Part 1: Focus on Distractions
How many times have you sat down at the start of your day, excited to get a bunch of tasks done, only to decide to quickly check your email and then spiral into a day that results in nothing more than finally learning who actually framed Roger Rabbit?
Time is a limited resource, and our ability to focus during that time seems to be in serious danger.
In fact, studies show that distractions happen once every 11 minutes and people switch tasks an average of every 3 minutes and 5 seconds.
So, thankfully it’s not just you who stops drafting a presentation just to go off and find the lyrics to the earworm stuck in your brain.
Distractions are a huge problem in today’s workplace. A quick minute to twitter scroll can easily snowball into hours of lost concentration. Research from Dr. Gloria Mark of the University of California Irvine says that it can take nearly 25 minutes to achieve the same state of mind in the original task after being distracted.
A lot more than lost time
The impact of distractions is not just time, but also the quality of work. A study from the Institute of Psychiatry at King’s College in London interrupted some participants with email notifications and other distractions when taking an IQ test. Those participants scored an average of ten points lower than the control group that was left uninterrupted. To put that in context, people who smoked marijuana just before taking the test only scored 8 points lower.
In another study, Dr. Mark required subjects to answer a set of emails. One set of people were left undisturbed while the other group was constantly interrupted with phone calls and messages. Using a NASA workload scale, the group that was interrupted experienced elevated levels of stress, frustration, effort, pressure, and mental exhaustion.
Not all distractions are the same
Everyone can all resonate with being distracted, but there are many different kinds of distractions, and understanding the difference can be the key to overcoming them.
Good vs. bad
When you think of distractions, you likely think of the metaphorical trolls running around the office, causing mayhem.
But recent studies have proved that distractions can be beneficial as well. A Northwestern University study revealed that when tackling a complex problem, some time spent in unconscious, distracted thinking can eventually help you perform better when you come back to the core issue.
Let’s say you’re working on a project and a colleague drops by your desk. She asks you a few questions about the project or gives you new information about it, which spurs some positive outcomes. These good distractions might be needed social interactions that rejuvenate and revitalize your mind and are crucial for high productivity.
Bad distractions end up leaving your original work worse or undone. Bad distractions are usually peripheral or completely unrelated to the work you wanted to do. They pull you away and don’t help you return back to what you were originally doing.
Physical vs. digital
Physical distractions happen in the space around you, like someone playing a loud video, or those hunger pangs that hit right when you sit down to finish something important. Digital distractions on the other hand assault you with buzzes, dings, or little red notifications that beg to be checked.
Internal vs. external
It’s common to point your finger and blame distractions on the things around you–noisy coworkers, chat notifications, or bad office plans. But think about the last time when you had a solid two hours to work on a project without anyone bothering you. Wasn’t it just as difficult to stay focused? In fact, studies show that up to half of distractions are self-imposed.
Internal distractions are also called self-interruptions. These happen when you are reading a blog and then pick up your phone or check social media for no reason. While in the middle of something else, a random thought appears in your brain (“What happens to chicken eggs when they freeze?”), and twenty minutes later you are researching zoning laws for having your own urban farm.
Dr. Mark’s research found that when external interruptions decrease, internal interruptions increase. So even when you block out a few hours to get some focused work done, you are still just as likely to wind up wasting your time on things you didn’t want to do.
Am I successfully focused, or am I focusing on focusing?
Wasn’t it better before?
Are distractions only a modern digital phenomenon? Or are our brains made to wander off at the first chance they get?
Distractions go back farther than you think. Beatriz Arantes, a senior researcher and psychologist at Steelcase believes that it’s rooted in our evolution.
“From a survival point of view, it was important to be attentive to your environment as there could be something that’s an opportunity or a threat. We are pre-wired to notice other things and can’t switch off our attentiveness to the environment,” she told The Guardian.
In 1830, Victor Hugo faced an impossible deadline; he had less than six months to come up with a new book but he kept pushing it off. To help him focus, he asked his assistant to take all his clothes, lock them in a chest, and leave the house. He was left in his room without any appropriate clothing, forcing him to stay indoors and write. The Hunchback of Notre-Dame was published two weeks before the deadline, in January 1831.
