Baseball coach Tony La Russa once said, “There are always distractions if you allow them.” While certainly not wrong, we all get distracted. In fact, 99% of employees said they were distracted from their work tasks at some point during the day, according to a Poly study.
Further, respondents were asked how these distractions affected their work, and 48% said that they found it difficult to concentrate. The majority of workers (51% of them) pointed out that office distractions made it more difficult for them to conduct phone calls. And 93% cited that office distractions made it more difficult for them to conduct video calls.
The interesting thing is that while almost all employees report negative workplace distractions, they differ in what they are and how they impact performance.
For instance, among Gen Z respondents to the Poly study, 52% said they are most productive when working in a noisy environment or chatting with coworkers. For baby boomers to be more productive, however, a quiet office is essential.
What’s more, nearly 74% of Gen Z and millennial employees are distracted, according to a Udemy study. In addition to office noise, 69% of Gen Z and millennials say their smartphones are the second biggest distraction at work.
However, there are ways that we can prevent getting distracted. It’s even possible to develop the super of indistractability.
What is a Distraction?
Before getting too far ahead of ourselves, I think it’s only fair that we define what a distraction is.
As per the definition, distractions involve diverting someone’s attention away from what they’re trying to do.
Distractions come in two forms:
- Internal distractions. These are distractions generated by your own mind. Among these are fatigue, illness, personal problems, and daydreaming.
- External distractions. These are the distractions you encounter outside of your mind. They include things like phone calls, emails, texts, and social media notifications. Chatty co-workers or anything visually distracting can also be examples.
Whether internal or external — we typically succumb to distractions for a couple of reasons.
It may happen when you do boring, menial tasks. But it may also happen when you deal with any task you do not normally enjoy or find interesting.
In addition, trying to work while everyone else is having fun can be challenging — especially if you would prefer to do something else. For example, you saw on Instagram a friend having a blast while currently on vacation.
Finally, you may have a chronic condition like ADHD or insomnia.
The High Costs of Distractions
Many people don’t consider distractions to be that big of an issue — even though some are annoyed by them. In reality, distractions are more costly than you may realize.
Distractions waste your time.
UC Irvine psychologist Gloria Mark found that it takes about 25 minutes (23 minutes and 15 seconds) for an individual to return to the original task after an interruption. And this has been confirmed by multiple studies.
Besides eating up time during the distraction itself, distractions derail your mental progress for up to half an hour afterward — assuming no other distractions appear during that timeframe.
To put that another way, you didn’t lose 30 seconds checking that new email in your inbox. It’s actually 25 minutes and 30 seconds.
The emotional effects of distractions.
“Our research has shown that attention distraction can lead to higher stress, a bad mood, and lower productivity,” Mark wrote in the New York Times. “While we can’t blame all attention distraction on clickbait, as with any addictive relationship, it is an enabler.”
“When we switch our attention to a new activity, the cognitions that we used in the first task remain as we transition to the subsequent task,” she adds. “This attention residue adds to our cognitive load as we keep switching our focus of attention and trying to reorient to new topics.” And, when we are overloaded, we tend to engage in lighter activities.
Distractions affect your memory.
Research from Simon Fraser University suggests that distractions may be linked to working memory capacity:
- The ability to avoid distractions is higher when you have a better memory. Those who performed well on memory tasks (indicating higher working memory capacity) suppressed distractions more effectively. So, do continual work on your memory capacity.
- Distractions are harder to avoid when you have a poor memory. In contrast, those who performed poorly in memory tasks in the study (indicating lower working memory capacity) struggled to overcome distractions quickly enough to prevent them from grabbing their attention.
You’re more likely to make mistakes.
During safety-critical situations, distractions are much more likely to lead to errors.
An employee is two times more likely to make an error if an interruption lasts just 2.8 seconds, according to Michigan State University research. If the distraction lasts for 4.4 seconds, the number of mistakes triples.
How to Tell if You’re Distracted
The effects of distraction can vary from person to person. For those who want to become indistractable, here are a few signs to spot to find out if you are becoming distracted, so you can address it before it gets worse.
- You want to do something fun instead of working on that thing that feels so boring. The reason for this is that you are dissatisfied with your work. When you are bored with your work, you turn to something ‘fun’ for comfort.
- You are constantly checking your phone. One of the most common signs of distraction is constantly checking your phone or being on social media during work hours.
