It’s okay to be distracted, just don’t let the distraction…distract you. Give me a moment and I’ll show you why distractions happen and how to manage them.
It seems like we’re always on the hunt for some new way to be more productive. It also seems like one of our biggest gripes as a society comes from our effort to be more productive and more efficient.
We all seem to aspire to be more productive with our work, but maybe, just perhaps – we’re just approaching it from the wrong angle?
We’ve become a society that has consistently drilled into all of us that high productivity is what we all must strive for, that we must be more productive with our work if we want to get work done efficiently.
But what if – those distractions are what keep us going throughout the day? Maybe they’re necessary to our productivity?
Ever get curious about a thought, and go look it up? Ever look at something because it sparked your curiosity, and you changed your train of thought? Ever check Facebook because you’re bored?
Why do we do this though?
Sometimes we end up distracting ourselves with something else from what we know we should be doing. The good news: this isn’t our fault. Whenever we check our phone or look at the latest news, we’re getting a little drip of dopamine. The lizard part of our brain, also known as the amygdala, is what is partly responsible for this. It’s always trying to keep us happy, and pull us back from something we don’t want to be doing.
So what’s the problem? This can be a bit of a struggle when we’re trying to put a 10 page essay together. No internal motivation exists to allow us to accomplish this task. What will allow us to finish the essay? External motivation, which can be many things but are mostly deadlines.
Without deadlines in school, and money for a job, there would be little external motivation to do things we don’t want to do. So it’s our ability to override the Amygdyla with our prefrontal cortex which allows us to override this negative emotional feeling.
So when it comes down to it, it’s a battle of feelings vs goals, dreams and ambitions. This constant need for instant gratification has led us to become a society of short attention spans.
We also have a built-in distraction alert. Ever get stuck in a traffic jam, only to find out that it was a cop who pulled somebody over, which generated a couple-mile-long jam? We all know this causes a bottle neck because everybody has to look and see what’s going on. This constant need to be aware of our surroundings and know what is around us is an evolutionary need. If our caveman ancestors didn’t turn their head at the sound of a twig breaking, they might’ve been eaten by saber tooth tiger. In retrospect we might not be here if this particular behavior did not exist.
Luckily, we don’t have to be on the constant alert for predators, so having a distraction function doesn’t always work to our benefit.
So if we’re meant to be distracted, what does that mean?
It’s important to recognize that distractibility is something we’re all born with. So perhaps through understanding how we’re distracted we can learn to work with it, instead of always suppressing a natural instinct.
The problem is with the advent of the internet, we’ve been able to find much easier ways to produce dopamine. Checking twitter? Dopamine. Chatting with friends online? Dopamine. The list goes on, really. Everything we do and are able to do that makes us feel good is releasing this chemical; it’s not just reserved for food or drugs. Our actions are determined by the dopamine levels released from that action.
In essence, giving into distractions makes us feel good.
So if distractions aren’t all that bad, why do they have such a bad rap?
Well, the problem often comes into play when we let the distractions take over. Just like everything in life, everything is good in moderation. It doesn’t matter what you’re doing as long as it is done in moderation. The same concept applies to distractions. A little bit of distraction is okay, too much and you have a problem.
The debate as to why ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder) has become a thing only in the past two decades and whether or not that is related to the advent of the internet is still up for debate. We won’t be covering that here, but it’s easy to see how the internet has made us more distracted than ever. With instant gratification only a click away, we can be off lost in the YouTube verse for hours, or find we spent a whole day on Facebook.
On a side note, it’s possible to achieve a state where you cannot be distracted at all. When you find something you’re passionate in it can lead to what many call “The flow”. Where you get so enveloped in the task that nothing else matters, and you might find yourself working on it day and night for weeks even. Finding that sweet spot is something we all strive for, but we have accept it won’t always happen. There is no magic Flow button, even if you know what interests you.
So how can we get through things we absolutely don’t enjoy?
Well on one hand, distractions are touted as being something that is bad. However if you’re forcing yourself to do something you don’t enjoy doing, that is going to tax you of your most important resource, not energy – but willpower.
You see, Willpower is a finite resource, and the longer we go on throughout the day, the less of it we have. In fact some researchers did a study on parole judges a few years back. They looked at the decisions the judges made throughout the course of a whole year. It turns out if you were seen early in the morning, you’d have a 70% chance of getting Parole. However, if you were seen late in the afternoon you’d have less than 10% chance. This is known as decision fatigue, and ties into how much willpower we have.
Think of it like the battery bar on your phone. Sleep gives it a full charge, naps can help but there is another way to quickly charge it.
The key with distractions, is not to let it, distract you. What I mean by this is that we’re letting Facebook, Games, TV and other things take up an hour or even more of our time. Now many choose to use browser plugins or even applications which will restrict your access to certain websites or even block access to the internet entirely.
Those methods are bandaid methods though, and don’t answer the real question of how can we remain present enough to stay on task?
At the end of the day, it all comes down to being more aware of our current thoughts and actions while we’re experiencing them, and believe it or not – that is more difficult than it sounds. I’ll touch on this in a later blog post.
So, if you’re stuck doing something that you don’t like, and you’ve beaten the procrastination factor involved (by doing the most important thing first) then you may have trouble staying on track. In fact, studies have shown that it takes on average 15 minutes to get our focus back should we get distracted.
I like to use a method of controlled distraction or breaks. Some may call this the Pomodori technique but I like to consider it from another angle. We’re drawn to distractions because of the quick dopamine shot we get each time we check social media or message with friends etc..
As long as we can be mindful of the time we let ourselves become distracted for, then it can actually increase our productivity. It’s like taking breaks in between your work and setting the ground rules for how the break is going to work. In fact, I’m working on a browser plugin of my own that will minimize the time we can spend on any specific site for a specific period of time, but not limited throughout the whole day. The goal is to not create it as a band-aid, but a temporary tool to create a habit so that you create an internal countdown so you can be aware of the distraction before it takes up all your time. As a 5 minute Facebook session isn’t bad, we simply want to prevent that form turning into a 2 hour Facebook session. This can be accomplished by practicing mindful meditation but for most this isn’t a feasible goal or consideration, so until then we will just have to stick with band-aids that will address the issue.
Distraction by itself is an evolutionary trait. It’s not something that we should try and block entirely, yet learn how to work with it. Simple awareness of our own actions is the real problem. By managing our distractions and recognizing when we’re being distracted we can ultimately be more productive, focused and happier throughout the day.