Making it Count: Distraction is The Enemy

This article will be the first somewhat “practical” post in a series of posts I’m writing called Making it Count1. The idea arose after multiple people, seeing the demands of my job, asked, “how do you get everything done?”

The first few articles were heavily philosophical, dealing with beliefs the foundations of our actions, or  why we do what we do. I argued that action flows from belief, and because of that “we need to be very careful about what we believe so that what we do will put us on the path we want. It’s worth taking a few minutes to read those entries, even if only to gain a better understanding of where I’m coming from.

The next round of posts, starting with this one (which is the fourth), will be much more practical, diving into what my work and life look like (or what I try to make them look like) every day.

I believe that the number one killer of productivity for most people is distraction. That may sound like a self-evident statement, but the actual mechanics of distraction, as well as expectations of ‘normal’ behavior in our society, are subtle enough that many of us don’t actually feel distraction when it’s happening—and might not even label it as such.

Like it or not, we live in a world where the battle for our attention is more fierce than ever. Don’t worry, I’m not going to lament the loss of simpler life in times past or say that Twitter is ruining our brains—there are much smarter people who have explored the complexity of distraction and the decline of attention spans2.

I also don’t need scientific studies to feel constant tugging at my attention from a hundred different directions. Some of that is simply life: managing home, work, relationships and more can be complicated.

More specifically, though, I’m talking about distractions of a more digital nature, namely the iPhone in my pocket and the seeming infinity of the web.

A core part of the issue for us is volume and access—more consumable content is being produced now than ever before in the history of the world and accessing it is becoming easier for larger numbers of people every day. It’s not that distraction didn’t exist before, it’s that now there are more options which are easier to get to.

Interruptions are much more costly than we think

Digital interruptions are a normal part of our life. From email to text messages to tweets, many of the applications we use default to alerting us when something new has happened.

While this seems harmless, many people don’t realize how much time debt interrupting your focus actually creates. That debt can severely affect your work.

Studies show that interruptions decrease the quality of our work, in some cases significantly enough to turn a B student into a failing student3. Even more interesting, though, is the amount of actual time distractions and interruptions cost us. Research shows that while interrupted work is often picked back up the same day, the average amount of time it takes to get back on track is 23 minutes and 15 seconds4.

Whether it’s an email notification or a habit of checking Twitter in the middle of a hard task that taxes your mind, each time we entertain a distraction it guts our productivity in a way that’s hard to perceive experientially. Quite literally, hours of focused work can slip away from us and we don’t notice (except for not feeling productive or wishing we’d accomplished more).

We’re doing something, which can feel like progress, but in many cases we are removing our focus from the task that needs it most. That experience can a false positive, of sorts.

From keeping up to excuses for escape

I’ll address the specific struggles I face in the next post, but first I want to visit the point I made above about societal expectations. Here’s a fascinating quote from Evgeny Morozov (courtesy of Michael Sacasas)5.

In “On What We Can Not Do,” a short and pungent essay published a few years ago, the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben outlined two ways in which power operates today. There’s the conventional type that seeks to limit our potential for self-­development by restricting material resources and banning certain behaviors. But there’s also a subtler, more insidious type, which limits not what we can do but what we can not do. What’s at stake here is not so much our ability to do things but our capacity not to make use of that very ability.

While each of us can still choose not to be on Facebook, have a credit history or build a presence online, can we really afford not to do any of those things today? It was acceptable not to have a cellphone when most people didn’t have them; today, when almost everybody does and when our phone habits can even be used to assess whether we qualify for a loan, such acts of refusal border on the impossible.

For many of us, there’s a social impetus for keeping track of breaking news, staying up to date on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram (or whatever tools you use) and even the act of having/trying/experiencing the latest thing/app/service.

As I’ve said before, none of those things are inherently bad, or, by the same token, inherently valuable. And we aren’t required to use them, at least formally.

The interesting characteristic of many of our tools, though, is that there are very real social (and sometimes business) consequences for people who don’t engage in them. No one likes to feel left out or feel like they are behind. As the quote above says, acts of refusal “border on the impossible” for many people. (At some point I’ll write a post about the necessity of Instagram as a business tool for my wife’s floral design company.)

In my experience, those socially enforced expectations set the stage for justifying the use of technology as a form escape. For example, when I feel boredom setting in, I react by checking Twitter or email. In my case, both relate mostly to work and therefore feel like some form of “productivity.” Non-work-related social tools become an antidote to boredom or hard mental work and I use them in the context of reacting more often than not. Again, the tools aren’t bad; the underlying issue is that I’ve begun to use them as a means of escape as opposed to communication tools.

The up-to-the-minute delivery and consumption format of many of the tools we use exacerbates the justification. Any amount of time un-engaged means that mountains of information are potentially (or actually) passing us by.

All of those factors make stewarding technology really hard.

My point in all of this is to highlight the context in which we experience distraction. There isn’t a clear dichotomy for many of us—we don’t simply quit what we are doing and go outside and play. For me, at least, distraction is much more subtle and the vehicles it uses are many times intertwined with—or the same as—the tools I use to get stuff done.

At the end of the day the question I need to ask myself is: “Am I using these tools with purpose—using my limited hours intentionally—or am I using them in reaction and allowing them to distract me (even when it doesn’t feel like it)?”

As I said in the second post:

Each day I’m faced with more to do than can possibly be done, both at home and at work. Without a belief system to guide where and how I use the precious, limited number hours I’ve been given, I will inevitably waste them on things that do not move me closer to where I want to be. That would’t mean catastrophic disaster (and might be OK for some people), but I won’t be satisfied with a life where I had the potential to do great things and settled for less.

That goes for distraction too—many times I’m settling for less without even feeling it.

Next up: how I steward technology.

1. You can read more about the series and view links to additional posts here.2. Here are a slew of articles on the subject: Wired on Digital Overload, Nicholas Carr on The Web Shattering Focus, the Telegraph on our attentions span decreasing to only 5 minutes, the Wall Street Journal on ending the age of inattention and the Washington Times on how TV rewires children’s brains.3. You can read the New York Times article about distraction and the quality of work here.4. Read the Fast Company article about the time costs of interruption and task switching here.5. Read the entire post, The Political Perils of Big Data, on Sacasas’ blog.

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Practicing the art of bringing guns to a knife fight.

2 thoughts on “Making it Count: Distraction is The Enemy”

  1. This hit the nail on the head. To me, every productivity tip is based around fighting distraction.

    Really interested to see the practical things you jump into next.

    Do you think there’s any point in which distractions can be useful or inspiring?

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