by Terri Trespicio
Your mind has one job: to think. And it does this job well—the average human brain produces tens of thousands of thoughts every day. The problem is, some of these thoughts are more important than others, but all of them have the ability to divert your attention. If you’ve ever sat down to focus on a job and 20 minutes later found yourself down an internet rabbit hole, reading about the origin of No. 2 pencils, then you know how this works.
We’re not only personally distractible, we’ve designed a culture that enforces that distraction (see: everything you have within three feet of you that pings, dings, or rings). In fact, one study found that the average office worker is interrupted every 11 minutes—and takes 25 minutes to get back on track. This adds up to an average of two hours lost each day, and you lose even more time doing “invisible work” to make up for these distractions. The result? Higher levels of stress, frustration, and mental workload.
So, we know distraction is a problem—but what can we do about it? Here are a few ways it manifests in your daily life, and what you can do to stop it from taking hold of your productivity:
PROBLEM #1: You can’t stop yourself You’re chugging along on some work when your phone dings. What do you do? You drop what you’re doing and respond.
As David Rock, author of Your Brain at Work, says, the problem is that our braking system—the way we stop ourselves from giving in to distraction—gives out often, which is why we careen full speed ahead into whatever pulls us in a different direction than we intended. In fact, says Rock, if cars had the kind of braking system our brains do, we wouldn’t even survive a trip to the store.
SOLUTION: Reduce opportunities for distractionThe simplest way to keep your focus focused? Put your phone away. This may seem obvious, but 70 percent of workers report that they keep their mobile device “within eye contact” while at work. It’s hard to be distracted by Facebook messages if your app isn’t open. It’s hard to answer a phone you don’t know is ringing. Close apps, turn off notifications, silence devices, and reduce the ways in which distraction can find you. Not forever, just for now—even an hour or two each day could make a big difference.
PROBLEM #2: Your mind is friedThe less energy you have, the weaker your attention—and the more susceptible you are to distraction. It’s not unlike resisting, well, almost anything else. For instance, you might swear off junk food and start strong in the morning, cruising past those breakroom donuts. But throw in poor sleep and a stressful day, and your willpower weakens when faced with a cupcake at the end of the day.
Distraction works in a similar way, except instead of pastries, your self-control weakens in the face of clickbait. Before you know it, you have 22 tabs open on your browser and no idea what you were supposed to be doing.
SOLUTION: Give your brain a boost Starting fresh in the morning allows you to maximize the full power of your attention. According to behavioral scientist Dan Ariely, we tend to be most productive in the first two hours after we become fully awake. A good night’s sleep is critical, and an early start will make all the difference. Aim for an hour earlier on both ends to give yourself an edge on your day and to stay a step ahead of distraction.
Another way to recharge your brain is through mindfulness meditation. Brain scans show that meditators are better able to quiet the brain activity that leads our minds to wander, which results in sharper focus.PROBLEM #3: You’re boredBoredom creates stress. When you’re bored, you’re not only more susceptible to distraction—you court it, simply because it gives you something different to focus on. But giving in to distraction just puts a bandage on boredom instead of addressing it head on.
SOLUTION: Recalibrate & rewardFirst, uncover why you’re bored. Is it just that the task is not as interesting as others, or is there something else going on? Have you outgrown the role you’re in or ceased to find new things to learn? Have you temporarily lost sight of the purpose underpinning what you’re doing and why? This kind of recalibrating can only happen when you commit your attention to it, rather than trying to escape the issue altogether.
If you find that you’re experiencing garden-variety boredom, try this tip from marketing strategist Cass McCrory and reward yourself first. “So many times we save the ’fun’ until last,” she says. “We think, ‘I have to write that report, get caught up on email, give so-and-so a call back before I can…” If you hold the carrot out too far (is anyone really caught up on email?), “You never get there, the fun never happens, and you end up wistfully distracted by what you wish you were doing.”
However, if you do the thing you truly want to do first (read for a while, go for a walk, book the vacation you’re daydreaming about), you elevate your energy and prioritize what you value most. “When the balance of the work is done well,” she says, “you’re in a far better mood, and executing at a higher level.”
When you filter out distraction, you’re able to choose where your attention goes—rather than letting it choose you. This gives you the time and energy to focus on what really matters: new ideas, creative thinking, efficient problem solving, and so much more.
Terri Trespicio is a New York–based lifestyle writer. For nearly a decade, she served as a senior editor and radio host at Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia. Her work has appeared in Jezebel, XOJane, Marie Claire, Prevention, MindBodyGreen, and DailyWorth. Find her on Twitter @TerriT