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Dealing with distraction in the workplace

“Should I read this?” you ask yourself.
“I’d better,” you think.
“But I have a lot to do….
“I know! I’ll do both things at once.”

Sound familiar? In our modern world of information and increased access to it, and to us by information, we are more prone to being distracted than ever before. But what can we do about it? 

I recently read a wonderful book by Paul Hammerness MD, and Margaret Moore, titled: “Organize Your Mind, Organize Your Life.” The authors provide some powerful tools to help us deal with distractions, using the latest research in brain science and coaching. Much of this newsletter is based on the information within their book, which I urge you to read if you find yourself frequently distracted or want to improve your ability to focus your attention.

Just what is distraction?

The authors describe distraction as a lack of focus, (or) divided attention. Being in this distracted state can cause a sense of overwhelm and decrease our performance. This is what most of us think of as distraction.

There are many other kinds of distraction – think of magicians. These folks don’t want us to see where the rabbit is, so they distract us away from the hat. And sometimes we want to distract ourselves away from activities that don’t engage us – it’s important to be aware of this too.

Why do I get distracted?

Those things that can distract us are things that are important to us, for whatever reason. We can generally hear, and then ignore, the far-away police siren. It’s not important to us. But when several things that matter to us, or even one other thing, show up as we are doing something else, our focus can get divided, and this can lead to being distracted.

And this is where it gets difficult – when we spend too much time distracted, we can make things worse, all in the name of trying to get things done. The work task that suffers, the visit I should have made, the book I wanted to read but did not, all get swept into the downward spiral that is the distracted mind.

Some other things that can contribute to distraction are amount of sleep, exercise, diet, workload and the type of task we are working on. It’s also important to take “brain breaks,” which for most of us are necessary after about one hour of focused attention. Simply pause whatever you’re doing for 2-3 minutes, or until you notice a return to your best focus

What about multi-tasking?

This term has made its way into our vocabulary in recent years – it comes from the IT world. While it’s tempting to accept multi-tasking as true, reliable research shows that we are in fact just rapidly switching between our objects of focus, at an overall lower rate of effectiveness. Younger generations are more likely to assert that multi-tasking is a fact of life, but this is not borne out when looking at the number of automobile accidents that occur while using a cell phone or texting.

So what do I do to avoid being distracted?

First, it’s very important to look at paying attention to an activity or task as a skill. You can enhance this skill through consciously choosing what you will do.

For example, you are working on a presentation for an upcoming shareholder meeting. An urgent email related to another project comes into your inbox.

You quickly evaluate the email’s importance in relation to the presentation and, rather than shifting your attention to whatever the email is asking you to do, you instead decide to stay focused on the presentation for another 30 minutes, until you can reach a good stopping point, and then respond to the email.

Or, you may decide that it is more important to shift your focus to the email and its accompanying tasks, and then return to the presentation. The important point is to enhance your skill at deciding to do one task or the other, and return to that activity with your full attention.

You might say: “That’s what I always do.” I thought so too, until I began to pay very close attention to my state of focus. I learned that I was not as attentive as I thought, and as I began to work on the skill of focused attention, I became more productive. I also experienced less sense of distraction.

Another way of looking at this is to name the distraction. This means that, as you sense yourself getting distracted, you engage in a self-dialogue. You can say something silently to yourself like: “I have a lot to do – I am trying to do it all, and this is hurting my performance and comfort level. I will review the tasks and consciously choose what I am going to work on.”

Don’t be surprised if you find yourself going back to the distracted state. This is where practice comes in. Simply telling yourself that you are back in the distracted state and renewing your conscious choice will get you back.

Something else that I have been doing is a series of exercises on a website called BrainHQ. The site provides exercises to help focus attention, increase brain speed, as well as other valuable tools which are made available at a reasonable price. I have been doing this for several months, and for me, it helps.

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