I have a theory that in the future, there will be two types of people. Those who can focus, and those who can’t.
The reason is simple. We are drowning in distraction. And distraction is toxic to focus.
The Danger of Distraction
The first danger of distraction is that we underestimate both how often we experience it, and its impact on our mental state.
David Rock, in ‘Your Brain at Work’, says that “employees spent an average of 11 minutes on a project before being distracted. After an interruption it takes them 25 minutes to return to the original task, if they do at all…. By the time you get back to where you were, your ability to stay focused goes down even further as you have even less glucose available now. Change focus ten times an hour (one study showed people in offices did so as much as 20 times an hour), and your productive thinking time is only a fraction of what’s possible.”
Studies have found that when asked how often they check their emails, and then monitored for how often they actually do, the respondants were found to be significantly underestimating the reality, as well as the impact, of its ‘interrupt effect’.
Pico Iyer in his book, ‘The Art of Stillness’, explains it scarily well when he says that “Researchers in the new field of interruption science have found that it takes an average of twenty-five minutes to recover from a phone call. Yet such interruptions come every eleven minutes—which means we’re never caught up with our lives.”
The impact of all of this spells death for focus –
Psychological research long ago proved what most of us know from experience: frequent interruptions scatter our thoughts, weaken our memory, and make us tense and anxious – Nicholas Carr, ‘The Shallows’
Fighting the Tide of Distraction
I believe that the few people who determine to fight the tide of social conditioning that urges us every second of every day to accept the onslaught of digital distractions will wield a tremendously powerful, unique skill in a world increasingly devoid of deep, reflective, focused thought.
Focused thought is what makes possible new insights, creative solutions, increased empathy, balanced perspective and that wonderful, rewarding state of work and mind we sometimes call ‘flow’.
So how can we be those people?
If it is at all within your authority and feasible within your role, try not to have your email notifications always on. If you are getting a little preview of every single new email that comes into your account, then every single time, a part of your brain is having to stop what you’re thinking about or working on, decide whether to open the email, and then, even if you ignore, it, have to work to reclaim the state of focus you were in a moment ago.
A better approach, if you can, is to batch your emails for certain periods of the day, or at least to only have notifications on when you’re working on low-brainpower tasks.
2. The Surfing Sinkhole
Google, and in fact a lot of the web, is set up to profit when you allow yourself to be distracted. Google says that all of their design decisions are based on the strategy people moving along really quickly. Much of the web’s business plan is to keep us moving, keep us clicking, and definitely not to stop and focus. We need to be aware of what is driving that environment, and resist the temptation to descend into the sinkhole of clickbait.
3. Multi-tasking vs. Switch tasking
Multi-tasking is when you are watching tv whilst ironing. Switch-tasking is when you are writing a blog post, then open up a new browser window to check to see if that bill has been debited from your bank account yet, then check your email, then respond to a Facebook message, then go back to your blog post.
Multi-tasking is when you can, in fact, do two things simultaneously. Mostly, though, what we call multi-tasking is in fact switch-tasking, and it is completely counterproductive to true productivity and focus. Avoid it as much as possible.
I have been slowly whittling away at my notifications for a while. I no longer allow the buzzing on my phone when it’s on silent, as I find that just as distracting as a sound. I honestly have the sound for my text messages and phone calls turned off most of the time. I don’t allow any notification badges to come up on my phone screen, except for Facebook direct messages. And as I disable more and more notifications, I haven’t yet missed any of them.
Just start experimenting. You don’t have to be ready to respond every time anyone wants to reach you across the dozen platforms and channels that come to your phone and computer, when it comes at the cost of your focus and your ability to do your best thinking and work.
5. Stop Reaching for Your Phone
In their book, ‘The Hyperlinked Life’, the authors David Kinnaman and Jun Young kept a log of how many times they checked their phones in a given day. They found that “Between email, texts, searches, news, RSS feeds, Facebook, weather, directions, calendar, shopping, music, and, occasionally, phone calls, we discovered we each reached for our phone more than one hundred times”
It turns out that is actually a very conservative tally. One study in the UK found that smartphone users checked their phones 221 times per day on average. That means that if we are awake for roughly 16 hours a day, then we are distracting ourselves by checking our phones every 4.3 minutes!
How can we possibly expect to create any meaningful focus when we are sabotaging ourselves every 4 and a half minutes?
In fact, a more recent study found that the average user touches their phone 2,617 times per day, a figure which jumps to 5,427 times for heavy users.
If we want to be those who live our most deliberate lives, who think our best thoughts, create our best art, conceive our best strategies and execute our best work, then we must be those who resist distraction’s quiet corrosion of focus. You will stand out if you do!