- It is difficult to focus on a task when you are surrounded by audio-visual stimuli. As you work on your task, you are distracted by every voice or passing sight. For example, instead of concentrating on work, you may listen in on nearby conversations.
- It takes you a long time to decide what to do with an object. The materials are there, but you don’t know how to proceed. Even though you have a task to complete, you have trouble figuring out what to do.
The Steps to Becoming Indistracable
Now that we understand distractions and we realize that the majority of it is our fault, what’s next? Well, former Stanford GSB lecturer and author of Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life, Nir Eyal, has developed four simple tactics for gaining control and becoming indistractable.
1. Master internal triggers.
“The first step to managing distraction is to recognize that it starts from within,” Eyal states. “Unless we deal with the root causes of distraction, we will continue to find ways to distract ourselves.”
The thing that distracts us isn’t the distracting thing; it’s what we do with it that matters.
“Resisting, ruminating, and finally giving in to the desire perpetuates the cycle of distraction and quite possibly drives many unwanted behaviors,” he adds.
Despite not being able to control what pops into our heads, we can control what we do with those feelings and thoughts. By changing our thinking about distractions that originate within, we can manage them.
In short, the best way to handle intrusive thoughts is not to fight them. Instead, it’s finding new methods to deal with them.
In order to do so, Eyal says that we need to take the following four steps:
- 1. Focus on identifying the internal trigger that causes the discomfort before the distraction takes place.
- 2. Keep a record of the trigger.
- 3. Rather than being dismissive of your negative feelings, explore them with curiosity.
- 4. While transitioning from one activity to another, exercise extra caution.
“Reimagining the internal trigger, the task, and our temperament are powerful and proven ways to deal with distractions that start within us,” continues Eyal. Our discomfort can be dealt with by reflecting rather than reacting to it. By finding fun in the task we are trying to accomplish, we can reimagine it.
In addition, we can change how we see ourselves to free ourselves from self-limiting beliefs. For example, if we decide we can’t resist temptation, that will become true.
2. Make time for traction.
Eyal said during an episode of “Move: The Go To Market Podcast” that the second step is to make time for traction or to turn your values into time.
Two-thirds of Americans don’t keep a calendar. Why’s that important? If you do not know what something distracted you from, you cannot call it a distraction.
So, if you show me your calendar, I will be able to see what you planned to do with your day, so you shouldn’t claim, “Oh, I got distracted,” he says. Unless you plan your day, you won’t get sympathy.
Additionally, we perform better when we are constrained. “Schedules give us a framework, while nothingness torments us with the tyranny of choice,” he told the Stanford Graduate School of Business. “An unscheduled day isn’t freedom,” Eyal says. “Rather, it’s a recipe for regret.”
Without planning time to do what matters, our life falls out of balance quickly.
As long as that’s what you intend to do, scrolling Instagram, playing a video game, or watching Netflix is fine. After all, we can benefit from taking a break from time to time. But we get in trouble when we unintentionally do these things.
3. Combat external triggers.
External triggers are often used by tech companies to capture our attention. It should, however, come as no surprise that smartphones are responsible for a lot of these triggers.
In fact, it’s been found that ignoring a call or message is just as distracting as answering it! Fortunately, these external triggers can help you keep track of what you’ve planned if used properly.
In order to do this, simply ask yourself whether your external trigger serves you or if it serves you. If you receive traction from a trigger, keep it. But if it’s distracting, remove it.
Here are a few things to keep in mind:
- If you no longer need an app, remove it.
- For apps that you enjoy, uninstall them on your phone and access them from your computer.
- Rearrange your apps on your phone’s home screen to reduce clutter.
- If you aren’t interested in getting updates from one or more apps, such as social media, remove the notification settings for those apps.
4. Prevent distractions by making a pact.
The last step to becoming indistractable involves preventing ourselves from sliding into distraction. But only once have we learned to master internal triggers, make space for traction, and reduce external triggers.
“To do so, we must learn a powerful technique called ‘precommitment,’ which involves removing a choice in the future to overcome our impulses in the present,” Eyal explains.
As the last line of defense, precommitments keep us from getting distracted. This should only be used after the three other intractable strategies have been applied.
With effort pacts, you can reduce distractions and make unwanted behaviors more difficult. Making a price pact can also encourage you to keep your promises by putting money on the line.
Finally, identity pacts can be an effective way to change your behavior since it involves changing your identity, he suggests.
Image Credit: Andrea Piacquadio; Pexels; Thank you!