“D is for Distractions”
Much of our best work – the quality thinking and quality doing – happens when we’re able to fend off distractions and keep our attention on the things that matter.
There are two types of distractions: external and internal. Let’s start with those external distractions that we have to battle with on a day-to-day basis. I’ll start with this thought: If you could design a more interruption-filled, uncomfortable, judgement and stress-fuelled environment specifically for the purposes of keeping someone off-topic and unproductive, you’d design something that looks much like the average open plan office. If you’re unfortunate enough to work in an open plan office, then many external distractions can’t be controlled. However, what you can do is:
- Turn off email and social media notifications so that your screen, phone or tablet is not constantly flashing new pieces of information in your face. These interruptions may feel small individually, but added together they take out a huge chunk of the day’s attention.
- Take some time in your week when you purposefully work somewhere else in the building, away from bosses, colleagues, email inboxes and the like. Even two hours a week spent ‘going dark’ – absent from view but using your proactive attention to focus – can be extremely valuable.
- Spend more time plugged in but offline – you don’t have to have your email inbox and phone switched on the whole time! Again, even at your desk you can control the distractions at source to some extent.
- Pay attention to how much information you are exposed to, both outside of work and in the rest of your life. Watch less TV; choose not to read the free newspapers; take some time off the internet; be ‘screen-free’ for a day or all weekend. The downside to our instant information culture is that it distracts us from the present moment and from our own thoughts. It’s important to give your mind a rest and a chance to wander once in a while.
- Meditate. We will cover this later when we come on to Zen, but these final couple of points are not disconnected from work productivity. In fact, they’re absolutely essential to maintaining good proactive attention.
Even harder to deal with than those external distractions are the internal distractions: the little voices and vices inside your head. Yes, it was you that retreated from the challenges of that spreadsheet to go and check the Washington Post website. Yes, it was you that spent time on that shiny new thing instead of following through on that more valuable but scary thing. There’s no-one else to blame (and yes, I’m just as guilty of sabotaging my own work too!).
Why does this happen? Well, put simply, lots of distractions give the illusion of having value. So when we’re stuck or struggling or feeling frustrated we tend to look for some kind of instant gratification.
Low-grade useful stuff we procrastinate with:
- Checking email
- Checking notifications
- Internet ‘research’ into topics that in reality we don’t need to research at all
- ‘Catching up’ with the news (which we’ll read, hear or watch later anyway)
- Making another cup of tea or snacking
- Optional meetings
Downright useless stuff we procrastinate with:
- Solitaire/Tetris/Angry Birds/Minesweeper/Candy Crush/Social Media (most of all!) (delete according to your device and generation)
- Office gossip
- Loops of videos or celeb gossip online – usually justified with some kind of ‘five minutes of chill time’ internal dialogue.