Stumbling Block Series: When YOU Are Your Worst Distraction

Often, when I talk to people about their challenges or what’s holding them back, they tell me they can’t seem to get into the ‘zone.’ They’re feeling distracted and interrupted constantly – through technology, coworkers, friends and family… the list can go on!

What we don’t realize is that our obstacle is actually self interruptions that we invite into our day.

This is what we’re discussing on the Productivity Paradox podcast this week in episode 071. It’s important for us to take a step back and assess how often we allow distractions into our work day, as well as our personal time!

I’ll share my 5 favorite habits we can use to cultivate increased focus and we’ll combat those distractions and interruptions together. Let’s get started!

How ‘Distractible’ are you?

Our world is technology- rich with notifications, alarms, ringtones, vibrations, and more that all steal our attention and trap us in a positive reinforcement loop as we talk, text, comment and message anyone and everyone all at once.

You’ve probably heard that quick fact that a goldfish has a nine-second attention space, right? But did you know that humans beat their record? A study from Microsoft Corp. has shown that people generally lose concentration after eight seconds.

Along with this, they surveyed people’s habits, and found that we seem to think we’re getting better at multitasking and using multiple screens at once, despite the fact that we can’t focus on multiple screens for more than ten seconds at one time.

You might remember way back in episode 009 and 010 that we talked about how multitasking can kill your productivity, and monotasking is the better way to go. We need to keep in mind that computers were designed to multitask – not people.

“With increased knowledge about the effects, we have the choice to reduce our stimulation and become more mindful of how much we self-interrupt to ultimately change our habits.”

We somehow assume we have the ability to multitask even though our brains are not computers and are certainly not designed for it. Look around at people on their phones at restaurants or while walking down the street – it seems impossible to stay idle and simply be alone with our thoughts. It’s piling one distraction on top of another – using multiple devices at once.

We want to say it’s an epidemic with youth or millennials – but it’s not. People of all ages are allowing their phones to drag them from one distraction to the next, much like Pavlov’s dog.

It may seem impossible to change our tech habits but think of how prevalent smoking was before we understood the dangers. With increased knowledge about the effects, we have the choice to reduce our stimulation and become more mindful of how much we self-interrupt to ultimately change our habits. Let’s turn this obstacle around, shall we?


1. Own your space.

Part of changing your behavior is making sure that anything that could distract you isn’t sitting nearby.

Professor Bill Thorton recently conducted a study at the University of Southern Maine and demonstrated that when performing complex tasks that require our full attention, just having the experimenter’s phone in the room led to distraction and worse performance. I want to point out – it wasn’t the participant’s phone but the experimenters phone…

In the same study, a student having their phone on silent in a classroom had an equally negative impact on their attention.

Want to focus better? Try not bringing your phone with you at all. If you’re going out to an important meeting, try leaving your phone in the car. Or at work, leave your phone in your purse in another room. Make it that much harder to reach for your phone and be distracted by it.


2. Build your focus muscle

Your mind is basically a muscle, and just like your muscles build muscle memory, your brain can build habitual thought processes.

Just like a physical muscle, your attention muscle has a limited amount of strength and can either atrophy from not being used, or get stronger from purposeful exercise. Your attention also requires rest and recovery after it’s been used.

Just like strength training, we need to push our attention limits in an effort to have a longer attention span.

Increase your focus strength gradually:

We’ve talked about time blocking before, and while I typically recommend 30-minute focus blocks, if you really have trouble focusing it’s time to go back to basics: start with a timer set for just five minutes and work with complete focus. When those five minutes are done, take a break and reward yourself for a few minutes before going for another 5 minutes.

When you can easily focus for 5 minutes after a day or so, add another five minutes to your focus time and a couple of minutes to your reward/break time. This will build up to a longer block of time where you’re able to focus on a task for an hour.

Exercising your body can actually help your brain:

Researchers found that students who engaged in moderate physical exercise before taking a test that measured attention spans performed better than students who didn’t exercise.

Though they aren’t sure why, research has shown that exercise helps our brain’s ability to ignore distractions.


3. Give your distractions their own space

Create a distraction/random thoughts list

So often we self-interrupt because we think of something to check on that will only take a minute and do it right away, “I wonder what the weather will be like tomorrow?” “What movies are playing this weekend?” “Do we still have coffee in the coffee pot?” The problem is that it takes far too long to get back on task and drains our mental energy to check these “just a minute” thoughts.

Instead, whenever something random and short pops in your head, write it down on a notepad nearby, or in a note taking app, and check it once your break time has arrived.

When we think about being productive, we think it means being busy. But to truly be productive, we need to give our brains a little space to play and explore – some unstructured time… and this is where distractions live. Just make sure to give that unstructured time a container – give it a set amount of time so you don’t fall into a rabbit hole.


4. Put your brain on a break.

Work for a while, then give it some space. Start a meditation practice and become more mindful. We talked last season in episode 64 about how mindfulness can positively impact your productivity, and it can also improve your attention span. Research shows that just 10 to 20 minutes of meditation a day will help boost your attention, and you might even see improvement after just four days.

Try to also practice mindfulness during your day by simply focusing completely on what you’re doing, slowing down and observing all of the physical and emotional sensations you’re experiencing the moment.

Practice attentive listening

Being able to be fully present with a loved one builds your rapport, trust and intimacy with them, and making the effort to fully focus on them strengthens your own concentration. Next time you’re talking with someone, put away your phone and listen as attentively as possible.


5. Savor what you enjoy

Read longer articles and books slowly – intentionally enjoying them.

While some studies indicate that reading digital content has gone up nearly 40%, Slate partnered with a website analytics company, and found that only 5% of readers who start an online article actually finish it, and 38% of readers never actually scroll beyond the first few paragraphs.

Another recent study showed that 25% of Americans didn’t read a single book in the last year.

There’s definitely a time and place for skimming an article or a book, but there’s so much to learning and enjoyment to be had from longer books and articles, and getting lost in a book is a great way to build a longer period of focus.


What’s Next?

I want to challenge you to start paying attention to how you are spending your time – do you allow yourself to have moments of quiet in your brain… or are you constantly checking in on your phone. I want to encourage you to stop self-interrupting and allow yourself the focused time you need.

Have you heard? I’m diving into YouTube more than ever before with NEW videos on productivity each Tuesday. CLICK HERE to subscribe to my channel so you don’t miss the videos, resources/freebies and all the productivity tips to come!

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Tonya Dalton
Tonya Dalton