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Ending the Addiction to Distraction

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Whatever else you’re doing right now besides reading this article, stop. Just this one time, try doing nothing except for one thing: focusing on what’s about to be discussed.

Here are some background distractions and interruptions that might be popping up:

  • Music or a television could be playing in the background. Turn it off.
  • Your phone might buzz, beep, or ring. Silence it or shut it off.
  • You may be standing in line reading this on your phone. Come back later.
  • Other people may be having a conversation, or trying to talk to you. Wrap it up.

Stop what you are doing, and just read this article. Seriously. If you can’t, come back later. It will still be here.

Tapping a Pencil

© Flickr user Rennett Stowe

Radically focusing on just one topic is revolutionary in our society. The idea comes from a New York Times article (and the link is coming, but don’t click on it now—just remember that it’s there for later) by Tony Schwartz. It’s titled Addicted to Distraction and states:

According to one recent survey, the average white-collar worker spends about six hours a day on email. That doesn’t count time online spent shopping, searching or keeping up with social media.

The brain’s craving for novelty, constant stimulation and immediate gratification creates something called a “compulsion loop.” Like lab rats and drug addicts, we need more and more to get the same effect.

Endless access to new information also easily overloads our working memory. When we reach cognitive overload, our ability to transfer learning to long-term memory significantly deteriorates. It’s as if our brain has become a full cup of water and anything more poured into it starts to spill out.

Schwartz goes on to explain how he addresses this issue by dropping out of the world of technology. And for some people, these things are possible. If you’re a CEO, for example, you may be able to go without email for 30 days. But for most people, this is not a reasonable solution.

What can you do?

Eliminating Distractions In The Workplace

One of the best ways to focus more effectively is to get rid of everything which prevents you from putting 100% of your attention toward your work. Much of this is about identifying the source of the distraction. For example:

  • If your eyes are drawn away by movement in your line of sight, reposition your desk
  • If noise, music, or other people bother you, wear headphones, even if you’re listening to nothing.
  • If everything about your space is distracting, relocate to a conference room.

All of these can help, but you still may be struggling to get rid of those pesky annoyances entirely. There is another approach to consider as well.

Improving Your Skill at Ignoring Distractions

When you can’t completely remove someone or something that is bothering you, it’s still possible to get better at ignoring them. An excellent technique has two parts: wait to respond and schedule a follow up. Instead of having your attention pulled away and then getting lost in another project, the delay-schedule technique helps you focus.

For example: instead of answering a phone on the first ring, let it go to the third or fourth ring. Then when you pick up the phone, say “I am right in the middle of something, can I call you back in ten minutes / at 2:00pm?”

You can do the same thing with a colleague who comes to your desk to chat. Explain that you don’t want to lose your train of thought but you will come back to their desk in a few minutes.

Ultimately, there is going to be something in your environment that takes away your focus. Like your favorite professional athlete, learn to block everything else out and work on the task at hand.

Most Importantly: Talk About The Power of Focus

No matter what approach you use to battle distractions, the greatest weapon in your arsenal is the agreement among all of your stakeholders that focus matters. Consider a policy of no-meeting Wednesdays. Try and reduce the interruptions you create. Be respectful.

And ultimately, you’ll get more done.

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Robby Slaughter
Robby Slaughter is a workflow and productivity expert. He is a nationally known speaker on topics related to personal productivity, corporate efficiency and employee engagement. Robby is the founder of AccelaWork, a company which provides speakers and consultants to a wide variety of organizations, including Fortune 500 companies, regional non-profits, small businesses and individual entrepreneurs. Robby has written numerous articles for national magazines and has over one hundred published pieces. He is also the author of several books, including Failure: The Secret to Success. He has also been interviewed by international news outlets including the Wall Street Journal. Robby’s newest book is The Battle For Your Email Inbox.
Robby Slaughter


Troublemaker and productivity/workflow expert. Slightly more complex than 140 characters will permit.
@lorraineball First probably depends on the business. But second is likely training, especially with regard to sales. - 13 hours ago
Robby Slaughter
Robby Slaughter

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