The fight against distraction

So many of us fight distraction every day, without really examining what’s distracting us, and why.

According to Daniel Goleman, author of Focus: The Hidden Power of Excellence, there are two kinds of distraction: sensory, or external, and emotional, or internal. Sensory distractions are the things happening around us: colleagues talking, phones ringing, people moving around us, music playing. Emotional distractions are the thoughts that make our attention drift from what we’re doing: remembering a phone call or email you need to return, thinking about a meeting coming up later today, worrying about a friend who’s unwell.

"...there's no way not to be distracted by distractions, it's built into the brain"

Goleman says emotional, or internal, distractions are hard to ignore because our brains won’t let us ignore something if we’ve left it half-finished. Our brains want us to make a plan to tackle things that are important to us, so if we leave something unfinished it keeps popping up and distracting us.

This is known as the Zeigarnik effect, and it makes our internal distractions the hardest to overcome, according to Goleman:

It’s not the chatter of people around us that is the most powerful distractor, but rather the chatter of our own minds.

But perhaps overcoming distractions isn’t a sustainable approach, anyway. According to David Rock, executive director of the NeuroLeadership Institute and author of Your Brain at Work, distractions are a part of life because it’s impossible to overcome them completely:

… there’s no way not to be distracted by distractions, it’s built into the brain in the way we pay attention to novelty.

Our brains are brilliant at pattern-matching, and at noticing anything that doesn’t match a pattern. We’re drawn to novelty, and this makes a distraction in an otherwise monotonous workday very hard to ignore.

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Alan Hedge, workplace design expert at Cornell University, says the fact that we’re social creatures makes it particularly hard to ignore distractions related to other people—which covers most of the distractions we face in a workday.

Being social creatures, says Hedge, makes us innately curious about other humans, which makes it near impossible to tune other people out. We’re trying to overcome the way we’re naturally wired.

To make it worse, we find it hard to ignore anything that’s unpredictable. You’ll know this if you’ve ever tried to sleep while there’s loud noises outside your window at random intervals—a neighbor’s party with occasional loud laughter or talking, for instance. Compare that to the consistent hum of a fan, which lulls us off to sleep peacefully.

It’s the unpredictability that makes the party noise so hard to ignore. And this is why we find unpredictable noises in the office so distracting, as well. For instance, overhearing just one side of a conversation (a colleague on a phone call, for example) is especially hard to tune out, because it’s a human distraction that’s also unpredictable.

Studies have shown hearing just one side of a conversation is more irritating that hearing two people have a discussion nearby, because we can’t predict the flow of the conversation when we can only hear one participant.

If you’re in an open office with dividers such as movable cubicle walls, you may notice this effect is even worse. Despite the temporary nature of cubicle dividers, they give us a false sense of privacy, which tends to lead to louder conversations than we’d otherwise have in an entirely open space, which makes those distractions all the more difficult to ignore.

So what about paying attention among this sea of distraction? Is it even possible? And what does it look like?

Studies have explored what the brain does when we’re paying attention to something particular amidst unrelated information. One study showed participants a very quick series of images of faces and houses. Participants were asked to focus on either the houses or the faces, and ignore the other type of image.

The researchers found that when seeing an image in the group they were paying attention to, the synapses in the participant’s brain would fire in synchronicity, something like a choir all singing in unison. But when seeing an image the participant was trying to ignore, the brain would fire synapses out of sync.

Researchers posit this synchronicity makes the messages being shared by those synapses easier to “hear”, as it helps them rise about the out-of-sync noise of other synapses firing at the same time. So paying attention to something makes our brain work to fire our synapses in unison, making the signals about what we’re paying attention to easier to pick up.

While avoiding distractions isn’t easy, our brains do help us in that regard. Firing our synapses in unison is one way, which helps us stay focused on the task at hand while the office around us is buzzing with distractions.

But research also shows that we might get better at handling distractions as we face them more. In a study that had participants read a short passage, then complete a set of test questions about the material, researchers split the participants into three groups. One group was left alone to complete the test, while the other groups were told they might be interrupted at any time with an SMS including further instructions.

Of the two groups primed to be interrupted, one group did receive several messages while completing the test. The other group, though primed to receive messages, never did.

The researchers found both groups primed to be interrupted performed worse than the control group, showing just the threat of interruptions is enough to throw off our concentration. The priming was designed to simulate how many of us treat our inboxes while working: we constantly flick into and out of our inboxes, checking for mail that may never come. Knowing that there’s the possibility of a distraction is enough to throw off our concentration and make us keep checking to see if a distraction has arrived.

But what was really interesting about this study is that when the researchers re-did the experiment with the same participants, they found those who’d been interrupted in the first phase performed better in the second phase, even if they were again primed to be interrupted.

It seems going through the experience of trying to focus despite being distracted is enough to help us develop strategies to focus better the next time we’re in that situation.


So, what have we learned?

We know distractions are everywhere. The modern workplace—the modern world, in fact—is full of attention-grabbing apps, ads, and screens of all kinds. Even worse are the people around us. Because we’re innately curious about other humans, we have a hard time blocking other people out.

And don’t forget that internal monologue of yours—the worries about tasks left undone or upcoming meetings are just as liable to throw off your concentration as overhearing a phone conversation in the next cubicle.

But we also know our brains work with us to focus when necessary. If we consciously pay attention to something in particular, our brains fire related synapses in unison, making them easier to pick up on, and drowning out the chaotic noise of synapses related to other things in our surroundings.

And finally, perhaps the best news of all: for those of us who have to face distraction every day and find a way to concentrate despite it, this may be exactly how we get better at doing so. We seem to be better at concentrating despite distractions after we’ve done it before. So every frustrating workday full of distractions is training you to tune them out better next time.

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Belle B. Cooper

Belle is an iOS developer, writer, and co-founder of Melbourne-based software company Hello Code. She writes about productivity, lifehacks, and finding ways to do more meaningful work.

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