How to master the double-headed beast that is distraction.
Taking lessons from a 17th-century French mathematician might not seem the most obvious time-management tactic, but, when it comes to distraction, Blaise Pascal gets straight to the heart of its often-confusing duality: “Distraction is the only thing that consoles us for miseries and yet it is itself the greatest of our miseries.”
If we are to focus, to set the right priorities, to find out and act on what matters most to us, or adds most value, we clearly need to understand what distractions are and how we can manage or mitigate them. But we also need to know when a good dose of the right kind of ‘healthy’ distraction can be positive, offering Pascal’s consolation and the space to think that we all need to become well-rounded leaders.
There’s no doubt, though, that when we get to the end of a working day and ask ourselves, “just what have I achieved?” there’s a fair chance that having to acknowledge a typical day’s worth of distractions can be a cause of misery. Research by Gloria Park of the University of California, Irvine, has tracked the stress-inducing blight of having to shift our cognitive resources when we’re interrupted or distracted at work. While 82% of interrupted work was resumed on the same day, it took people in her study an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds to think their way back into to the original task. They also tended to compensate for that time lost by working harder and for longer. No wonder we can so often feel frustrated, worn out and under pressure when we’re just trying to get something done.
It all feels a long way away from that laser-sharp focus to which we all aspire. The ‘wrong’ kind of distraction really does seem to be the enemy of flow. But what to do?
In his 2019 book Indistractable, Nir Eyal suggests that our first task is to know our enemy: to understand what this kind of distraction looks like. For Eyal, distraction stops us from achieving our goals – it’s any action that moves us away from what we really want. If distraction becomes a habit, we are unable to sustain the focus we need. In contrast, traction leads us closer to our goals – any action that moves us toward what we really want. Traction is any action we do with intent; it’s doing what we say we will do.
Distraction is caused by triggers, which can be:
- external, prompted by cues in our environment, and
- internal, prompted by cues within ourselves.
Once we understand these cues, we can work on them, mastering our own internal triggers and managing the external ones. Eyal suggests four strategies for becoming indistractable:
Master our internal triggers
Emotional distractions – whereby our thoughts drift from what we are doing – are more dangerous and insidious than their external counterparts, as they cannot be eradicated at the flick of a switch or setting boundaries with colleagues. As Daniel Goleman, author of Focus: The Hidden Power of Excellence, warns: “It’s not the chatter of people around us that is the most powerful distractor, but rather the chatter of our own minds.”
For Eyal, our own internal triggers are driven by the very human need to avoid psychological discomfort. Becoming addicted to social media or our phones is an escape from feelings such as boredom, loneliness, insecurity, fatigue and uncertainty. At work, our triggers may be more complex – perhaps a fear of missing out (FOMO), wanting to be seen as available or to be liked. Once we acknowledge these triggers, we can learn to control how we react to them.
Make time for traction
We need to challenge distraction proactively by taking control of our own schedules and walking the walk when it comes to what we say is important to us. We need to follow through. Eyal advocates timeboxing as just one intentional scheduling technique to move us away from distraction and towards traction.
Dial back external triggers
Some external distractions are easier to manage than others – and some can even be a positive force. Tech alerts, if used to move us towards traction (for example, using a Pomodoro Timer to improve focus) can be positive. Other ‘pings and dings’ are pure distraction and need to be turned off or dialled back. We also need to set boundaries when it comes to distractions that can be harder to manage because they involve our colleagues or commitments, for example, regular meetings.
Prevent distraction with pacts
Eyal’s final technique for becoming indistractable is to make a habit-breaking “precommitment”: a pact which sets us up in advance to overcome distraction. If we’re already aware of our triggers and have a strategy in place to react differently, we’re more likely to prevail.
Some practical anti-distraction techniques
The fact that we need strategies and tools to support our focus speaks to the myth that willpower alone will lead us to traction nirvana. Willpower is, of course, a quality to cultivate, but trying to gain more focus by willpower alone is like trying to fight Mike Tyson solely with brute strength. We will fail. All the distractions surrounding us are designed to break our willpower, and we are alone, while they are legion. We need strategies to help us reduce distractions from the get-go.
Be aware and commit
When it comes to those internal or self-inflicted distractions, Eyal is right that awareness and precommitment are key. We might not need to go as far as the Chinese general who made his soldiers fight with their backs to a river so that fleeing was not an option, but we get the point. When we notice that we are becoming distracted, we need to acknowledge it, even write it down, and then work on controlling our reaction to the trigger.
The suggestion from writer and neurologist Oliver Sacks that we use different desks for different tasks illustrates that a physical change can help to reset our attention. Physical reality does matter. That’s why it helps to turn off all but the essential notifications on our phones, to organise our computer desktops and to declutter our working spaces as much as possible.
According to William Treseder, a founding partner at problem-solving consultancy BMNT, a clean work environment, both physical and digital, is essential for focus. “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 eight to 12 apps on your home screen. Turn off all unnecessary notifications. Don’t let yourself get distracted by all the clutter – you will stay focused for much longer.”
