11th October 2014

What Everybody Needs to Know About Managing Distractions

Ping. Buzz. Ring.  “Hey, do you have a minute?” “Can you join that call at 11am?” “This is an emergency!” “What did you do this weekend?  “Can I run an idea by you real quick?”

Sound familiar? Throughout our workdays, we are consistently and constantly interrupted. Between various technological devices, colleagues, meetings, emergencies, and even boredom, we are forced to control and manage incessant demands on our attention.

Distractions and interruptions  significantly undermine our ability to focus, engage, be productive, and achieve your goals.

Yet we have come to accept workdays filled with distractions and interruptions as normal. Many of us then must complete our work in the “margins” of our days either early in the morning or  late at night (or maybe both) due to the pressing demands on our time and attention.

It is time for us to push back against the plague of distractions and interruptions.  And to do this, you have to manage your attention.

I want you to think about the last time that you bought or leased a new car. Maybe you did some research on the type of car you wanted, maybe then you went to the dealership and test drove the car you thought you wanted and maybe a few others. You decided on the car you wanted, and then, after negotiations with the car salesperson, you purchased your car. Excitedly, you drive off the lot in your brand-new car. Now, you see your car everywhere.

It’s on the road driving next to you; it’s in the parking lot at the grocery store and in the parking lot at work. What happened? Did everyone suddenly go buy your car?

No, I don’t think so. What happened is that you shifted your attention, and now you’re focused on that make and model of car, so you’re seeing your car everywhere.

So the question to ask yourself is this: on a daily basis, what is managing my attention?

Humans are the sum of what they pay attention to, asserts Winifred Gallagher in her book Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life. What we focus on determines our experience, knowledge, amusement and fulfillment.  Yet, instead of cultivating this resource, we’re squandering it on whatever captures our attention.

If we really want and need to minimize the impact of distractions and manage our attention, then we need some strategies.

Learning how to manage our attention starts with identifying the psychological and environmental forces that actively work to sabotage our efforts to focus and manage it.

These include:

Intense emotion. The brain’s wiring lends itself to being distracted. The part of the brain devoted to attention is connected to the brain’s emotional center. So any strong emotion – frustration with a colleague, problems with your teenager – can disrupt your attention.

Physical discomfort.  You are also more vulnerable to distractions when you are uncomfortable, hungry, or tired.

Psychological insecurity.  Author Tony Schwarz notes that our responsiveness to distractions is powerfully influenced by our desire for connection. Thus, the safer and more secure we feel, the more focused attention we can allocate to our long-term goals.

In order to manage our attention, we must work with nature and with the innate tendencies of our brain to respond to forces like emotion, discomfort, and insecurity, rather than trying to struggle against these psychological and physical drives.

Now, what can you do right now to harness the finite nature of your attention?

Optimize the physiological conditions necessary for ideal attention management. You want to create an environment that supports your unique attention management needs and minimizes the impact of the hardwiring of your brain. If you are tired, hungry, or stressed you are fighting an uphill battle with your attention.  Guess who is always going to win – your brain!

■ Keep packets of nuts, granola bars, or dried fruit in your office drawer, pocket book, briefcase, and/or glove compartment of your car to stay properly fueled for maximum focus.

■ Create a playlist of soothing and energizing music to help you relax or recharge after stressful interactions and conversations.

■ Keep comfortable shoes in your desk drawer or in your car or work bag so you can go for a quick walk up and down the halls of your office building or outside your office building. Physical movement is one of the most effective ways to mentally reset and discharge negative energy. And you do not have to walk long to benefit – ten minutes is all it takes.

Optimize the physiological conditions required for you to manage your attention, and you too should be able to boost your sense of focus.

Retrain your brain using a brain reboot. Refocusing is hard because we have trained our brains to work on a variety of things at one time. How often have you checked email during a conference call or fed your child breakfast, unloaded the dishwasher, and packed lunches at the same time? This habit does not improve your productivity; instead, it undermines your ability to focus. By rebooting your brain, you are rewiring it for optimal functioning.

To reboot your brain:

■ Visualize a reset button in your brain and say, “I need to hit reboot and get back on track.” This takes the spotlight off the distraction and forces you to refocus on your task.

■ Use specific breathing techniques.

○ Take a deep inhalation breath, pushing out your navel, and then powerfully expelling the air by slightly bringing in your stomach. Repeat this breath five to seven times and observe how the tension and mental chatter in your mind dissipates.

○ Another breath that also short circuits your mental chatter is to place your tongue on the roof of your mouth and blow out as if you were blowing out candles on a birthday cake. As you blow out, count to seven. You can now regain your focus.

To manage your attention, you must work with nature and with the innate tendencies of our brain to respond to forces like emotion, discomfort, and insecurity. Optimize the physiological conditions and retrain your brain with a brain reboot. Manage your attention and distractions will no longer high jack your time, nor ability to focus.

What Can You Do NOW to Manage Your Distractions

■ Set a timer or an alarm to go off at specific intervals throughout your workday. The alarm serves as a reminder tool to check your focus and concentration.

■ Plan each day around your varying energy levels. Change your patterns in the type of work you do. Remember to include both scheduled and spontaneous interactions with colleagues and friends.

■ Pace your work by interspersing solitary work with group projects or conversations with colleagues. The interpersonal interaction will serve as a break and be refreshing, enabling you to more effectively manage your attention and maintain your focus.

■ Vary the type of work you do and the amount of time you dedicate to particular projects. Intersperse fun or very stimulating tasks with routine tasks.

■ Check and respond to email at “low productivity” times. Follow the natural rhythm of your day, and avoid your email inbox during those periods when you tend to do your highest-quality work.

■ Cut the tether to technology: leave your cell phone, your laptop, and/or your tablet in your office, your briefcase, or your purse rather than carrying them with you everywhere.

■ Plan and designate specific time(s) to check and respond to email. For example, you could decide to check email in the morning, before lunch, after lunch, mid-afternoon, before you leave the office, and once in the evening.

■ Turn off the sound on all of your technology tools.

■ Use Think, an application for Macs that when launched will ask you which window you want to focus on, bring it to the front, and darken the rest of the screen so you can focus.

■ If you are a Windows user, use JediConcentrate, which works like Think. When you enter concentrate mode, the window you are working on is illuminated and the rest stays dark.

 Now, I want to hear from you. What did you do to manage your attention? What was the result? Post a comment on the blog or use the hashtag #worksimplylivefully on social media.