As apocryphal as the story might sound, you can’t deny the fact that humans have always been aware of the deleterious effects of distractions. David Lavenda’s article on Fast Company points to Petrarch, the 14th century scholar, who, in The Life of Solitude, wrote, “Close the doors of your senses in order to achieve solitude in the presence of other people.”
But with smartphones and unlimited data plans, surely distractions today are much worse than workers of the past, right?
It’s the damn technology’s fault
Distractions and new technology have always been linked together. This goes back as far as Socrates who thought that the act of writing things down would diminish the mind’s ability to hold information and distracts it with excess information.
Every new technology has both the promise of increased productivity and the propensity to drive its users to more distractions. As Socrates predicted, more productivity and more connections mean more noise and more things to sift through. So, humans have always had to up their game on dealing with distractions when new technology comes around. It’s coming around a lot faster these days, but human’s ability to handle the new distractions hasn’t grown at the same rate.
But what happens when the technology itself is trying to distract you?
Max Stossel from the Center for Humane Technology reveals that the goal of many startup tech companies is to capture and hold someone’s attention for at least two minutes. When you have an entire economy and valuation system that is built on how much attention you have, it’s only natural for companies to try and figure what grabs user’s attention. “It’s a race to the bottom of the brainstem,” as Tristan Harris puts it.
Stossel says the real game changer today is that it’s not a person who is trying to allure you, but an algorithm. “What the algorithm learns is how to best keep our attention.” When you have a machine that is created and incentivized to pull you away from what you were doing, you have a big distraction problem.
Multitasking is so 1995
The reports have been out for a long time that say that multitasking is a myth and your brain can’t actually focus on more than one thing at a time. In fact, it’s almost unfashionable in modern companies to claim to be good at multitasking.
But people still do it all the time.
Multitasking has been redefined not as doing more than one thing at once, but the rapid switching of tasks from one to another. So when you are doing some deep analysis of a sales report and then you check your phone notifications, and then you check your email quickly, that’s multitasking.
Multitasking is embracing distractions. It’s working like a triage nurse in the ER unit who is just waiting for the next thing to come through the door. People who multitask are often so addicted to it that they can’t realize they are doing it.
But leaning into distractions isn’t helping anyone. The American Psychological Association reports that “even brief mental blocks created by shifting between tasks can cost as much as 40 percent of someone’s productive time.”
Clifford Nass, a psychology professor at Stanford University, says, “Today’s non-stop multitasking actually wastes more time than it saves,” and there’s evidence it may be killing your concentration and creativity too.
Go back to that moment when you start your work day fresh. What would it be like to bust through everything with no distractions and accomplish what you’ve always dreamed of?
Part 2: Flow
Have you seen a concert where the violinist “loses” herself in her work, completely immersed, and unaware of the passage of time or her surroundings? Or watch a basketball player who can score at will no matter how strong the defense?
These people have reached a state called flow.
Flow is a term that was coined by the Hungarian-American psychologist Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi. He studied high performers in many fields and noticed patterns in how they talked about their very productive times. In his TED talk, he talks about a composer who had a time when he wrote music without friction, free from distractions. The composer’s mind was working so fluidly and quickly, the composer couldn’t even observe it.
Csíkszentmihályi began to notice the same thing with poets, artists, athletes, and even business leaders. He used the term flow to describe a state where you are completely involved and immersed in your work, invincible from distractions. It’s a state of ecstasy and great inner clarity.
You may have experienced this at the office on occasion. Do you remember the time when you put your headphones on and started writing, but then realized that the music stopped playing long back? And yet, you sat there for two hours, in total trance, utterly immersed, pumping out great work.
Working while distracted feels like trying to run through knee-deep mud. Being in flow makes you feel like you are flying above the muddy pools of distraction and able to live up to your full potential.
