Beat Back Distractions: The Neuroscience Of Getting Things Done

The challenge is that we have not realized the true cost of distractions: they use up what turns out to be a limited supply of attention each day. Distractions also make us far less effective.
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If you are paid to answer emails or respond to customers all day then this post might not be for you. But if you're someone who often needs to get some deeper thinking done, read on...

An epidemic of overwhelm
People everywhere seem to be experiencing an epidemic of overwhelm at work. I believe it's a function of two things. Firstly it's the amount of information we now process, which our brain may not be used to. The New York Times on Sunday contains more information than the average 18th century European learned in his lifetime.

Secondly, we have new technologies which are extremely good at distracting us, which our human habits have not yet caught up to. The challenge is that we have not realized the true cost of distractions: they use up what turns out to be a limited supply of attention each day. Distractions also make us far less effective if we need to do deeper thinking work. For example, a University of London study found that being always connected impacts your IQ equivalent to losing a night's sleep or taking up marijuana.

Attention is a limited resource
Every time you focus your attention you use a measurable amount of glucose and other metabolic resources. Studies by Roy Baumeister and his colleagues show that each task you do tends to make you less effective at the next task, and this is especially true for high energy tasks like self control or decision making. So distractions really take their toll.

Here's more on this from my book, 'Your Brain at Work':
Distractions are everywhere. And with the "always on" technologies of today, they take a heavy toll on productivity. One study found that office distractions eat an average 2.1 hours a day. Another study, published in October 2005, found that employees spent an average of 11 minutes on a project before being distracted. After an interruption it takes them 25 minutes to return to the original task, if they do at all. People switch activities every three minutes, either making a call, speaking with someone in their cubicle, or working on a document.
Distractions are not just frustrating; they can be exhausting. By the time you get back to where you were, your ability to stay focused goes down even further as you have even less glucose available now. Change focus ten times an hour (one study showed people in offices did so as much as 20 times an hour), and your productive thinking time is only a fraction of what's possible. Less energy equals less capacity to understand, decide, recall, memorize, and inhibit. The result could be mistakes on important tasks. Or distractions can cause you to forget good ideas and lose valuable insights. Having a great idea and not being able to remember it can be frustrating, like an itch you can't scratch, yet another distraction to manage.

Remove temptation
So how can we address this? The answer is quite simple. Though difficult to execute. Once you understand how much energy is involved in high-level thinking like planning and creating, you might be more vigilant about allowing distractions to steal your attention. One of the most effective distraction management techniques is to switch off all communication devices during any thinking work. Your brain prefers to focus on things right in front of you. It's less effort. If you are trying to focus on a subtle mental thread, allowing yourself to be distracted is like stopping pain and enjoying a mild pleasure: it's too hard to resist. Blocking out external distractions altogether, especially if you get a lot of them, seems to be one of the best strategies for improving mental performance. There is no "trick" to this: you simply must switch things off, or you wont focus.

So part of the solution to managing distractions is quite easy in theory; it just takes some courage. It's also not negotiable: there's no way not to be distracted by distractions, it's built into the brain in the way we pay attention to novelty.

Distractions are not just external though. As adolescence hits and you become more conscious of an inner life, many people notice that their mind is hard to control. Strange thoughts pop into awareness at odd moments. The mind likes to wander, like a young puppy sniffing around here and there. As frustrating as this tendency can be, it's normal and it tends to stay this way through life. One reason for your wandering attention is that the nervous system is constantly processing, reconfiguring, and reconnecting trillions of neural connections each moment. The term for this is "ambient neural activity". If you were to look at the electrical activity, even in a resting brain, it would look like planet earth from space with electrical storms sparking constantly.

Trey Hedden and John Gabrieli, two neuroscientists from MIT, studied what happens in the brain when people are distracted by internal thoughts when doing difficult tasks. They found that lapses in attention impair performance, independent of what the task is, and that these lapses in attention involve activating the medial prefrontal cortex. The medial prefrontal cortex is located within the prefrontal cortex itself, around the middle of your forehead. It activates when you think about yourself and other people. This region of the brain is also part of what is called the "default" network. This network becomes active when you are not doing much at all, such as being in between activities while in a scanner. Hedden and Gabrieli found that when you lose external focus, this default brain network activates and your attention goes to more internal signals, such as being more aware of something that may be bothering you.

