Many of us fight distraction every day without really examining what’s distracting us and why. However, if we want to focus on meaningful, productive work, we need to be able to understand what gets in the way. Why do we get so easily distracted?
The two types of distraction
Ask anyone about what distracts them and they’ll most likely respond with some combination of social media, their phone and the people around them. Those are certainly distractions, but we need to zoom out a bit if we want to truly understand what’s taking our attention.
According to Daniel Goleman there are actually only two kinds of distraction:
- Sensory distractions (External). These are the things happening around us like colleagues talking, phones ringing, people moving around us, music playing, etc.
- Emotional distractions (Internal). These are the thoughts that make our attention drift from what we’re doing. For example, remembering a phone call you need to return or thinking about an upcoming meeting.
The problem is that most of us only focus on external distractions. It’s easy to blame your lack of focus on notifications and interruptions. However, we’re just as likely to interrupt ourselves as get interrupted by something external. As Goleman puts it, “It’s not the chatter of people around us that is the most powerful distractor, but rather the chatter of our own minds.”
Internal distractions are more difficult to treat as they can’t be fixed by turning off notifications, there’s no definitive guide to setting up your brain for focus. Even if there were, it might actually do more harm than good. Here’s the conundrum; while part of your brain is fighting to be focused 100% of the time, another part craves distraction.
Here are three of the main ways your work culture is promoting internal distraction (and how to fix them).
Problem: Remote working
We’re social creatures this makes it particularly hard to ignore distractions related to other people—which covers most of the distractions we face in a workday. However, giving up all human interaction is equally distracting. A Future Workplace study stated “The biggest issue most people are facing on a daily basis—no matter who they are, how much money they make, or how they identify—is isolation.” Workplace isolation sends us to social media or to check in on email every 6 minutes to see if there’s a new message.
Solution: Plan time for meetings, calls and social activities
To fight the distraction of isolation, we need to balance our need for focus with our need for socialisation. This means making time to connect with the people you work with and not just resorting to impersonal communication.
We know that multitasking is a myth. Yet everyone still tries to do more than one thing at a time.
Living in a space of constant half-attention causes our brain to lose focus. According to Goleman, our brains want us to make a plan to tackle things that are important to us. When we don’t, those unfinished tasks continue to pop up in our mind and distract us.
Solution: Create a work schedule designed around single tasking
A lack of priorities is probably one of the biggest internal distractions at work.
If this is the case, then fighting distraction comes down to prioritisation as well as making time for your most important work.
Problem: Unpredictable work environments
According to David Rock, author of Your Brain at Work, distractions are a part of life because it’s impossible to overcome them completely: “… there’s no way not to be distracted by distractions, it’s built into the brain in the way we pay attention to novelty.”
Our brains are brilliant at noticing anything that doesn’t match a pattern. We’re drawn to novelty, which makes a distraction, such as a loud coworker or hearing a one-sided conversation, very hard to ignore.
Solution: Get comfortable with distractions
It may seem counterintuitive, but blocking out distractions in your environment isn’t the best answer. Instead, you need to get comfortable with them. It’s easy to blame notification, social media, and loud coworkers when you feel distracted.