It’s hard to start an article about distractions without falling into overused truisms and clichés: our phones, our computers, our fast-paced lives, our questionable work-home balances, our goldfish-sized attention spans eroding with every ding, chime, and ring.
And yes, research shows that we’re not always making the best personal and organizational decisions to harness focus and deep work. But there’s good news too; science offers practical, tangible things we can all do to help ourselves out. Before diving into solutions though, it helps to know more about how brains and distracting environments actually work, so let’s start with the basics.
Part one: understanding distractions
In its purest form, the distraction is a thing that diverts our focus in an unwanted direction, that prevents us from giving something — or someone — our undivided attention. But of course, not all distractions are created equal. Here are a few distinctions worth keeping in mind.
Sensory vs emotional distractions
In his book Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence, Psychologist Daniel Goleman defines two main kinds of distractions: sensory and emotional. We know that loud noises harm productivity, but the impact of emotional ones — say tense team dynamics — is often overlooked and underestimated.
Environmental vs internal distractions
While a colleague knocking on our door might seem like an obvious culprit, our own internal dialogue is actually responsible for 49.1% of disruptions, so tackling this problem will require a healthy dose of introspection.
Distractions vs interruptions
In neuroscience, distractions are defined as irrelevant sources of information that need to be ignored, while interruptions require our attention and action. As it turns out, they impact our brains in significantly different ways — more on that later.
Part two: understanding brains
To help us make sense of it all, Nobel prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman describes the brain as being managed by two distinct systems.
- System 1 is involuntary and tasked with turning stimuli into information, then into automatic decisions. System 1 is responsible for you turning your head when you hear your name; it’s also responsible for your ears perking up to that high-pitch ding your phone just made in the next room.
- System 2 is voluntary and tasked with processing suggestions made by System 1, then carefully choosing where to allocate your attention. System 2 is the one that helps you read a book or be creative; it’s also the one that allows you to engage in strategy work or solve complex problems.
To make all of these rapid-fire decisions, our brains need fuel. Its energy source of choice? Glucose, a simple carbohydrate that can be found in bread, fruits, vegetables, dairy, and yes — candy. To make sure it doesn’t run low, the brain has found clever ways to manage energy consumption by prioritizing functions and information. If it catches wind of a nearby lion, for example, it will immediately cut off all pipelines to your abstract, beauty-pondering mind and reroute all fuel to the legs-moving-very-fast part of the brain.
That kind of quick and dramatic transition causes a shock to the system and in turn, triggers all of our stress responses to help us stay alert and ready to leap. And as you might expect, all of this consumes a fair bit of our energy supply. Studies have shown that when working under stress, the brain requires 12% more energy to function properly, which means far fewer resources available for abstract or deep work. Of course, that’s all well and good when we’re escaping wild predators, but what if the same process is being triggered by an unopened email in our inbox?
In his research on the flow state, MIT neuroscientist Earl Miller found that by trying to focus on a task with an unread email sitting in their inbox, subjects effectively reduced their IQ by 10 points. This may in part be due to what scientists call attention residue, the portion of your attention that stays stuck behind on a previous task every time you try switching your focus. If you consider that a 2004 study found people switching activities an average of every three minutes and five seconds, it’s safe to assume that this impacts us all.
But why does it matter? Because attention residue seriously impairs our working memory capacity; our brain’s ability to compute and prioritize signals in order to decide what information to ignore or absorb. By switching from one task to another, we’re consuming too much fuel and leaving behind a cookie trail of precious bits of focus and attention. Depleted, our multitasking brain starts leaning more heavily on System 1’s knee-jerk reactions. Then, to make matters worse, the dopamine kicks in.
“Multitasking creates a dopamine-addiction feedback loop, effectively rewarding the brain for losing focus and for constantly searching for external stimulation. To make matters worse, the prefrontal cortex has a novelty bias, meaning that its attention can be easily hijacked by something new – the proverbial shiny objects we use to entice infants, puppies, and kittens”Daniel J, Levitin, neuroscientist and author
That’s it. We’ve gone from being goal-oriented to stimulation-oriented; our proverbial squeaky wheel of an unread email has won again.
Part three: understanding work environments
Though this article promises to end on a positive, actionable note, we’ll need to face some hard facts first. Because frankly, we’re not handling all of these distractions and interruptions particularly elegantly. To give you a quick sense of how they’re impacting our daily work and lives, here are a few surprising stats.
- Average daily email checks in 2016: 74 times a day,
- Time it takes to regain focus post-distraction: 23 minutes and 15 seconds
- Time we spend on a task before getting interrupted: 11.5 minutes
- Tasks we never return to after being disrupted: 33% or more
At their core, many — if not most — organizations still value multitasking and immediacy, but that model simply doesn’t work for the knowledge economy. So beyond muting our phones and cutting down on Zoom calls, what emerges is a need to shift the conversation from productivity to work design. How can we better understand how people work in order to experiment, test and iterate new ways to foster focus? In kick-starting that reflection and evaluating both the structural and cultural elements of our organizations that might be at play, here are a few more distinctions worth exploring.
- Being useful vs being busy: Are you measuring productivity based on the number of hours spent in meetings, or the outcomes enabled by those meetings?
- Deep work vs shallow work: Does your team know what portion of their time should be spent on value creation and creative problem-solving vs logistics and administration?
- Engagement vs responsiveness: Is your colleague’s rapid-fire Slack response really a good measure of their commitment and effectiveness?
More often than not, these questions reveal new opportunities to experiment with our work environments and workflows in order to increase focus and effectiveness. Perhaps every job description could have a deep work to shallow work ratio, or new KPIs could be defined to measure the tangible impact of every call. As you test new ideas, here are a few more avenues to explore.
Step four: taking action to limit distractions
Steer clear of “invisible multitasking”
As author Pete Liebman points out, we tend to group different tasks — like writing and editing — under the assumption that they can be done simultaneously. We may think we’re being effective, but in fact, we’re asking our brain to do two very different tasks at once, therefore increasing attention residue and reducing overall effectiveness.
Engage different modalities
Recent studies suggest that tasks that engage different modalities — say auditory stimulation and manual input — don’t compete for the same resources, and therefore might allow for more effective multitasking. Perhaps your graphic designer could sketch during your weekly meetings, or your CMO can tidy their office while listening in on a brainstorming session.
Create working “blocks” to limit task transitions
While the jury is still out, some data seems to show that disruptions that are close in context with your primary task may be less harmful. So instead of letting everyone decide when to work on what, try experimenting with team-wide working blocks in which everyone is working on the same project, task, or goal at the same time.
Create detailed and crowd-sourced to-do lists
Though most organizations use (scientifically proven!) to-do lists to keep track of big tasks and deadlines, they don’t always drill down into the minutia of answering an email or fixing a typo. Yet knowing what we do about attention residue, it’s clear that our nagging fear that an email might fall between the cracks has an outmeasured impact on our ability to concentrate. So instead of shifting your attention by sending your teammate a distracting Slack reminder, try experimenting with collective to-do lists that allow colleagues to add and track small tasks on each-other’s docket without adding to the white noise.
Pick your battles
Realistically, our work environments will never be truly distraction-free; it’s the nature of the modern beast. But the hope is that armed with a better understanding of how our brains process and prioritize information, we can all make better collective decisions about which distractions to eliminate, mitigate, and embrace.