When it comes to our productivity, technology can be a double-edged sword. It’s incredibly useful but can also bring a lot of distractions. This week we’re talking about managing distractions in a digital age.
One key to productivity: managing distractions
When I was working on some of the recent episodes about managing our time and setting ourselves up for greater productivity, I kept coming across information about distractions and their impact on our life and productivity. I actually started to include it in last week’s episode about small changes to boost productivity but felt like it was worth an episode of its own. We last focused on distraction 5 years ago in episode 243. There’s plenty of good information there about managing distractions in general, so it’s worth listening again. This time, though, I want to focus mostly on digital distractions.
Definition of distraction – “a thing that prevents someone from giving full attention to something else” (Oxford Dictionary online). In his book Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life, Nir Eyal refers to distractions as “actions that move us away from what we really want”
As we discussed back in episode 243,
“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.”
Various types of distractions
- Worry and unresolved drama
- “Open loops” – undone tasks and unmade decisions
- Other people
- Outside communication
The impact of distractions on productivity, focus, and mental health
- Prevent us from doing our best work
- Can impair relationships
- Prevent 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)
Why We Get Distracted
The role of the Internet and technology
Much has been written about the fact that the technologies we rely on are specifically designed to be addictive. (See Adam Alter’s book, Irresistible, and Cal Newport’s Digital Minimalism, which we talked about in episode 366 as part of our recurring Productive Reading series). Alter talks about research showing that people develop a “behavioral addiction” to tech (based on behavior rather than chemistry). An article on a Harvard Medical School site notes:
“Research has shown that social media cues, such as “likes” on one of our posts or pictures of our friends laughing, trigger a surge in dopamine, the neurotransmitter associated with pleasure and reward, which may diminish the motivation to pay attention to anything else.”
There is human curiosity and the desire for novelty – our brains are wired to watch for the new and novel, which will distract us from the routine and even the important. There is the urge to avoid discomfort (Nir Eyal) – even the discomfort of boredom. In an interview on BigThink.com. Eyal describes distraction as
“a psychological response to emotional discomfort. When we’re feeling anxious, bored, unhappy, or another disquieting sentiment, we are internally triggered to seek relief.”
In a Harvard Business Review article, psychologist Larry Rosen had this to say:
“Why are we allowing ourselves to be so debilitated by technological distractions? Some people refer to the overuse of digital devices as an addiction. But since most of us don’t appear to gain much pleasure from the behavior—a defining feature of addiction—I wouldn’t classify it as such. More accurate are terms such as FOMO (fear of missing out), FOBO (fear of being offline), and nomophobia (fear of being out of mobile phone contact)—all forms of anxiety that border on obsession or compulsion. People are constantly checking their laptops, tablets, and phones because they worry about receiving new information after everyone else, responding too slowly to a text or an e-mail, or being late to comment on or like a social media post.”
This article refers to studies showing spikes in anxiety among people prevented from checking their mobile devices.
Effects of chronic distraction
Digital fatigue – defined in one article on the Harley Therapy Mental Health Blog as “a state of mental exhaustion brought on by the excessive use of digital devices.”
Impact on our relationships and work performance
From a study by the American Psychology Association,
“Decades of research on happiness tell us that engaging positively with others is critical for our well-being. Modern technology may be wonderful, but it can easily sidetrack us and take away from the special moments we have with friends and family in person.” [quoted in How to conquer digital distractions]
Nir Eyal, in Indistractable, agrees, saying, “we can’t cultivate close friendships if we’re constantly distracted.”
The Harvard Business Review says, “Digital overload may be the defining problem of today’s workplace.” They add “even when we want to focus, it’s nearly impossible. And when we’re tempted to procrastinate, diversions are only a click away.”
The article cites Stanford University research showing “people who regularly juggle several streams of content do not pay attention, memorize, or manage their tasks as well as those who focus on one thing at a time. The result is reduced productivity and engagement, both in the office and at home.”