The long path to flow
Unfortunately, there’s not a secret formula or a shortcut you can use to conjure up flow at will. In fact, it’s nearly impossible to force. Dr. Mark says flow is “very rare” and doesn’t happen very often. For those who experience it, all these things need to be in place:
1. A lot of experience. Csíkszentmihályi suggests that it takes at least ten years of deep experience in a field before you can expect to reach a flow state. So, if you are just starting off your career as a software engineer, don’t expect to go into a flawless code frenzy right away.
2. The right combination of challenge and skills. Most of the work you do every day doesn’t require your most advanced skills. Also, most of it isn’t extremely challenging. Csíkszentmihályi says that flow happens when you are working on things that are at the edge of your abilities and challenge you deeply.
3. A high tolerance to distractions. Those people who reach flow are already experts in dealing with distractions. It’s not correct to say “I’m going to get into a flow state so I don’t have to deal with these distractions.” In fact, you must deal with the distractions first in order to reach flow.
Achieving flow is a wonderful experience, but it’s not something you can just do on command by squinting your eyes hard enough. However, you can make yourself more available to flow by committing to building skills in a certain area, seeking out challenging work, and building a resistance to distractions.
But what can I do today?
Since flow is a goal that is much further off, in the meantime you can practice what Cal Newport calls Deep Work, defined as:
Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.
Newport contrasts that with Shallow Work:
Noncognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend to not create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate.
Which one sounds like how you spent your day yesterday?
Shallow work is what drives stress, depression, and are the most likely tasks that will be handed over to AI. In some ways, both our well-being and survival in the work world are being able to make the bridge from shallow to deep work.
But most people are no more prepared to jump into deep work than they are to start basic training for the military. In Deep Work, Newport tells stories about people who had to practice these skills for years before they had mastered the ability to stay attentive. So how can you get started?
Part 3: 30 Ways to Build Your Attention Muscles
Training yourself for deep work and avoiding distractions takes a lot of work. Your attention is like a muscle. You need to work it out regularly in order to improve it. Just like you can’t do a triple lutz ice skating jump after one lap around the ice, you’ll never reach a state of flow until you have conditioned your brain to focus.
So, each time you successfully avoid a negative distraction, you are building strength. But as anyone on a diet or workout plan knows, it’s really easy to slip back into old habits.
We’ve collected some of the best ideas out there on how to help train your mind to handle distractions better. Not all of them will work for you, but you should be able to find a few ideas that can help you battle distractions.
Don’t start here
Here are some go-to staples of the past that are just bad ideas when it comes to building up your attention.
1. Don’t try harder. One of the most interesting parts of Dr. Mark’s study is how people compensated when they had been distracted. She said, “when people are in environments where they’re experiencing high numbers of interruptions, they tend to speed up their work.” It’s that mad afternoon rush to finally finish the presentation before you need to be home to pick up your kid from school.
But this always comes at a price. It increases stress, frustration, time pressure, and effort. In a Michigan State study, brief interruptions on a timed experiment made participants try harder which doubled their error rate.
2. Don’t expect more from yourself. Sometimes you just need to reset your expectations. Given the amount of time everyone has in a day, there is only so much that can be accomplished. In a chapter entitled First Things First in The Effective Executive, Peter Drucker points out that Mozart could work on and complete several compositions at the same time. But nearly every other famous composer had to do one at a time. Drucker says it’s a mistake to assume you are the outlier. Reset your expectations to focus on one very important thing at a time.
3. Don’t turn to technology first. There are many good tools out there to help you control your distractions. But one of the leading causes of distractions is having too many apps in the first place. Most of the effective ways to reduce distractions include eliminating the use of some apps or at least don’t require adding more technology.
Remember, technology exists to make people more productive, but it also opens you up to more distractions. If you need help dealing with distractions, reduce your technology dependence until you get better at handling what you have.
What, exactly, are you avoiding?
As mentioned earlier, there are several types of distractions. Saying, “I’m going to avoid all distractions” is about as helpful as saying, “I’m not going to eat bad food.” What distractions are the most detrimental to you? Physical or digital? External or internal? Once you identify the main culprits, you can develop a strategy to specifically target those to start.
