The 3 Kinds of Distractions (And How to Avoid Them And Do Your Best Work)
In the industrial era, productivity got measured by the quantum of work done. In the knowledge era, productivity gets measured by results. The more useful your output is for your employer, client, or audience, the more valuable you are.
The best results today come from “deep work”. Cal Newport defines this concept as work done in a state of flow that stretches your cognitive capabilities, creates value, and is hard to replicate. Digital tools have made it easier for us to achieve this. We can collaborate with people, improve our skills, and increase the reach of our work.
Unfortunately, the same tools and people that empower us to do our best work also get in the way of doing it. Interruptions and distractions that should be avoided have instead become an integral part of our lives.
Nik Eyal defines distraction as any activity that pulls us away from what we intend to do. We intend to draft a thoughtful memo on recruiting new hires, refine the existing strategy to increase traction for our product, or write a book manuscript. But we get sucked into the endless loop of emails, texts, meetings, and urgent but unimportant tasks.
To do our best work, we must enter a state of flow at least a few times each week. The first step towards this state is to curb distractions, if not remove them completely.
The 3 Types of Distraction (And Simple Steps to Avoid Them)
Shamsi Iqbal, a principal researcher at Microsoft Research, classifies distraction into three types: digital, in-person, and internal.
This type of distraction is most common because we spend more time on our devices than with anything (or anyone) else.
Each notification about an email, text, or a new show on Netflix throws our attention wide open. The cost of this is much higher than we estimate because each time we lose focus, it takes almost 25 minutes to return to our original state. Thus, even a handful of distractions in a two-hour session can drastically lower the quality of our work.
A simple solution is to shut off your email client and put your phone on silent and out of sight when you focus on an important task. You’d be surprised how little digital distractions tempt you when they’re not easily accessible.
If you cannot afford this luxury, start with allocating the last 15 minutes of each hour to checking your emails. This way, you can focus for 45 minutes on number-crunching, proposal-drafting, and other deep work tasks.
Three focused 45-minute sessions in a day alone will triple your productivity.
People often interrupt others at work without checking how busy they are or their current state of mind.
This is the norm, but that doesn’t mean it’s not an unwelcome distraction. Getting pulled into “five-minute meetings” that extend for an hour or fulfilling colleagues’ ad hoc email requests can ruin all your work-related plans for the day.
Iqbal’s antidote to such distractions is to schedule blocks of time on your public calendar when you’re unavailable for meetings or discussions. During these blocks, engage in distraction-free, focused work.
This might not be possible if your organization is still getting to grips with remote working. You’ll get peppered with pings and meeting requests even while working on mission-critical tasks. And you might not have the luxury to say no. During such times, it helps to get to the point quickly.
Reply to a “Hi” text message with “Hi, how can I help you?” Resist the temptation to engage in small talk. Be subtle yet respectful to indicate that your work has been interrupted. And if they say, “I can ping you later if you’re busy,” respond with, “No, I have a couple of minutes. What’s up?” Stick to the point during the discussion and request them to do the same. If you let them amble, it won’t be long before they begin to take your time for granted.
In the beginning, your colleagues might consider this behavior rude. But as time goes by, they’ll get used to it and become concise in their communication with you. Or they’ll stop bothering you for work that can get done elsewhere. Either way, you free up time to work on meaningful goals.
Remember, the aim is not to make friends at work. It’s to do work that creates value, improves your skills, and is hard to replicate.
The final—and toughest—distraction lies within us. After all, the hardest demons to fight are the ones inside us.
Focus requires concentration and effort. And for many of us, concentration is like flossing — we know it’s important, but we cannot find the motivation to do it. Each time the slightest hint of sweat forms on our brow or we get bored, we run into the welcoming arms of instant gratification.
According to Gloria Mark, a professor in the Department of Informatics at the University of California, Irvine, people “are just as likely to interrupt themselves as to be interrupted by an external source.”
While writing this article, I spent hours browsing the web and social media under the pretext of research. I even came up with topics for different articles and worked on their outlines. I used my energy on every task… except the most important one: sitting down and writing.
Giving in to distractions might seem harmless. But in the long term, it takes a toll on your ability to focus. The more you succumb to distractions at the slightest sign of boredom or exhaustion, your focus wanes, and you lose the ability to call upon it when you need it, much like athletes who neglect their bodies.
To build your focus muscle, you need to give it a workout just like any other muscle in your body. One way to do this is to build your schedule around important tasks with the unimportant but unavoidable ones at the peripherals. And schedule slots for rest, or productive idleness, that allow you to recharge.
Effective knowledge workers don’t do more things right; they do more of the right things. They prioritize high-impact, high-reward tasks that require focused work for extended time periods.
Distractions seem like regrettable but inevitable problems in our work culture. But they don’t have to disrupt your days. By sticking to simple rituals, you can drastically slash them and free up time and mental bandwidth for focused work. These rituals are:
- Turn off notifications and placing your phone out of sight when you want to focus. Start with practicing this for just 45 minutes per hour.
- Schedule blocks on your public calendar when you’re unavailable for discussions. If you cannot avoid in-person or in-message interruptions, wrap up the discussion as quickly as possible. Resist the temptation to engage in small talk.
- Manage your tasks, not your time. Prioritize the high-impact ones, batch the unimportant but unavoidable ones in chunks, and schedule rest in your day to reduce stress.
Which practices do you follow to overcome distractions?
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