2. How to Avoid Distraction
- Mindfulness: The Practice of Focus
- Discipline: The Reinforcement of Focus
- Knowing Thyself: The Control of Focus
3. Technological Distraction
- Be Disciplined
- Keep Smartphone Away
- Use a Phone Detox App
4. Driving Distraction
5. Distraction at Work
- Easily Distracted Anxiety
6. When Distraction is a Blessing
According to Psychology Wikia, distraction is “the diverting of the attention of an individual or group from the chosen object of attention onto the source of distraction.” Distraction is when a student decides to check Instagram, rather than studying for exams or texting while driving. It’s paying attention to anything other than what you should be doing. It is best explained as any form of “interruption to attention or anything that draws attention away from the primary task.”
How to Avoid Distraction
Mindfulness: The Practice of Focus
Away from all the buzzwords, Psychology Today gives an apt definition of mindfulness: a state of active, open attention to the present. Mindfulness is being aware of your present emotions, keeping all distractions away and focusing on yourself and your current physical/emotional condition. In this way, it helps sharpen focus among other benefits such as improving well being and mental health.
I am aware that most people immediately think of zen meditation techniques and yoga when mindfulness is mentioned. But that is only half the truth as there are many ways to practice mindfulness. It does not have to be a routine. In fact, mindfulness is so simple that it can be co-opted into our daily activities such as eating, working out, taking a shower or even listening to music, etc.
However, I believe meditation a very helpful way to combat distractions, in an age where they are rife. Taking a few minutes to an hour to zone off every day is something I am willing to do if it guarantees me increased attention. Meditation strengthens your brain’s neural circuitry for focus by consistently bringing attention back to the breath each time you feel your mind wandering during meditation.
Discipline: The Reinforcement of Focus
In many ways, succumbing to distractions exposes our lack of discipline. Distractions and temptations will always exist; our reaction to them determines if they will affect our work or not. Prof. William Hoffman defines discipline as “the ability to override or change one’s inner responses, as well as interrupt undesired behavioral tendencies (such as impulses) and refrain from acting on them.”
While you are at work, you might be tempted to check Twitter ‘for only five minutes’ or take a quick glance at Facebook to see what your best friend posted. At such times, it is your discipline being tested. And the more you are able to reject the distracting thoughts and focus your work, the more productive you are. And even more, it is the more resistant and focused you will be the next time.
Knowing Thyself: The Control of Focus
For external triggers of distraction, putting your willpower to work in avoiding them usually works well. But for internal triggers, such as emotions, extreme resistance almost often backfires. Therefore, to master inner factors of distraction, we have to turn to the ancient Greek maxim, ‘know thyself.’
As regards distraction, knowing yourself means understanding yourselves and identifying behavioral patterns that often lead to distraction. Some of these internal triggers include illness, hunger, dehydration, fatigue, boredom, anxiety, etc. Unless you acknowledge how these factors come to play to distract you, it will be hard to overcome distraction.
For example, if you notice that you check Instagram when you are bored and so lose productive time, identify firstly what makes you bored in the first place. It is hard to stay idle and expect that one’s attention will not be directed at whatnots.
When people refer to the present generation as the ‘age of distraction’, it is usually in the context of technological distraction.
Many people have been victims of cell phone distribution and caused horrific deaths. There’s the story of one Patricia Allen who, despite being close by, had her children drown in a pool. She had her attention on her phone and didn’t notice the unfortunate incident the whole time! Another unfortunate incident is the case of a certain Burwell who fell off a cliff 60 feet high as he had been pressing his phone and walking.
Several such cases abound and when we realize how distracted we too have been at certain times, we can only think of how much danger we had been in. I wouldn’t be surprised if someone were reading this while walking too. The fact remains that distraction, especially caused by smartphones and other devices could cause great harm. How then can you avoid being distracted by smartphones?
- Be Disciplined: This advice trumps every other. Discipline is formed by intentional action and not by accident. To be disciplined, you have to commit yourself to your work and say ‘no’, unconditionally, to any interruption. After maintaining this for some time, it becomes a part of you. Experts claim that it takes up to three weeks to form a new habit. Therefore, you have to be consistent about avoiding interruption. Here’s how Graham Young puts it on Entrepreneur: “The trouble is, most of us don’t look at the finer details that make up discipline. We think that the odd glance at our phone, a quick scroll through Instagram or a short reply to a text message isn’t a big deal. And in the grand scheme of things, it’s not. However, habits are formed from consistency. So, those tiny, consistent actions we do every day, and sometimes every hour, build up to habitual attention-shifting.”