Strategies to Defeat Distractions
- Mindfulness and meditation
As we’ve discussed before, these help us practice focus, improving our peace of mind and our productivity. One writer pointed out that “Meditation can help develop focus but it also can help you ‘let go’–to give your brain a break. An exhausted brain not only leads to poor focus but can lead to poor sleep as well.”
- Time-management techniques like the Pomodoro Technique, where we set a timer to focus on one task for 25 minutes, then take a 5-minute break
- General tactics we discussed back in episode 243:
- 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.
Psychologist Larry Rosen encourages us to take breaks from tech, offering the following in the Harvard Business Review article:
“First, use behavioral principles to wean yourself from your digital devices. Allow yourself to check all modes of e-communication, but then shut everything down and silence your phone. Set an alarm for 15 minutes, and when it rings give yourself one minute for a tech check-in. Repeat this process until you are comfortable increasing your off-grid time to an hour or several hours.A second strategy is inspired by the research of Nathaniel Kleitman, who established that our brains work in 90-minute rest-activity cycles not only when we sleep but also when we’re awake. So you should take a recharging break every hour and a half, especially if you’re multitasking with technology, which makes the brain overly active. Even a 10-minute walk in nature is enough to have a calming effect. You might also listen to music, look at art, exercise, or meditate.”
Others say disconnecting isn’t the answer and isn’t practical in this age where so much of our communication is digital. Eyal says that since, he believes, “distraction starts from within” as a response to some sort of psychological discomfort, we need to learn to recognize and address the sources of the discomfort that trigger us to reach for the distraction. He recommends scheduling blocks of time for digital activities (email, social media, etc.) and focusing on those activities intentionally during those periods. Now they’re no longer distractions, but purposefully chosen activities.
Eyal and others recommend weeding out some of the external distractions by:
- Turning off audible and visual alerts
- Learn to use the “Do Not Disturb” function of your computer and mobile devices
- Removing from your devices apps that don’t help
Protect your rest! From the Harvard Business Review article:
“keep technology out of your bedroom. The National Sleep Foundation (NSF) and Mayo Clinic have noted that the use of blue-light-emitting LED devices is detrimental to your sleep—a critical period that cements what you learned during the day, while removing useless information and the toxic byproducts of daily neuronal activities. NSF recommends that you abstain from viewing digital material for one hour before bedtime, while Mayo Clinic suggests dimming screens used at night, keeping them 14 inches from your face, and removing them from the room when you’re ready to sleep. The aim is to block the release of neurotransmitters that energize your brain and instead promote the production of melatonin, which allows you to rest.”
Distraction–both digital and otherwise–is a real issue for many of us who care about productivity and making a life that matters. I think a combination of solutions is the best answer to the problem of digital distractions. Managing them–by turning off alerts, eliminating problematic apps, and time-boxing our digital activities–is key. But also periodic vacations from the digital world–putting devices away during meals, for example; turning off all screens an hour before bedtime; putting your phone in another room while you work on an important project; maybe even a day or weekend with no devices–can give our brains a rest and let us focus on the kinds of in-person connection that can truly define a life that matters.
What do you think?
Do you feel the effects of digital distraction? What tactics do you use–or will you try–to manage it? Post your thoughts and suggestions in the comments section below or in The Productive Woman Community Facebook group, or email me
Resources and Links
- How to conquer digital distractions
- Conquering Digital Distraction
- 25 Tips To Deal With Digital Distractions
- Staying focused in the era of digital distractions – Harvard Health
- Master your digital distractions (without a digital detox)
- How to Manage Distractions & Keep Focus in a Noisy Digital Age – Blog – Shift
- How to Deal with Digital Distraction to Improve Your Focus – LifeHack
- The lost art of concentration: being distracted in a digital world | Health & wellbeing | The Guardian
- Distraction Definition & Meaning – Merriam-Webster
- Digital Fatigue – Is Your Screen Time Killing Your Wellbeing? – Harley Therapy™ Blog
- Digital Fatigue: The myth, the reality and why we need to rethink audience engagement | ON24
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