What are distractions costing you?

Workplace distractions form one of the top complaints of employees. They say distractions stifle their progress toward task completion, leaving them dissatisfied with their level of productivity. In this article, Jacqueline Hofste, an ontological leadership coach with a background in science, explains how we can manage distractions to become more productive in achieving our goals at work and in life.

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Oct 30, 2022

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6 mins read

Are you constantly being distracted at work to the point where it affects your productivity?  Is this leaving you with a sense of frustration and sometimes stress, knowing that you are falling far behind in what you wanted to accomplish that day? For most of us, being productive without distractions is rare since we get distracted throughout the day many times and in various ways, sometimes without even realising it. Let’s have a closer look at what is behind this phenomenon and how we can refocus our attention back to priority work.  To start with, I would like to highlight the difference between distractions and disruptions since both can occur but have different connotations.

The Cambridge Dictionary defines both words as:

Distraction

The state of being very bored or annoyed. OR Something that prevents someone from giving their attention to something else. Example: I can turn the television off if you find it a distraction.

Disruption

The action of preventing something, especially a system, process, or event, from continuing as usual or as expected. Example: It would cause a tremendous disruption to our work schedule to install a different computer system.

In this article, I am referring specifically to distractions. Disruptions also impact the workforce, however, they have an external origin and are managed differently. While distractions can be triggered by an external event, they have less of an external cause and generally come from within. For example, when you are in the middle of writing a report and feel the need to check your emails or social media responses without an immediate requirement to do so, that is a distraction. However, when a peer asks you for your feedback while you are busy with something else, that is a disruption.

Let’s now focus on distractions, how they affect us and how we can address them at work and in life. Distractions seem to be one of the defining topics of this decade, with the dominant culprits being two inventions of the modern era: the hub of information (the Internet) and the hub of connection (social media). I recall how my primary school teacher would remind us to stay focused whenever we were distracted. Back then, distraction would entail things like daydreaming or looking out the window. Even Plato, the famous Greek Philosopher (approx. 427 – 348 BC), would apparently complain that his students were too distracted. I can’t help but wonder what they were distracted by! 

Are all distractions bad?

Distractions cop a lot of blame, specifically in the absence of progress. But are all distractions bad? In terms of human evolution, our brain has evolved to effectively redirect its focus at the drop of a hat to either scan for predators and be ready to run away or scan for something edible and run toward it. Getting lost in deep contemplation or creative work while sacrificing awareness of the environment would have been detrimental to our survival. In modern times, the ability to react quickly to make a snap assessment is a unique feature of the brain. Distractions fall into this category.

Willpower alone is not the answer

Many people believe they could improve their lives and get distracted less often if they had more of that elusive quality known as ‘willpower’. With more self-control, we would all eat right, exercise regularly, spend more time with our kids, stop procrastinating and achieve all sorts of noble goals. Our friend ‘willpower’ seems to be a mythical construct that can never be found when needed. Roy Baumeister, PhD, a psychologist at Florida State University, refers to willpower as a muscle that can be trained but can also become fatigued from overuse. His research shows that resisting repeated temptations takes a mental toll, suggesting that it is best to eliminate distractions to avoid fatiguing the ‘willpower muscle’. Let me explain with an example. If you wish to lose weight and avoid certain foods, like chocolate, to meet that objective, just entertaining the thought of wanting to eat a piece of chocolate means you have already lost the game. Why? Because, as you may have experienced, willpower is not much help in that situation. The trick is not to think about eating that piece of chocolate in the first place. While this might seem like an impossible task, I invite you to keep reading to see what I mean.

How can you learn to avoid distractions?

To avoid distractions, start by measuring your susceptibility to being distracted. Consider the following questions or criteria:

  • How effective is your time management?
  • Do you have habits and routines that keep you on track?
  • How well do you rate yourself in overcoming the urge to be distracted?
  • How much could you accomplish, and what could you achieve if distractions were eliminated or reduced? Could you learn something new? Could you do something that really excites you, something you have put on the back burner?

Care is an Aspect of Being – or, more specifically, a mood – that underpins our behaviours and directly impacts our ability to avoid distractions and focus. It is described by Ashkan Tashvir, author of the best-selling book Human Being and creator of the Being Framework™, as “the epicentre or focal point of Being”. He writes:

“…Without care, nothing of importance can be achieved. When you care about something, you pay attention to it; you value it and it becomes a priority. Care influences how likely you are to make decisions or take action based on the level of value you ascribe to that person, relationship or matter.”

With the above distinction of care in mind, I invite you to ask yourself: how much do I honestly care about my goal? What does it mean to me? Dig deep and connect to the achievements that you might miss out on if you keep letting distractions get in your way of setting your intention powerfully.

An effective strategy to avoid getting distracted

Suppose willpower is genuinely a limited resource, as the research suggests. What could you do to conserve or even strengthen it? To tone the ‘willpower muscle’ and stay on track with your goals, you need an effective strategy. Here’s how it could look.

  1. Establish the motivation for change and set a clear goal. Make a list of what it is costing you to be distracted from your goal. What is the impact on your life experience?
  2. Break the goal down into smaller chunks (milestones). There is real gold in this step. Why? Because the brain is designed to reward achievements by releasing feel-good hormones. So, the smaller the tasks, the more often you expose yourself to feel-good hormones and the less likely you will succumb to a distraction. It is worth noting that distractions are also designed to make you feel good but, in this context, with a bitter aftertaste.
  3. Monitor your behaviour as you work toward achieving your goal and learn the internal triggers that keep straying you off track. Make a list of these triggers, so you know what to avoid.
  4. Put routines and new habits in place that move you towards your goal and as far away from your triggers as possible. Keep it simple and don’t implement too many new behaviours; one is generally enough.
  5. Reward yourself when sticking to your program. Communicate your progress with others to make it your new reality. 

Imagine what you could accomplish if you had one extra hour per day. The possibilities are truly astounding. With one extra hour per day, five days a week and writing one page daily, you could complete a whole book in a year! You could spend one hour every day with your kids and family without feeling guilty because your professional work is falling behind. Do yourself a favour by taking that first step to reducing the distractions in your life and putting your winning strategy in place.

BusinessTechTechleadershipManagementHigh Performance Culture

Jacqueline Hofste

About The Author

My expertise is working with businesses to increase their team size while building a collaborative team culture. I understand how to develop high performing teams that innovate and lead to push your business to the next level.

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