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Recently our group reviewed a book by Nir Eyal, Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life. It highlighted the many distractions in our lives, such as smartphones, web browsers, messaging apps, meetings, shopping sites and the myriad of social media platforms.
According to a recent survey conducted by Rise, 52 per cent of Australians are distracted by smartphones at work. Another study suggests the average office worker receives 121 emails a day. The potential for us to become distracted seems endless. How then, does one tune out unwanted interruptions and focus on the most important task at hand? Here are some of our key takeaways:
1. Eliminate the tech if it’s not absolutely essential
It seems almost unimaginable now, but human beings have existed for thousands of years without smartphones. However, just because you own one doesn’t mean you have to use it for every single task. If you consistently rely on your phone to check the time, the chances are that at some point you’ll see a text or notification, and all of a sudden you’ve descended into a spiral of messaging which dissolves the next 20 minutes of your day. All because you just wanted to check the time.
The simple solution is to wear a watch.
Tech in meetings is another example. Have you ever sat in a room full of people and had to peer over laptops just to see your colleagues’ faces? When the whole purpose of meetings is for attendees to engage with each other, it is counterproductive for people to be responding to emails at the same time. Laptops put up a physical barrier, limit face-to-face connection, and make it look like something else is more important. Same with having your smartphone on the meeting table.
The solution? Print notes, take a notepad and pen, or, if you absolutely need your phone or laptop, put it on do-not-disturb mode so you can access meeting materials without getting pinged every 10 minutes.
2. Plan your day based on when you’re most likely to focus
Some people find it helpful to tackle the most challenging task first thing in the morning. Others prefer to write out a to-do list and cross off as many items as possible so they can focus on the mammoth task later in the day.
If you’re a morning person, it’s likely you won’t be able to accomplish deep work after 3pm. A productive day for you could be built on tackling deep work tasks in the morning, and scheduling meetings for the afternoon, when you’re less focused and need a break. Whatever your preference, that’s OK. Find out your optimal time for concentrating and plan around that.
3. Remove the clutter
If your desktop is cluttered with files spilling over each other, this one may be for you. Removing visual clutter can help you feel organised and on top of the day before it’s even begun.
If you don’t have the time to file it all properly, try moving your desktop files into one neat folder labelled ‘everything’. This way, you still know where all the files are, they’re easily accessible, and you can start your day without any visual clutter.
Our mobile phones can also easily become clogged up with files and apps. Some people have spring-cleaning moments where they delete all unnecessary games and social apps, for others this is too extreme.
A solution: identify the apps you use every day and add them to your main home screen. Move anything else into folders on the second screen. This will help to keep your focus on important, practical tasks when you’re at work.
4. Use tech settings and apps to restrict your screen time
Applications and programs are designed to get our attention, and the automatic default when you download a new app is that you receive all notifications. Rather than letting all kinds of external triggers disrupt you night and day, you can hack back the notification system. Here are some ideas:
- Use your phone settings to lock you out of your phone at a certain time e.g. 9pm.
- Use an app like Offtime, Moment or Flipd to lock you out of non-essential apps like Instagram and Facebook after a certain amount of time.
- Use an app like Forest, which encourages you to spend less time on your phone in general. It’s a fun way to track it all. The more time away from your screen, the larger your forest grows.
- Turn off phone notifications for things you don’t need e.g. only let text messages and calls come through immediately.
- Use a cycle smart alarm system (Bedtime on iPhone or Sleep as Android on Android) which alerts you when to go to sleep each night, simultaneously switching the phone onto ‘do not disturb’ mode.
- Turn desktop and phone email alerts off, so that you can stay on track until you’re ready and choose to shift onto a different task.
- Turn off smartwatch notifications.
5. Make sure your time is accounted for
Many people like to timebox, where they fill each hour of the day with a meaningful activity. This often includes creating backup plans if appointments fall through. This reduces the likelihood of getting distracted, and also communicates to others that your time is accounted for.
