucial activities such as social media, or checking email.
Take breaks when you’re working on something that requires intense focus. Remember the 2-hour limit on the brain’s ability to focus under the best circumstances. Get up, move around, drink some water, have a snack before going back to work.
Plan ahead for external distractions. Be proactive about scheduling time to meet with them (create “office hours”) to prevent interruptions. If noise or other people are distractions, wear headphones.
For other suggestions, listen to Episode 194 – 10 Ways to Stay Focused and Episode 173 – Focus: a Word for the Year. You can search “distraction” on the TPW website using the search bar in the right-hand sidebar to locate other episodes relevant to this topic with additional tips and ideas on how to manage and deal with distractions.
Let’s also be aware of the possibility of distracted living
When we think of distraction, we usually think of the obvious things such as noise, flashing lights, and people talking to us, but even good things can distract us from what’s more important to us. That’s why it’s important to be intentional about the commitments we make and the activities we undertake. Ask yourself whether filling your time with certain things might be distracting you from something that’s more important.
One writer suggests we think carefully about the way we’re filling our time to make sure we’re living meaningfully:
“Here is another easy exercise to help you identify your distractions: If you had only one day left to live, would you spend your time on blank (your choice of activity)? Once you realize where your priorities lie, turn your undivided attention toward them and use all of your efforts and resources to achieve things that make you feel proud and content.”
What do you think?
Do you feel like you’re easily distracted, or have you mastered the skill of focused attention? I’d love to hear what distractions you’re susceptible to, and how you manage them. Please share your thoughts in the comments section below this post or in The Productive Woman Community Facebook group, or send me an email.
- The True Costs of the Distraction Economy
- The Economic Effects of Digital Distraction
- Easily distracted: why it’s hard to focus, and what to do about it
- Daydreaming: what is it, why do we do it, can it be dangerous
- 5 Mental Habits That Can Limit Your Ability to Think
- Break the Cycle of Stress and Distraction by Using Your Emotional Intelligence
- Distracted Living
- Start Pruning Your Life: Cutting Back to Grow More
- 5 Causes of Distractions and 4 Solutions to Prevent Recurrence
- The science behind concentration and improved focus
- The Two Things Killing Your Ability to Focus
- The Life Coach School Podcast by Brooke Castillo – Episode 1: Why You Aren’t Taking Action
- The Life Coach School Podcast by Brooke Castillo – Episode 264: Decision Debt
- TPW Episode 173 – Focus (A Word for the Year)
- TPW Episode 194 – 10 Ways to Stay Focused
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