- Keep Smartphone Away: You need a lot of willpower to overcome the urge of checking your phone every 12 minutes, as a study claims we do. But you can help yourself by keeping your smartphone away when at work. If your smartphone were in the next room, I’m pretty sure you would not get up eighty times a day to check if there’s a new WhatsApp message. To keep yourself reachable by others, a feature phone, though dumb, allows you to do the basics: text and call. Find alternatives to satisfy possible reasons you might need your smartphone. If you can’t maintain a distance, then turning off notification alerts would help defeat the temptation to check your phone every few minutes.
- Use a Phone Detox App: There are now many apps that help you fight your smartphone addiction. They contain features to enable you to block distracting apps and notifications while you are at work. I’ve tried to find some of the best and I recommend them to you below, in no particular order.
- Forest is a multi-award winning app that touts itself as the best cure for phone addiction. It gamifies the experience of overcoming your phone addiction by enabling you to grow virtual trees (and real ones too in the pro version) for each time you put your phone down. It’s a nice way to beat distraction, avoid procrastination and stay productive.
- Offtime lets you track your phone usage and set usage limits for distracting apps. It is very customizable as you can set different apps to be unavailable at certain times. For example, you may set a work profile to make your social media apps automatically inaccessible when you are at work.
- With Flipd, you can approach your addiction in two ways: casual lock and full lock. The full lock option is like being grounded allowing you to access only basic functions. It simply turns your smartphone into a feature phone. Flipd helps you challenge your distraction by notifying you to ‘flip off.’
There are a host of applications (Android, iOS, desktop) you may use to get yourself back on track. Feel free to explore the numerous options and choose the one that best suits your needs.
The United States National Traffic Highway Safety Regulation identifies three main types of distracted driving:
Visual — taking your eyes off the road
Manual — taking your hands off the wheel
Cognitive — taking your mind off what you’re doing
Visual distraction occurs when you take a quick glance at the GPS system, radio, music player or any of the side view or rearview mirrors. It is usually not big enough distraction to cause a crash. Manual distraction is what you do when you eat or drink or pick up your smartphone. Mind-wandering can be a form of cognitive distraction.
Of all these, a leading cause of distraction while driving is the use of a cell phone while driving, despite persistent warnings to not do so. Statistics from the U.S. Department of Transportation attributes “10% of fatal crashes, 15% of injury crashes and 14% of all police-reported motor vehicle traffic crashes distracted driving.” Texting while driving puts you at risk of a crash 23 times higher. However you see it, it’s not a risk worth taking. In case the temptation is more overwhelming than consideration of associated risk, here are common steps you may take:
- Turn off notifications for incoming calls or messages while driving. You would not be tempted to pick a call if, in the first place, you didn’t know there was a call.
- Put your phone completely out of reach, for example, in the back seat. Definitely, you wouldn’t try to reach for your phone in the back seat when it rings.
- If you need your phone map for navigation, then mount it on to your dashboard. Hands-free does not necessarily mean safe, but the risk is reduced since the phone is not in your hand.
- And for all intents and purposes, why would anyone even text while driving?!
However, using your cell phone while driving is not the only form of driving distraction; many more exist, such as driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs. The biggest problem driving distraction poses is that it puts your safety at risk, and also brings you on the wrong side of the law. Always, when driving, have your eyes on the road always, handle the steering wheel using both hands and focus your attention on what you are doing.
Distraction at Work/ Multitasking
Careerbuilder polled about 5000 workers, including human resource professionals in 2016 and they identified their biggest productivity killers at work thus:
Cell phone/texting: 55%
The Internet: 41%
Social media: 37%
Co-workers dropping by : 27%
Smoke breaks or snack breaks: 27%
Noisy co-workers: 20%
Sitting in a cubicle: 9%
Workers are mostly interrupted by their smartphones, the Internet and co-workers. It is noteworthy too that about a fourth of the polled workers considered meetings distracting.
According to the 2018 Workplace Distraction Report by Udemy, distraction results in workers:
Not performing as well as they should (54%)
Becoming significantly less productive (50%)
Being unable to reach full potential, advance in a career (20%).
