For most of us distraction is a fact of life. We are surrounded by triggers tempting our attention and encouraging us to just have a quick look. Whether it be a phone ringing, a computer flashing up a new message or a colleague interrupting you for a quick chat. Distraction is everywhere, it’s persistent and it is arguably one of the biggest contributors to personal stress and poor productivity.
According to Gloria Mark of the University of California, it takes an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds to effectively return to the original task after being interrupted. Think about how often you get distracted on an average day – now times that by 23 minutes!1
Not only are we being distracted, but the quality of our work is likely being compromised as we try to work faster to compensate for the interruption. And it doesn’t get any easier for those working from home more frequently. Distractions are everywhere!
But what is really causing this distraction and what can you do about it?
The opposite of distraction is traction, so it might be helpful to think of distraction as anything that causes you to lose focus on the task and stalls progress.
We are surrounded by potential distraction every day, which can be broken down into three broad categories:
Sensory distraction (environmental)
. As human beings we have five well known senses that are continually being triggered.
Working in the office or increasingly from home, visual stimulation serves as a continual challenge. Whether it be someone walking past your desk or one of your children sneaking into the pantry – every movement is a distraction.
And that is just the first trigger. What about sounds – people talking loudly near you; touch – feeling a cold wind as a door opens; smell – someone preparing a tasty meal at home or in the office; and, of course, taste – our cravings for certain foods at particular times of the day. All are potential sources of distraction.
This is of course what most modern workers think of when we discuss distraction. At a recent workshop I ran, I asked executives to write down the three biggest distractions in their lives. The overwhelming majority wrote down three different technologies, apps or programs. And the irony was that many of the programs and apps they wrote down were designed to help with productivity!
To make things worse, tech companies have for years been studying how to gain and hold your attention. In other words, their business models rely on their ability to distract you.
Whilst technology is a problem with frequency, external demands are more about volume. In the past two years, I have conducted a number of experience audits for employees and executives across the Asia Pacific region. One of the methods we use is to review the meetings individuals have attended over the past month. I investigate the purpose, time allocated and time used, attendees and outcome.
In almost every case, I find that over 50% of meetings are either largely pointless i.e. their purpose was at best subjective and at worst non-existent; or dramatically oversubscribed. They had far too many attendees who had no real purpose for being there. I find that recurring meetings are the biggest culprit as the original reason for calling the meeting tends to be forgotten.
Interestingly, I have found that time consuming and unproductive meetings have actually increased as more employees are working from home and are invited into never ending online meetings.
As Nir Eyal outlines in his thought-provoking book Indistractable, it would appear that we are continuously in a state of dissatisfaction and discomfort, and distraction can often be viewed as an entirely natural solution for erasing this discomfort. And it may be that we are actually wired this way for a reason as a study published in the Review of General Psychology notes “If satisfaction and pleasure were permanent, there might be little incentive to continue seeking further benefits or advances.”2 In other words, being content might not be good for us as a species.
There are four psychological factors that make satisfaction temporary.
The first is boredom. The perception of being bored explains why so many of the apps on your phone are likely to offer bite sized doses of social gossip, engagement, or entertainment.
The second factor is negativity bias. This is “a phenomenon in which negative events are more salient and demand attention more powerfully than neutral or positive events”.3 In other words, we tend to remember and focus on negative events more than positive ones.
The third is rumination. Our tendency to deeply consider bad situations (more than positive ones) to the point where it dominates your thoughts. Whilst there is a benefit to considering why something went wrong and to explore future improvements, it can suck time and leave you feeling miserable.
The last factor is the hedonic treadmill, which is a term that describes our tendency to quickly return to a relatively stable emotional baseline despite major positive or negative events in our lives. For some this means getting used to living to their means as their incomes increase, and for others it means getting over a tragic event and quickly moving on with their lives. Whilst there is a clear positive impact, the downside is that we are left feeling dissatisfied even after we accomplish something significant.
Potential solutions to consider
Solving the problem of distraction means doing less of what we shouldn't be doing and more of what we should. Here a few ideas that should prove useful – for those working from home and those venturing back to the office.
- Timeboxing is an effective and well-researched4 tool to help with focus. The goal of timeboxing is to ensure there is no whitespace in your calendar. The theory being that when we leave a lot of whitespace, we either drift aimlessly or the time is taken by other people. Timeboxing is less about planning specific tasks, and more about blocking out chunks of time for the things you value i.e. you (reading, learning, playing or exercising) relationships (family time or catching up with friends) and work (key projects, tasks and productive meetings).
- Prepare your senses. This is especially relevant when working from home, but just as applicable in the office. When setting up a place to work, think through each of the five senses and consider what you can do to reduce their impact. An office is great, but if you don’t have access to one, sit with your back to visual distractions. Turn off notifications on everything – not just tones but vibration alerts too. Better yet – put devices away. Get comfortable and set the temperature to about 19⁰. Have a snack nearby so you aren’t tempted away.
- Delayed gratification – checking Instagram or Facebook for 30 seconds is never really 30 seconds. Anything you can do to delay the physical process of checking your device will be to your advantage. A simple tip here is to consciously say to yourself, when you are tempted to check a device, “I’ll do that in 10 minutes time – not now”. This simple delay not only gives you back a sense of control, but you will find that once the 10 minutes passes you are less inclined to check the device.
- Focus on inputs not outcomes. Much of our stress comes from time pressures. When you are in control of these stresses, they can be useful but all too often we feel like we lose control, and this is where stress starts to become harmful. A simple tool that we recommend is to is to write down what you believe are the inputs required to achieve the outcome you are looking for. This tends to include the tasks broken down in a bit of detail and realistic timeframes for each. Focusing on the inputs required to achieve my desired outcome helps me to focus and reduces the likelihood of distraction.
In summary, distraction has a major impact on our everyday lives. It is already a major factor in the experience of employees at work, but it is likely to be more so when working at home.
Not all distraction is external, often it is our desire to avoid discomfort that triggers internal distraction. Focus on what you believe creates the greatest value, even if it means putting in a bit of uncomfortable effort.
Managing distraction takes time to master but is worth it. Not only will your business experience increased productivity, but employees will enjoy an increased sense of satisfaction and wellbeing.