How to focus in the age of distraction: that’s the million-dollar question of our time. Sounds impossible, right? It’s not. And, it’s also the key to having more good days in work and life.
We feel it even after a full day. Regrets, frustration, guilt, fear, and dissatisfaction about what got done and what did not get done. Our teams look tired and worn, but not satisfied. All our high early morning expectations dashed against the hard rocks of distractions, interruptions, over-stimulation, and conflicting intentions.
According to one study, we spend about 3 to 4 hours a day resisting desires (impulses). From brain science, we know that this resistance costs energy – energy in terms of glucose available for calories.
As glucose gets depleted, so do our brain resources (neurotransmitters in your brain require glucose for synthesis).
From my own 24 years of observations of clients, teams, managers, top-notch CEOs / leaders, I see the costs of distractions on performance – both in terms of quantity and quality.
I present ways to make life and work more flexible and workable in this article.
Types of Distractions
The first thing that I tell my clients is to build some awareness of the kinds of distractions they may be experiencing. Here are some kinds of distractions and solutions for each:
1. Decision Fatigue – Rational ‘At Stuck-ness’ is a Distraction
We are stuck in a decision. Most people get stuck in the ‘stuck’ i.e. they give up or give in and avoid the decision to be made. Sometimes it is okay to avoid a decision – if it was just a one-time thing. But if the avoidance continues, then that can be a drain on the brain, financial, and time resources. The nature of the stuck is usually in either
a. Insufficient knowledge to make the decision
If it is insufficient knowledge, try your best to write down what is missing in terms of what you need to know to make the decision. Then schedule a time to research and reset expectations with those involved on the timeline to make a decision.
b. Conflicting values or logic
Identify what is conflicting in the decision e.g. two values that are in conflict e.g.g. if I do option A, I compromise value X and if I do option B, I compromise value Y. This may not be easy to resolve – it may require help from your team or for yourself to brainstorm. Give yourself and your team time to do this: have them or yourself write down solutions or ways to resolve over the next few days or weeks. Again reset expectations with those involved.
c. A need to emotionally normalize
This is usually the biggest one. Decisions incorporate both the emotional and logical functions of our mind. In brain scans under simple conditions, we can literally witness different ‘circuitries’ or regions of the brain ‘battling out’ for the decision to be made – some scientists claim to be able to predict what the person will decide based on their brain scans a little before they actually verbalize their decision.
From a coaching or mentoring perspective, this is where some people will just need to ‘vent’ or ‘day-dream talk’ to let various emotions and ideas and conflicts be resolved through just that – talking. The best way to work with people in this state is to listen. If you are working alone, write down / scribble your thoughts.
2. Distraction Overload Caused by Overwhelm
This is the situation where one is not skilled enough or does not have sufficient resources (e.g. tools, systems, team, time, money, etc.) to handle their current workload.
The solution is to pick the highest priority objectives (between 4 to 7 max) on your list and shelve the rest for later.
Then chunk down expectations for each project down for the week – what can and will you really get done for each project this week. Focus on scheduling time for yourself or delegating to your team to focus on these chunks only.
The long term solution is three-fold (this is where a highly skilled coach comes to play):
- Create a bigger vision or game – a game where we focus only on what is important AND the game is big enough to feel inspired and motivated to take on bigger challenges.
- Create or purchase better systems or hire people to take more off your plate.
- Build up automatic practices and skills in handling overwhelm
3. How Worry Distracts You and Stifles Productivity
This is where you spend your time in depression or rumination – where the distractedness and worry do not provide any return on investment e.g. what did look at your PC and thinking negative thoughts for the last 15 minutes get you?
The trick here is to catch yourself in the state. A quick trick is to take a slow breath to enable the brain to relax and take a different tack.
As you catch yourself, write down what you are thinking, feeling, seeing as images, or sensing in your body. This act in itself results in distracting yourself from the worry. Then look at your vision or goals and objectives – maybe they are not big enough – maybe you need to create a bigger vision for yourself i.e. to think bigger than the problem you are worried about.
The other trick which is no longer a trick for me (because it works really well) is to list out all the things in your life or work or team that you are grateful for.
4. Distraction Through Over-Activation (e.g. Too much caffeine)
This occurs when you get success and you feel elated or simply because you had way too much caffeine. So you are over-stimulated. If the brain is in this state, you are just as non-productive as if you were under-activated. The brain has to be just right – not over and not understimulated – in order to optimally produce work and insightful/creative thinking.
The solution that works best is frankly to take a break or even better take a nap. I take several naps a day – I am always recharged and produce way more with even a 10-minute nap, than to ‘force’ myself to continue working.
5. Why Resistance is a Tremendous Distraction
This is where we just ‘don’t wanna do it.’ There could be various reasons for why, but we just don’t want to do it and you ‘ain’t gonna make me’.
This is where a compelling enough vision of the future (e.g. a vision statement) and longer-term objectives come into play. If you engage enough on a daily basis to refine and use your vision and long-term objectives every day in the selection of your daily projects, the vision and longer-term objectives (the future) have ‘more oxygen’ put on them than the resistance which usually comes from the past.
If you have enjoyed these articles, please kindly drop me a line or follow me on LinkedIn to let me know what you learned and where you see your next gap in heading towards your goals to be.
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Since 1991, I’ve been reflecting on, designing, and implementing methodologies and systems for bringing a transcendent, creative and innovative approach to critical aspects of entrepreneurship.
2 thoughts on “How to Focus in the Age of Distraction: Pathways out of the 5 Sources of Distraction”
Brilliant description of stuck states of being and their solutions!
Wow. Very insightful and relevant to my life. I especially like the idea of overcoming worry by dreaming bigger! Thank you for your article and, of course, your illustration.