Focus, Interrupted

Only a small number of you will finish reading this till the end. Some of you will be tempted to click away by the promise of entertainment that unopened tabs have. For others, maybe this is a form of temptation, and you are procrastinating from the things you really should be doing. Whatever the reason, thank you for giving me your attention right now. It is such a valuable resource, yet we cannot stop feeling like we are over depleting it. It is just so damn hard to stay focused. It is easy to point the finger towards our smart phones and social media as the main culprits. However, the goal of this post isn’t to talk about how technology is affecting our attention spans, but rather how can we adapt to harness our power of focus in an over stimulating environment. In order to do that, first we need to understand the nature of our distractions and what they say about us.

Everything that makes you shift your attention from one area to another, resulting in an interrupted work flow or interrupted information processing is a distraction. We have categorized them into three levels, to represent the level of difficulty for overcoming them.

Level 1 distractions - Smart phones, social media and your inbox

How often do you feel the impulse to check your feed or your inbox while working on a specific task? Do you immediately grab your phone when you receive a notification? Social media, email, and all the dings and beeps of push notifications make the first distraction level. They erode our focused flow bit by bit. So, when is it that we are most susceptible to them? Think about the times you have felt the urge to check Facebook or Instagram. Also think about the task that you were working on. Whenever we have to do work that is not enjoyable, we turn to distractions that will be. Being on social media gives us a sense of micro escapism from the frustrating work before us.

Then there’s the inbox and the need to always stay on top of it. Answering messages as soon as we receive them. Always communicating. Always connected. Unless this is part of your job description, this behavior is counterproductive.

If we want to overcome these distractions first we need to be mindful of when they appear. Are we bored or over challenged by an assignment and looking for a way out? All all those emails and notifications really that urgent? One way to manage these distractions is by dedicating time in the day for answering emails and calls, planning social media brakes ahead of time and putting your phone on silent. Screen down if necessary. When things get rough I even put it away from my desk. Far from sight, far from mind right?

Level 2 distractions - Outside interruptions

Unlike the previous group, these distractions are more difficult to control because they come from the outside environment. They can take the form of loud colleagues, unnecessary meetings or partners and kids ( for those of you working from home). Once somebody breaks our concentration it takes approximately 25 minutes on average to get it back. Now multiply that with the typical number of interruptions in a day. That is so much wasted time. So how can we remedy this? Well, change your environment. Just kidding. If only it were that simple. So for those of us who don’t have this option, here are few tips. Establish deep work periods. These are the hours when you have exclusive focus on whatever it is that you are working on. Communicate to your boss, colleagues or partner that you need this uninterrupted workflow in order to be more efficient and provide better results. It can be anything from a few hours in a day, to a whole day in the week dedicated to it. The rest of your working hours you’ll be able to address questions from your colleagues or other issues that may arise.

Level 3 distractions - You

These are the macro distractions that can deter you from pursuing your long term goals. They don’t interrupt our focus on tasks, but rather our focus on the end goal. They don't necessarily arise from our digital tools, but can definitely be fueled by them.

The first is perfectionism. When we come up with an idea, the version that exists in our minds is flawless. Yet, when we set out to accomplish that idea, we realize how hard it is to make it a reality. Our work might never live up to the image we had in our mind. Fearing this, we give up on working on it all together. The pressure of expecting perfection from our work is immense. Don’t put that on yourself. Instead focus on the process of creating, making and achieving your goal. Done is better than perfect.

The second distraction, fear of failure, is closely related to the first. There are all these doubts and worst case scenarios just swirling around in our head. Maybe you’ve even failed before, and are now scared of doing the same mistake again. That’s understandable. However, all these thoughts can stop you from working and potentially achieving something that will bring you joy. Give yourself time to process your fear, then gather up courage and start working.

The third distraction is a sneaky one. It appears when you start comparing yourself to others. Micro doses of this can sometimes be a good idea. It will give you a push to go the extra mile. On the other hand, overdosing can lead to envy, self pity, discouragement and quitting. Those are bad side effects indeed. When you look at other people’s success, view it as source of inspiration, not evidence that you in fact suck. Focus on your own progress and if today you are better than yesterday, even a little bit, your golden in the long run.

There are many things that make us distracted from our goals. Getting things done is a battlefield. ( Sorry Pat Benatar, I guess it wasn’t love that is a battlefield :) ) So, how many of these distractions are you faced with? What will you do to minimize them?