However, identifying the causes and impacts of distraction is only the first step. Since what we’re after is how to be focused and avoid distractions, then we might as well get to it right away:
- It’s wild how smartphones are distracting us in every sphere of life. There is no better way to handle smartphone distraction than to turn it off or put it away when not needed. Tips on how to avoid smartphone distraction have been fully discussed in the technological distraction section.
- Workplaces today encourage the open office system and collaborative work. They are a wonderful approach to work but can also make for a distraction from other co-workers. As an employee, you would need to have an honest and firm discussion with your co-workers/team members about interrupting your work. Keep them from dropping by for anything unless it’s a pressing need.
- Schedule daily goals. Deep Patel recommends setting 3 main objectives to be achieved every day. The idea is that the limited number of goals will keep you more focused on your work. Clifford Chi even thinks you should set as your priority on only one project. Whatever number is yours, put yourself on a strict schedule to achieve your most important tasks. After achieving the priority tasks, then you can go ahead to accomplish every other thing you need to do if you have enough time.
- Give yourself short breaks. I get it if your employer is like most and he only allows you a lunch break. But for the sake of your own productivity, you need more breaks in a day. According to a study by University of Illinois researchers, “prolonged attention to a single task actually hinders performance” but “deactivating and reactivating your goals allows you to stay focused.” Francesco Cirillo’s Pomodoro technique® rests on the idea of taking mental breaks from work. It involves taking a 5-minute break after every 25 minutes of work. These shorts breaks keep you focused at work.
Easily Distracted Anxiety
Easily Distracted Anxiety is a stress-induced distraction. Sometimes, when we are overwhelmed by too much work, we tend to seek breaks from it by distracting ourselves. Its long list of symptoms includes difficulty with concentration and forgetfulness. To avoid this, you have to keep your stress levels low by not taking on more work than you can handle.
Multitasking is the human ability to perform more than one task at a time. Against the popular opinion that doing two different things at the same time makes us achieve faster, multitasking actually lowers productivity. In fact, it can be a form of distraction. But you should understand the kind of multitasking I mean. For example, I’m seated at my computer and typing these words at the moment. That’s not multitasking that lowers productivity.
Productivity-lowering usually involves context switching, that is, doing two different and unrelated tasks at the same time. An example is using a phone while driving. In the workplace too, multitasking hampers our productivity in the following ways. It:
Impacts your short-term memory
Leads to increased anxiety
Inhibits creative thinking
Stops you from getting into a state of flow
Causes more mistakes and less productivity.
Psychologists insist that the human brain was not designed for multitasking. When you switch tasks, it is often difficult to continue at the previous level of productivity. Therefore, rather than multitask, focus on a single task at a time.
When Distraction is a Blessing
I’ve written so much about how negative distraction is that I need to stop and think about when I may actually need a distraction. And as you will soon see, distraction is not always bad. The famous Marshmallow Experiment by Walter Mischel shows how healthy forms of distraction helped children cope with delayed gratification.
On the other hand, you can use distraction to your advantage to improve your well being and build better habits. Surprised? Read on.
Distractions can help us fight our addictive urges such as alcohol or drugs. Games such as Tetris or Candy Crush can serve as a positive form of distraction to redirect our urges from the object of addiction.
Research has consistently shown that distraction, like a placebo, can help relieve pain. In a study, participants had pain induced in them by means of a heating device attached to their forearms. The researchers then made them take a mental game and also placebos and their reactions were measured and recorded. The game, serving as a distraction from the pain, proved to be a more effective pain reliever.
Distraction has also been an effective means to help patients having depressive thoughts. Distractions can help you cope with your (negative) emotions. For example, listening to music can help you drown those sad thoughts.
Healthy activities that can form positive distraction include singing songs, writing, dancing, playing games, mind-wandering, etc. Perhaps, one could conclude, as Ellie Ballentine does, that “distraction is neither good nor bad. It just is. How you relate to distraction will make the difference.”
What do I think you should do after reading this?
- Drop your phone and get a pen and a sheet of paper. Reflect deeply and write down the major distractions you face.
- Identify patterns in your distractions. Your aim should be to understand the emotions and thoughts that cause you to succumb to harmful distractions.
- Determine the ways by which you can overcome your distraction(s). You may follow the advice I have given here; just ensure that your strategies are specific to the form of distraction you face.
- Just do it! Apologies to Nike 😉
Good luck fighting distraction!