Driving away from distractions
You might wonder how you ever stay focused. We have specific neural circuitry for this process, though it doesn't work the way you might expect. A key part of maintaining good focus occurs based on how well you inhibit the wrong things from coming into focus.

A common test that neuroscientists use to study the act of focusing is the "stroop" test. Volunteers are given words printed in different colors and told to read out the color of the text, not the word itself. In the example below, the brain has a strong desire to answer "unbold" for option c., as it's easier for the brain to read a word than to identify a color.

a. Bold
b. Unbold
c. Unbold
d. Bold

To not read the word "unbold" requires inhibition of an automatic response. Using scanning technologies neuroscientists have observed people inhibiting their natural responses, and discovered the brain networks that are activated when this happens. There is one specific region within the prefrontal cortex that keeps showing up as being central for all types of inhibition. It's called the right and left ventrolateral prefrontal cortex (VLPFC), and it sits just behind the right and left temple. The VLPFC inhibits many types of responses. When you inhibit a motor response, a cognitive response or an emotional response, this region becomes active. It appears that the brain has many different 'accelerators', with different parts of the brain involved in language, emotions, movement, and memories. Yet there is only one central braking system used for all types of braking. Dr. Matthew Lieberman wrote an important paper about this in the NeuroLeadership Journal called 'The Brain's Braking System', summarizing the body of research on this issue.

Your ability to use this braking system well, the VLPFC, seems to correlate closely to how well you can focus. It seems that to focus we need to learn to stop ourselves from going down the wrong path. One of the challenges with this process though is that this braking system isn't very robust. In fact far from it.

Putting on the breaks
If you were a car company building a new type of car you would make sure the braking system was made out of the most robust materials possible, because brake failure is not a happy thing. Well in the case of human brains, our braking system is part of the most fragile, temperamental and energy-hungry region of the brain, the prefrontal cortex. Because of this, your braking system only works at its best every now and then. If cars were like this you'd never survive your first drive down to the store. Stopping yourself from acting on an urge is something you can do sometimes, but is often not that easy. Not thinking about an annoying, intrusive thought at times can be very difficult. And staying focused, well sometimes that appears downright impossible.

Timing is of the essence
So, inhibiting distractions is a core skill for staying focused. To inhibit distractions, you need to be aware of your internal mental process and catch the wrong impulses before they take hold. It turns out that, like the old saying goes, timing is everything. Once you take an action, an energetic loop commences that makes it harder to stop that action. Many activities have built-in rewards, in the form of increased arousal that holds your attention. Once you open your email program and see the messages from people you know, it's so much harder to stop yourself from reading them. Most motor or mental acts also generate their own momentum. Decide to get out of your chair and the relevant brain regions, as well as dozens of muscles, are all activated. Blood starts pumping and energy moves around. To stop getting out of your chair once you start will take more focus and effort than to decide not to get up when you first have the urge. To avoid distractions it's helpful to get into the habit of stopping the wrong behaviors early, quickly, and often, well before they take over. The point is that you need to inhibit the actions fast, in under half a second, which in some studies is the time between noticing an urge and the urge taking over.

And here's a big take away from all this. Manage what you focus on. Pay attention to your attention, and stop yourself from getting on the wrong train of thought early, before it takes over. This is the opposite of being mindless: it's being mindful.

The best way to do that is to practice being aware of your own thoughts, by activating your observer function. How do you do that, when you have a ton of information pouring through your head as you process a hundred emails in the morning? The answer is clear: you can't. If you want to do deeper thinking work, don't start your day overwhelming and exhausting your brain. Start with the tougher work that requires a more focused, quiet mind. Many people have this back to front. If your job is to think, tackle thinking tasks early, and tasks that are relatively interesting such as checking your emails (which means your brain will go there easily) later when you are tired.

So in summary, how do you beat back distractions? Turn everything off. And do your deeper thinking work in the morning while you still have the ability to control your attention. Sounds easy enough. In practice it's tough, but it works.


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