Timeboxing doesn’t work for everyone, particularly if your role is quite collaborative or if you deal with multiple clients and stakeholders who vie for your attention. Overall, a rough plan with prioritised tasks can help you navigate the day more efficiently and give you room to breathe when urgent tasks or meetings do arise. Without a clear plan, we are left to make impulsive decisions that often involve digital distraction.
If you have so much to do it’s overwhelming, think about delegating. Be honest about what you can achieve before you add tasks to your to-do list, and ask yourself, could anyone else take this from me?
6. Pay attention to why you’re getting distracted and address the root cause
Often, we get distracted because we’re frustrated, uncomfortable, or feeling out of control. Our default response is to replace those negative feelings with a comfortable, soothing habit, like checking social media, flicking through channels on TV, or getting a snack from the fridge.
Eyal advises us to take one minute to notice the discomfort that precedes the distraction. Ask yourself, ‘Why am I getting distracted? Is it because I need a break from this screen, or is it because this task seems too big and daunting?’ Tracking how you spend your time each day will soon make it clear when you’re getting distracted and by what.
Once you know your triggers, you can reduce those distractions. If your eyes are simply tired from looking at a screen, go for a 10-minute walk to clear your head. If a task is overwhelming, break it down into smaller, manageable steps or ask a colleague for help. The root cause could also be something bigger than you expected. For example, 52 per cent of Australians surveyed by Rise admitted they would be less distracted by smartphones and social media if they were happier at work. Addressing this root cause could potentially involve searching for a more fulfilling job.
Sometimes we simply have to learn how to deal with discomfort, observe the urges, and allow them to dissolve. If you feel the urge to open Instagram, for example, Eyal suggests the 10-minute rule. Wait 10 minutes and, if the urge is still there after that time, go ahead and check Instagram. More often than not, the desire will pass.
7. Identify whether the distraction is welcome or not
Distractions are not all bad. We aren’t robots, and can’t be expected to function at 100 per cent all of the time. For example, chatting with colleagues throughout the day is an important part of facilitating a healthy work culture, and can improve collaboration and creativity.
It is however, helpful to ask, ‘is this distraction serving me, or am I serving the distraction?’
Social media is one fantastic way to connect with friends but, if it gets to the point where you’ve been scrolling for two hours and actually had a long to-do list for that day, perhaps you’re no longer the one getting value out of the platform. (There’s a reason we’re called consumers and not just one-time customers).
8. Let others know when you really need to focus
This can be awkward, especially if your role is collaborative, but if you’ve got an urgent task and not much time to complete it, it’s actually courteous to let your colleagues know.
This could be done via email or face-to-face. Your colleagues will think twice before contacting you and it may even give them the opportunity to learn the answer themselves if you’re not available.
9. When you’re at work, be all there
A recent survey conducted by Salary.com revealed that 64 per cent of the 3,200 respondents said they visit non-work-related websites every day during work hours. To improve productivity, it’s important to separate activities between work and home. Checking bank statements or booking doctors’ appointments should be saved for lunchtime as much as possible, not only for your employer’s sake, but your own ability to concentrate.
10. Be present with the people around you, and ask them to be present too
Many of us pull out our phone at a social setting when we’re feeling uncomfortable, don’t know the people very well, or find the conversation boring.
This limits opportunities to foster relationships with family, friends and colleagues, and establish new friendships. Cutting down the time you spend looking at your phone, especially when with family and friends, makes a huge difference in your personal relationships.
A solution? Turn your phone off when attending that extended family event, or challenge yourself to say hi to three new people at that work conference. If you’re with friends and family, try asking them to put their phones away, or, if you see them on their phone in a social setting, ask ‘I can see you’re on your phone. Is everything ok?’ We could all do better at encouraging more meaningful face-to-face social interactions.
As Eyal writes, “distraction will always exist, managing them is our responsibility”. However, “we can cope with uncomfortable triggers by reflecting on rather than reacting to our discomfort”.
Much of it comes down to willpower. Believing we are a prisoner to addictions and distractions makes us less likely to accomplish our goals, as it provides a rationale to quit when we could have otherwise persisted.
By recognising our personal triggers which lead us to distraction, we can proactively choose to take back our time and spend it the way we really want.
To read our review of this book, click here.