We’ve curated these lists according to those ideas that help beat external or internal distractions, including both digital and physical distractions.
Ideas to beat external distractions
4. Remove alerts and notifications. Unfortunately, most applications come with full alerts by default, forcing you to ask the question, “Do I not want these notifications?”, instead of the more helpful, “Do I really need these notifications all the time?” If your goal is attention, it’s better to miss an important notification once than have to swim through hundreds of unnecessary ones every day.
5. Turn off messaging apps when you are doing deep work. You may feel the pressure to stay connected to your team all the time, but even messaging apps shouldn’t be on 24×7. When you are sitting down for focused work, turn them off, or put them on do not disturb mode. Remember that when you have notifications on, you are always multitasking, effectively saying, “I’m going to do this really important work AND be available in case someone wants to share a funny GIF.
6. Treat your email like an actual inbox. What would you think of the person who spent all day “working” in the mail room? Pretty distractible. Ron Friedman says ‘working’ inside an email client is “like dieting in a pastry shop”. Instead, at a few points in the day, check your email, but follow Nir Eyal’s advice to use it for triage, not responses.
7. Have conversations in real time. Formstack CEO Chris Byers says “Email breaks a 15-minute conversation over several days, each one an interruption.” Get on the phone with someone or meet in person anytime the answer is complicated or will take more than a quick response. Any email exchange that goes back and forth more than three times could probably have been handled with a short phone call.
8. Wear headphones during focused work time. While not foolproof, headphones have become the “do not disturb” sign of the open office. If music is distracting to you, find some white or background noise players, or just keep the headphone in as a sign that you don’t want to be bothered.
9. Ask for better meeting culture. Meetings can be a source of distractions, especially if they are unnecessarily long. Any time you are invited to a meeting, ask, “What is the agenda? What information will be shared? What are we discussing? What results do we expect?” Otherwise, meetings can be a distraction that lasts for hours at a time.
10. Organize your workspace. Some people thrive in a slightly chaotic workspace, but most of us find it distracting. Keeping papers and reminders on your desk is like constantly having tabs open on your browser of things you need to come back to.
11. Walk through your senses. What is currently visually distracting you, both on your screen and your workplace? What sounds are most likely to get you off track? Are you always tempted to stop working when the smell of coffee hits you? How does hunger impact your work? Is your body at the best temperature to focus without needing to break to get a sweater?
Ideas to beat internal distractions:
12. Stay in control. No matter if it is digital or physical, Gustavo Razzetti encourages people to reflect on why they became distracted. Are you avoiding or exploring? When you get that impulse to break concentration, stop and ask if it’s worth it. If you feel yourself slipping out of control, that’s the time to take a break, go for a walk, or switch to a task that doesn’t require as much focus. Nir Eyal says to be inquisitive instead of judgemental about distraction triggers.
A lot of the fight against distractions is already won or lost before your day begins. If you immediately start by checking your email and messages, you are asking for distractions to come and take over your day. Here are some ideas to schedule your time.
13. Plan the night before. The time when you are most likely aware of how distractions have affected you happens when you are walking out of the office or shutting down the laptop. Either you are jazzed about getting some good work done, or you feel sick because you don’t have much to show for all of your time. Take the last 5-10 minutes of the day and make sure your tomorrow is set up for success.
14. Be smart with blocks of time. Deep work requires several minutes before you can get into the flow. So, don’t plan to squeeze in your very focused tasks in the thirty minutes you have between meetings. Try to carve out big chunks of time when you can focus without needing to check the clock.
15. Group common tasks together. Try scheduling all of your meetings back-to-back since they are a completely different kind of work. Trying to switch between writing, designing, coding, and meeting takes a mental toll.
16. Pick a highlight for the day. Oftentimes, just getting that one win a day is enough to keep you going. What is it that you’ll feel great about if you accomplish today? Prioritize your highlight first, and then you can be in a good place even if the distraction trolls take over.
