We place a lot of blame on our phones and gadgets for our inability to pay attention during a movie or TV show, having conversations interrupted with our partner or family, and not being able to focus on a project at work. By the end of the day, our to do list feels longer than ever, and we didn’t reach our goals.
But what if the problem doesn’t stem from technology?
I recently listened to a podcast Billion Dollar Moves with Sarah Chen-Spellings as she interviewed Nir Eyal, author of the book Indistractable: How to Control your Attention and Choose your Life which delves into why it seems as if we are no longer in control of our own attention.
Distraction is certainly not a new condition. Nir says the first documented case of distraction was in Pluto’s time 2500 years ago, and humans have been struggling with it ever since. People tend to blame the tech du jour. My generation grew up on television (in fact, I often say I was raised by sitcoms), then there were video games and now social media. It seems as if with all the new technology, we panic. But the root cause of the problems is not technology, it’s our behavior.
It Always Comes Back to Self-Awareness
Distraction is not something that happens to us, it’s an action we take. But our minds crave distraction. Harvard Business Review reports that the average person is distracted or interrupted every 40 seconds when working in front of their computer. That’s not even an entire minute before we think about something else!
You cannot be indistractable until you are self-aware. We tend to focus externally because we are busy “doing” but what we aren’t paying attention to is the second piece which is “feeling.”
Think about a typical day at work for you. If there is a task you do not want to do, you likely prioritize other projects ahead of the one you are avoiding. We often don’t even realize we are doing this because we are blind to it, but we prioritize the easy work, like checking email. We rationalize why that task should be done first, which is a brilliant defense mechanism to avoid the pain of the work we are putting off.
But what if we trained our brains to become self-aware enough to notice the subtle changes that tell us when we are in avoidance? What if we were tuned in enough to our feelings to recognize the signs of distraction or our own triggers? There are two kinds of triggers: external (anything that is in our outside environment) and internal (our emotional states that we seek to escape from with distraction, such as boredom). You may think external factors cause the most distraction, but 90% of distraction begins from within.
If you don’t understand the deeper reason that you are getting distracted, you will always find some kind of solution to your discomfort.
Understand your Distraction
One of the first steps to understanding your distraction is to accept your feelings. It’s okay to feel anxious, insecure, angry, overwhelmed and even that we aren’t up to doing a certain task. So, we end up avoiding it. Then, you have an excuse because you completed the task at the last minute and didn’t devote enough time to do it properly. It’s easier to make excuses than try to get to the bottom of why we felt that way in the first place.
That’s why over ten years, ago I developed JMA’s MindMastery app to help clients disrupt their habitual patterns in order to retrain their brains. The free version of the app focuses on building self-awareness and mindfulness, areas that I find people are particularly lacking in. The app helps you train your body to stop and check in with your feelings.
When you are self-aware, you can identify your own patterns of behaviors and motives. You also understand how your emotions and actions impact everyone around you whether good or bad. You can instantly identify your feelings, emotions, and moods and understand why they are happening regardless of what’s going on around you. You can recognize your own triggers (internal as well as external), feel confident about your strengths but also own up to your limitations.
Self-aware individuals can recognize when they are beginning to fall into distraction because they can identify the signs. They are then able to autocorrect the behavior and get back on track, thus becoming indistractable.
Reactive Work vs Reflective Work
There are two types of work we do each day: reactive work and reflective work. Reactive work is when we react to meetings, and we let our email dictate what we will do that day. I see this all the time with leaders who have a so-called “open door” policy or allow people to book time on their open calendar. If you allow others to dictate how and when you work, you aren’t setting your own priorities. You can spend an entire day doing reactive work, which doesn’t benefit your organization.
On the other hand, reflective work can only be done without distraction. And this is where leaders need to be spending their time – developing strategy, planning, promoting innovation and encouraging employees to be productive.
The difference in the quality of leadership between a reactive leader and a reflective leader is immense. It’s a habit to be a reactive leader, but when you are compulsively addressing situations in the moment, you cannot be effective. Those leaders are not taking the time to put in the work to deliver effective requests and thoughtful delegation. Instead, they are always saying “I need this done ASAP” to their employees, which is not an uncommon delegation request.
So, how do you make time for reflective work? I always return to a book I read ages ago called Deep Work by Cal Newport which outlines a strategy for engaging your brain in what he calls “deep work.” He suggests setting aside big chunks of time in your day in which you are completely undisturbed for maximizing productivity. Nir agrees with this strategy yet calls it “time boxing.” He much prefers this method for structuring your day rather than being tied to “to do” lists that have no constraints.
I prefer to use to do lists as a brain dump. You must get all those tasks out of your head, so make a complete list that encompasses everything you want to accomplish. Then, create a smaller objective list for day-to-day work. Bonus points if you can assign artificial project deadlines to the tasks so you can break up a big project into increments of doable work. For instance, instead of blocking out an entire afternoon devoted to one project, break it up into four 60-minute slots over multiple days but give yourself an intention and deadline for each block of time.
During those periods of reflective work, make it easier on yourself by putting your phone in another room, use noise-canceling headphones or even a distractions blocker on your computer.
When you create your schedule, consider your values, and then measure yourself by whether you did what you said you were going to do for as long as you said without distraction. You then measure your progress, not necessarily whether you completed a project. This method works well for our personal as well as professional lives.
- Need better sleep? Schedule downtime with no devices 30 minutes before bed. Enjoy a bath, a cup of decaf tea or practice meditation.
- Need more exercise? Schedule exercise at a time when you feel most energized during the day. I advise my coaching clients to lay out their workout clothes each night, so they don’t even have to think about putting them on in the morning.
- Want to read more? Enhance your skills by taking a course? If it’s not on your schedule, it won’t happen, so block out time for it.
- Want to spend more time with your family? Plan a weekly family outing or movie night that everyone can participate in. Don’t be satisfied with giving your family your leftover time.
Consider the items on your calendar as your traction for combating distraction. If it’s not on your calendar, do not let it take your time or thoughts. And prepare yourself – think about how you will handle a possible distraction if it comes up. Instead of always envisioning the outcome, envision what you will do when something threatens to take you off track of your outcome. You’ll learn to fall in love with the process of being indistractable!
For more strategies on becoming indistractable, learn more about our executive coaching services.