“Wisdom is the art of knowing what to overlook,” wrote psychologist William James. Unfortunately, if this is the case then few of us can honestly say we’re wise. Knowing where to allocate our attention has become the great challenge of our lives. And we’re not making it any easier by exposing ourselves to so many distractions.
Many of us fight distraction every day without really examining what’s distracting us and why. But if we want to focus on meaningful, productive work, we need to be able to understand what gets in the way.
So why do we get so easily distracted? And is it even possible to rebuild your attention in our distracting work environment?
There are only two types of distractions you need to worry about
Ask anyone about what distracts them and they’ll most likely respond with some combination of their phone, social media, and the people around them.
And while those are certainly distractions, we need to zoom out a bit if we want to truly understand what’s taking our attention.
According to Daniel Goleman, author of Focus: The Hidden Power of Excellence, there are actually only two kinds of distraction:
- Sensory distractions (External). These are the things happening around us like colleagues talking, phones ringing, people moving around us, music playing, etc…
- Emotional distractions (Internal). These are the thoughts that make our attention drift from what we’re doing. For example, remembering a phone call you need to return or thinking about an upcoming meeting.
The problem is that most of us only focus on external distractions. It’s easy to blame your lack of focus on notifications and interruptions.
However, according to UC Irvine’s Gloria Mark, we’re just as likely to interrupt ourselves as get interrupted by something external. As Goleman puts it:
“It’s not the chatter of people around us that is the most powerful distractor, but rather the chatter of our own minds.”
Emotional distractions are a symptom of our workplace culture
Internal distractions are more difficult to treat as they can’t be fixed by turning off notifications. While we’ve written about how to set up tools like Slack and Gmail for focus, there’s no Definitive Guide to Setting up Your Brain for Focus.
And even if there were, it might actually do more harm than good.
As Joshua Rothman writes in The Atlantic:
“Behind the crisis of distraction, in short, there is what amounts to a crisis of attention: the more valuable and in demand attention becomes, the more problematic even innocuous distractions seem to be.”
Here’s where things get tricky. While part of your brain is fighting to be focused 100% of the time, another part craves distraction.
According to Matthew Crawford, author of The World Beyond Your Head: Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction, distraction is less about being controlled and more about asserting control over a situation.
Crawford believes we’re obsessed (to a fault) with autonomy. In fact, when researchers studied the qualities of the most satisfying jobs, flexibility, autonomy, and control were in the top 6.
Unfortunately, few of us have autonomy and control over our day-to-day.
When we spoke to 500+ knowledge workers, only 10% said they feel “in control of how they spend their time each day.” So it’s only natural to want to take control over that time. Even if that means being distracted.
As Rothman writes:
“It’s not just that we choose our own distractions; it’s that the pleasure we get from being distracted is the pleasure of taking action and being free…
When you write an essay in Microsoft Word while watching, in another window, an episode of “American Ninja Warrior”—trust me, you can do this—you’re declaring your independence from the drudgery of work… Distraction is appealing precisely because it’s active and rebellious.”
The 3 main sources of internal distraction at work (and how to fix them)
We all want to do our best work and losing focus only leads to overwork, stress, and burnout.
However, once you start to realize that distraction can come both from external and internal or cultural issues, you can start to address it at the core.
Here are three of the main ways your work culture is promoting internal distraction (and how to fix them).
The problem: Remote work or a lack of social interaction
Alan Hedge, a 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.
However, forgoing all human interaction is equally distracting. As Future Workplace research director Dan Schawbel told us:
“The biggest issue most people are facing on a daily basis—no matter who they are, how much money they make, or how they identify—is isolation.”
Workplace isolation sends us to Twitter and Facebook. Or to check in on email and chat every 6 minutes to see if there’s a new message.
The Solution: Schedule time for meetings, calls, and social activities
To fight the distraction of isolation, we need to balance our need for focus with our need for socialization. This means creating a daily routine with time to connect with the people you work with and not just resorting to impersonal communication.
As Dan explains:
“It’s about an individual’s willingness to reach out and connect with other people they work with. It’s about the effort they put in to pick up the phone instead of firing off another email.”
“So while leaders need to invest the time in supporting and connecting with people regardless of where they are. Everyone needs to be receptive to it on the other end too. Connection is a two-way street.”
The problem: Multitasking
By now, we know that multitasking is a myth. Yet everyone still tries to do more than one thing at a time.
Living in a space of constant half-attention causes our brain to lose focus. According to Goleman, our brains want us to make a plan to tackle things that are important to us. And when we don’t, those unfinished tasks continue to pop up in our mind and distract us.
The Solution: Adopt a work schedule designed around single-tasking
A lack of priorities is probably one of the biggest internal distractions at work. As Curt Steinhorst, author of Can I have your attention? writes, distraction is actually just confusion about what matters.
If this is the case, then fighting distraction comes down to prioritization (using a system like Getting Things Done) as well as making time for your most important work. Luckily, we’ve written about both:
- The “Everything is Important” paradox: 7 practical methods for how to prioritize work
- The best time management strategies for scheduling your day, week, month, year, and even life
The problem: Unpredictable work environments
Finally, our work environment rarely lends itself to focus.
According to David Rock, 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 noticing anything that doesn’t match a pattern. We’re drawn to novelty, which makes a distraction—like a loud coworker or hearing a one-sided conversation—in an otherwise monotonous workday very hard to ignore.
The Solution: Get more comfortable with distractions
It may seem counterintuitive, but blocking out distractions in your environment isn’t the best answer. Instead, you need to get comfortable with them.
In one study, researchers asked three groups of participants to perform a task. One group was left alone while the other was distracted.
When the researchers ran the test a second time, the participants who had been previously interrupted performed better, even if they were interrupted again.Research shows that we might get better at handling distractions as we face them more. Click To Tweet
It’s easy to blame notification, social media, and loud coworkers when you feel distracted. Unfortunately, that’s only skimming the surface.
Internal distractions are just as dangerous and get much less of our attention. The only way to fight distraction is if you know why you’re getting distracted in the first place.