Set schedules and protocols
Making time for traction really does mean rigorous scheduling. The chances are that we’re trying – and failing – to multitask, that we’re being too optimistic about how long things will take and finding it tough to prioritise. We often plan for projects or events, but are less likely to be specific about more routine tasks. Scheduling times for tasks such as managing email – one of the greatest distractions we face – can make a substantial difference to our focus and productivity. Set some rules for when and how often you check your inbox and respond to messages. If something is really that urgent, people have other ways of getting in touch.
Use meetings wisely
Meetings can be a notorious time drain and distraction. It’s tempting to keep them going out of habit, to invite participants who don’t really need to be there, to let them drag on for far too long. It’s time for a meetings audit. Do you really need to have that meeting at all? Do you really need to attend all the time? Are there other ways of sharing information or reaching decisions?
Getting together with our colleagues is obviously important for all sorts of reasons, but we need to think about meetings more intentionally, in terms of outcomes. When a meeting is necessary, only invite the people who really have to be there, have a clear agenda and keep it as short as possible. Consider, too, whether having one day a week where no meetings take place might be a good strategy.
Set boundaries and manage expectations
Being responsible for other people in an open-plan office is a recipe for distraction. Some of us might feel wary of not being available, but setting boundaries is a perfectly legitimate – and necessary – way to manage our time. For example, schedule specific times during the working day where you are available to speak to team members, and be honest and transparent when a major project needs to take priority. If possible, close the office door or find other places to work when distraction-free time is essential.
We need to think, too, about the times of day which work best for us for more concentrated work, and protect these at all costs.
Allowing colleagues the freedom to book in-person or virtual meetings into our calendars is particularly risky. As Y Combinator cofounder Paul Graham described in Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule: “A single meeting can blow [an entire day] by breaking it into two pieces, each too small to do anything hard in.”
We’re much more likely to fall prey to distractions if we’re feeling tired, stressed and overwhelmed. Taking regular breaks, exercising, getting enough sleep and even experimenting with mindfulness techniques such as breathing and meditation help build the resilience we need to face up to and overcome distractions.
The consolation of ‘healthy’ distraction
Richard Jeffries was a British journalist and writer with a keen eye for nature, who would often be found messing around merrily in the countryside. He declared that work is a way to close off the mind rather than free it, and that “idleness is a great good”.
Jeffries wasn’t (only) a slacker: he had tapped into an important truth. He lived in the 19th century, when the way we think about work today was still being shaped. We inherited from those times an ethos which assigns to work an almost messianic power, to the point that we tend to stake a great deal of our sense of self-worth on how intensely we work; how packed our diaries are. Distraction is distasteful: we mention it either as a nuisance (“he’s a distraction”) or a necessary evil (“I need some distraction” – for example, after a tricky client meeting).
But insisting on work for work’s sake is unhealthy. We end up not only compromising our mental health and our relationships, but not working effectively: we make mistakes, we are not creative, we underperform. Learning how to focus more is crucial, but we also need to learn how to get distracted better.
At a time when a cat video is never more than a swipe away, the notion that we might need more distraction rather than less might sound like nonsense. But it is a matter of quality: the nutritional value of fast food is not that of a home-cooked dinner. What we might call ‘junk distractions’ are probably a waste of time (although there is nothing wrong with indulging them every now and then, exactly as there is nothing wrong with the odd fried chicken dinner). ‘Healthy’ distraction is a different matter. Healthy distraction makes us better at the fundamental activity underlying any meaningful work: thinking.
Growing space for distraction
Thinking – good thinking, effective thinking – needs space. When we are healthily distracted, we are giving our thoughts exactly that: space to grow. A well-known problem-solving technique suggests that we focus intensely on a problem for a while, then forget about it and go for a walk, or dance, bake a cake, read a book that has nothing to do with the problem at hand. In other words, do anything except focus on the problem, and ideas will come. Our minds are naturally adept at side thinking, but we need to give them a side to think from. And that requires a degree of distraction.
By taking control of our distraction, by deciding when we need to focus and when and how to get distracted, we become less vulnerable to random distractions we cannot afford. We can then see healthy distraction as a well-earned reward – a consolation perhaps.
When we learn how to get distracted, we organically grow a capacity for focus, and by learning to focus, we organically grow space for distraction. Remember, though, that healthy distraction cannot be goal-orientated. It works better when you pursue it as an end in itself, as a part of a meaningful life. It should be a way of reminding ourselves that we are not drone bees, but humans, and that if we keep running for ever, by definition, we never get to any place at all.
Test your understanding
- Outline Eyal’s four strategies for becoming ‘indistractable’.
- Explain when and how distraction can be healthy and valuable.
What does it mean for you?
- Consider what distracts you at work and which of these triggers are external/internal.
- How might you make space for and harness healthy distraction in your work?
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