17. Be realistic. While on paper it might seem like you can accomplish a ton today, aim to just get one very important highlight done each day, and everything else is a bonus. While your attention muscle will improve over time, you don’t want to get depressed just because you didn’t cross every item off your list in a day.
18. Build in breaks. Breaks are just as important as focused time. Your unconscious mind will still be making connections for you after you clear your cache and check out for some time. Go for a walk or find a good distraction.
19. Use shallow work as a break from deep work. As you are being aware of when you are getting distracted, if you feel like you need a break, take that time to check in with email and messages, or do some simple spreadsheet work until you are ready to go back.
20. Pay for websites without ads. Technology is supposed to make you more productive, but if it is littered with ads, it is counterproductive. As Max Stossel points out, one reason tech companies have turned to harvesting your attention is that most don’t pay for the software outright. If you like a certain news website or application, look for a paid option that removes ads and keeps your focus on what the software does.
21. Use tech that limits other tech in the background. While it doesn’t need to be your first option, Humane Tech and Zapier have a lot of good resources to stop you from drifting off to the far corners of the internet when you are online. Tools like the News Feed Eradicator for Facebook or Distraction Free Distraction Free YouTube work in the background and can be a great help.
22. Automate and delegate. It’s easy to be the most distracted by those quick, shallow work tasks that give a dopamine rush. However, most of these tasks can be delegated to others or automated. For regular processes, use automation to reduce the minutiae. Experiment with AI for scheduling or other services. Identify tasks that a personal assistant can help with. It’s easier to focus on the one big task on your plate when you don’t also have the dozen small ones.
23. Eliminate internal triggers before sitting down for deep work. Make sure your stomach is full, the bladder is empty, and your visual cues muted before you start.
24. Externalize with lists. Unfortunately, it’s often while in the middle of focused work that you get your best ideas. Current technology has trained your mind to act on a thought as soon as you have it, further distracting you from your focused work. Externalizing the activities that need to be done helps you not forget a brilliant idea, but also keeps you in the zone. Your lists should be always nearby and simple to use.
25. Be open about the struggles you have. Many people feel embarrassed about productivity and distraction issues, but everyone struggles with it. Your team and manager all want you to work at your best. Tell others if you are trying something new and ask for their support.
If you lead a team
A team leader has a lot of power to make people’s work lives much more enjoyable and productive by changing the environment. Julian Birkinshaw encourages leaders to think of themselves as the manager of your team’s attention. How can you find ways to put up walls around your team to keep the distraction trolls away?
26. Kill redundant apps. Forrester Research said that 61% of organizations use five or more collaboration tools, but most of them are not being used effectively. Reducing the number of apps is better than having your data spread out everywhere. Look to build your own apps with platforms instead of relying on single-solution apps.
27. Get rid of internal email. Email is a big problem in most offices because it’s not being used right. Email is horrible at organizing and storing information, encouraging contextual communication, and managing tasks. You likely have much more effective ways to communicate and share data as a team. Only use email for external communication.
28. Establish policies. Host meetings where you can talk about how to eliminate distractions and maintain attention. However, mandating things like no-meeting Wednesdays rarely work when they are top-down. Allow team members to come up with their own ideas about the best ways to eliminate distractions. Think about how you can improve your meeting culture by requiring agendas and clear outcomes.
29. Offer attention training. Very few organizations train employees on how to use the tools they give them. Anytime you add a new tool or onboard someone, make sure your training includes the proper way to use it, and the dangers and distractions of using it poorly.
30. Don’t force one model on everyone. People who naturally have more self-restraint are actually hindered by additional restraints, or may not ever take a break, leading to faster burnout. Recognize that everyone battles distractions in different ways and allow for variation.
The end of distractions?
As technology increases, so will distractions. As a knowledge worker, you must continue to build up your ability to focus on those tasks that have the most impact. If you continue to wallow around in the mire of distracted, shallow work, you are not only wasting time, but are also more likely to be stressed and depressed and struggle to keep up in the modern economy.
Building up your attention and ability to focus on work isn’t impossible, but you have to swim against the flow. Identify ways you can start to be less distracted, and prepare for a better world of work.