Distraction is the process of diverting the attention of an individual or group from a desired area of focus and thereby blocking or diminishing the reception of desired information.
Distraction is caused by: the lack of ability to pay attention; lack of interest in the object of attention; or the great intensity, novelty or attractiveness of something other than the object of attention.
Distractions come from both external sources, and internal sources.
External distractions include factors such as visual triggers, social interactions, music, text messages, and phone calls. There are also internal distractions such as hunger, fatigue, illness, worrying, and daydreaming. Both external and internal distractions contribute to the interference of focus.
Building and getting back your focus
For some people, passing distractions never seem to cost much time. They'll take 30 seconds or a minute to look at their phone, or even two minutes to scroll through their Facebook news feed; then they'll return to work. But, if this doesn’t sound like you, you may be in the extreme minority.
Unfortunately, those minutes-long expenditures are only the tip of the iceberg. The time you spend on the distraction itself is trivial in most cases, but you also have to incorporate, in that "lost" time, the minutes it takes your brain to regain its focus on your initial task.
And according to a study from the University of California-Irvine, that return to your original focus, following a distraction, takes, on average, a full 23 minutes and 15 seconds.
In other words, if you’re distracted at least once every 23 minutes, there’s a good chance you'll never ramp up to your fully focused potential.
The dangers of multitasking
As if that weren’t bad enough, getting distracted also forces your brain to multitask; you won’t bring a project neatly to a close, so you’ll keep working on it to some degree while you attempt to shift your attention to another task competing for your attention.
This is bad for several reasons. According to Stanford neuroscientist Russ Poldrack, if you learn new information while multitasking, that information can get sent to the wrong part of the brain.
You may feel that you’re paying attention in a meeting and reading up about a new creative brief at the same time, but chances are you won’t retain information from either source.
On top of that, the brain isn’t designed for multitasking; there are steeper metabolic costs to shifting your attention, which means the brain consumes far more oxygenated glucose during the changeover.
If you switch back and forth between tasks often enough, you could feel disoriented, or even exhausted.
In addition, your brain will produce more cortisol, a stress hormone that often leads to irritability, aggression and impulsive behavior.
The gateway distraction
It’s also important to consider the fact that most of our modern distractions have the potential to occupy far more than just a few minutes of our time.
Most social media apps, for example, are designed to be addictive; they give you just enough of a reward to keep you using them; they provide no sense of completeness because of their infinite-scrolling potential and they constantly give you notifications so you can see what’s new.
If you aren’t careful, a quick look at your newsfeed can turn into a 30-minute long dive into the digital world.
When distractions are good
All that being said, there is a case for arguing that distractions can be beneficial.
For example, there’s evidence to suggest that mental distractions can aid in pain relief, especially for sufferers of chronic pain. They may also provide short-term relief for anxiety and distress.
In addition, pulling yourself away from a task can give your brain some much-needed time to decompress and refocus.
There’s a reason we tend to come up with our best ideas when we’re bored or otherwise unoccupied; the brain has more freedom and leisure to wander to new places and tinker with problems that exist in the background.
If you’re specifically using a distraction to help your brain refocus (and possibly de-stress for a moment), you can actually get some value from your distractions.
Despite some potential benefits (when your distractions are fully under your control), though, for the most part, distractions are damaging your productivity -- and in multiple ways
So how can you gain back control?
1. Create a distraction-free ritual. With so many distractions competing for our attention, we need to tame as many as we can in advance. A distraction-free mode — an ideal environment in which to settle down and focus on your most important, complex tasks — will hep.
2. Set three daily intentions. When you work with greater intent, you focus on what’s actually important. To accomplish this, First thing in the morning, ask yourself: What three things will I want to accomplish by day’s end? Put your other, less important tasks on a separate to-do list. Part of what makes this rule so powerful is that three things fit comfortably within our attention at once, and prioritizing them ensures that these tasks stand out from a laundry list of other, less important things.
3. Work on hard stuff, and do more of it. Our work tends to expand to fill the time we have available for its completion, and any excess time remaining is usually filled with distractions. In productivity circles, this phenomenon is known as Parkinson’s law.
Sometimes distractions come from internal and external factors, but other times they happen because we’re not being challenged enough by our work.
Assess your busywork level. If it’s high, that’s usually a sign that you have the capacity to take on more-challenging projects, and perhaps even more work in general.
4. Set an artificial project deadline. It’s up to you to introduce a novel and threatening factor to long-term projects lacking urgency. Have an entire afternoon to write a monotonous report? Give yourself 50 minutes.
Making a task into a game forces you to spend more attention and energy on that project because it can no longer occupy hours of your time.
We can’t help that our minds crave distraction. But what we can do is set ourselves up for success by adopting strategies to block distractions ahead of time, work with greater intention, and reclaim our attention, once and for all.
Distractions are only destroyers of goals set.
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