It’s hard to maintain your focus in an office. With so many meetings to attend, drop-ins by coworkers, calls, emails, and countless other interruptions, it can seem like a miracle that anything ever gets done.
But do you know who the biggest culprit often is when it comes to sabotaging your productivity with distractions? Look in the mirror.
Interruptions or Distractions?
Interruptions are outside things that throw us off. Distractions are things we do to ourselves that derail us. Though sometimes, the two go hand-in-glove.
At first glance, that employee who sticks his head in your door to pick your brain about something is an interruption. But not so fast! Weren’t you practically begging for that disruption by reminding everyone of your open-door policy at the staff meeting?
We’ll zero in on distractions in this blog post—with the help of a great book called The Distracted Mind. But interruptions and distractions are closely related. In fact, I think if we were better at fending off distractions, we could see more clearly how to limit interruptions as well.
Out of Focus
Focus is vital to achieving many of our most important goals, but a pair of scientists at California State and UC San Francisco have found that our ability to concentrate is slipping fast.
“Shockingly, students could not focus for more than three to five minutes even when they were told to study something very important,” explain Adam Gazzaley and Larry Rosen.
Focus is harder among younger people but the truth is that most of us are deteriorating, in a way that can’t be blamed on old age. Scientists are discovering we’re all having a harder time paying attention, thinking things over, and taking decisive action.
By looking over their findings, we can begin to banish the distractions, recover our focus, and really get things done. There are three areas of concern that stand out.
1. We’re Distracted by Our Devices
Smartphones and other devices frequently interrupt us, of course. “Our devices vibrate, shake, rattle, and roll, and our attention is captured,” write Grazzaley and Rosen.
But actually, the problem goes much deeper than that. Even when we aren’t being buzzed or pinged or lit up, we have come to crave the interaction of our devices. We frequently take a break from our important tasks to check our phones, watches, and other gadgets.
This habit carries over to more than just work. When you go out to eat, look around and see how often people take a break from social interactions to stare at their screens. Which brings us to one of the big reasons we’re so crazy for screen time.
2. We’re Distracted by Social Media
Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest. The list of apps and websites that come together to claim so much of our attention is nearly endless. I get it. They can be fun. Used in moderation, there’s probably nothing wrong with them. But that’s not what is happening.
There is a constant stream of information out there, more than we could ever process. Scientists find we are not handling it well. The vast expansion of information over the last 25 years should be helping us, but often it’s not because we get overwhelmed.
And our information-strained minds crave information that’s easy to come by over information that is hard-won. For instance, when we are trying to do something mentally challenging at work that requires unbroken concentration, our minds are constantly pushing us to check social media instead.
It’s extra tempting since much of the work we do is on computers, and that distraction is literally just one click away. And all of this checking and switching messes with our focus and encourages our most counterproductive work habit, online or off.
3. We’re Distracted by Multi-Tasking
That awful habit is multi-tasking. “[F]requent task switching is something we all do, and the more often we switch, the more detrimental it is to our real-world performance,” explain Grazzaley and Rosen.
Study after study after study show that we are not good at multi-tasking, that it slows us down, that it leads us down time-sucking rabbit trails, and that it encourages shoddy work. And in the abstract, we understand this.
When asked if it will be less efficient and more distracting to disrupt this task with another task, rather than doing one first, then the other, people get it. We say it would slow us down. We know we ought to do A first, then B. But then we go right ahead and do it anyway—likely because we’ve made distractions such an integral part of our workday.
There are things we can do to buck the trend. We can put our phones away, use apps to shut off social media during work hours, and turn our phones off at dinner time.
But a mechanical fix is just a Band-Aid. Most of us have a real problem with concentration. Until we are willing to take a hard look at how and why we are driving ourselves to distraction, it’s going to be hard to find the focus that we so badly need.