What is the point of distraction?
There are very few people who, at the end of the day can say they weren’t distracted once. People who claim this are most likely lying; because to “er” is human.
The instinctive “er” that resides in everyone is the fundamental curiosity that defines us as a species more than any other. One interpretation of distraction is the diversion of attention owing to curiosity, this curiosity over tangible and abstract entities alike strikes at the core of being human. Like many aspects of humanity, curiosity is a legacy of evolution (should you choose to believe it); it is a vital learning tool and indispensable for survival. (Note that it is not essential for survival, ants do not “er”, but it is needed if survival in harsh conditions is to be achieved, which is exactly what humans have done.)
So in a significant way, distractions and by extension curiosity, are important for the survival of the human race, at least in terms of evolution. Curiosity much like hunger, thirst and sex evolve much too slowly to keep up with civilisation. So now rather than being a useful survival tool, distractions are in many ways counter-productive.
Tribal man does not necessarily need to block out distractions. The brain is ever alert for danger or opportunities; and as such is honed to be a voracious consumer of information. Snapshots of situations can be acknowledged in seconds and their merits or dangers assessed. Because the world of survival doesn’t sleep, neither does the survival mode, and it’s with us to day. Rearing its ugly head right when you don’t want it.
Going against instincts is hard because they were there for a reason. Have you ever tried not coughing when you need to? Hard isn’t it? As is primal man jumping off a Mesolithic cliff. All in the name of survival. So getting rid of distractions requires some other human traits – thought and persuasion.
A distraction, if significant enough, leads to disruption. It is the disruption that leads to a loss in productivity, not the former. The big difference is that whilst being distracted is an instinct, acting on the stimulus (a disruption) is to a large extent, a conscious action; and thus can be controlled following mental training. The purpose of this article then is to inform the reader how to train themselves.
What defines a distraction?
In a previous post: “The Necessary Effect” I asked the question: “What is the difference between necessary and essential?”
- necessary = a pressing need, but probably not essential
- essential = something necessary which is absolutely required to achieve a goal
There are two broad categories, internal distractions, and external. They may or may not lead to disruptions. Note that a disruption here means a change to a task of lower priority than the one you are doing. Other wise it is a re-organisation of priorities.
- Internal distraction – your brain initiates a search for information following a trigger, drawing attention away from your current task for only seconds. This happens instinctively
- External distraction – same as above, but the trigger is an event outside your control
A distraction is only a quick assessment of a situation. It may or may not lead to a disruption:
- Internal disruption – acting upon curiosity as a result of the distraction process (Curiosity is when partial information is found, and further knowledge is desired)
- External disruption – acting upon the unexpected intrusion of people or events.
- A trigger (internal or external)
- The brain enters distraction mode and analyses the trigger
- Now its up to you to make a conscious decision whether or not to act on it
Handling internal disruptions: carrot vs stick.
Whilst this technique works very well in the short term, the entire ethos of self improvement revolves around a “carrot” driven life. Motivation is always more powerful when fuelled by positive reinforcement instead of punishment. Removing distractions through force represents a conflict between a long term goal, and the desire to work for it. If you have to remove all distractions, this is like treating a task as a last resort; narrowing down all opportunities for disruption until there is no choice but to commence work. What you need to do in this situation is to try and identify exactly why your motivation is so low to merit force. Often the cause of the disruption can be a routine built in over time. These sorts of habits are difficult to break. The danger is that the mental output from a disruption (low motivation) will influence how easily you are tempted to act on distractions (in the form of disruptions). And a cycle of high distraction/high disruption is created. Otherwise known as procrastination.
Clearing away clutter is a “stick” technique, but because it can break the cycle of high distraction/high disruption, it works in the short term. For the long term however, identification of what exactly is causing an inner conflict and low motivation is needed.
In terms of “carrot” techniques, the goal is that motivation has to be internal – it’s more powerful that way. Breaking a task into chunks and having regular breaks gives you something to work towards. When I was revising for my A levels quite a while ago a decided to make a revision timetable – something I had never done before. The format was 45 minutes work followed by 15 minutes break. repeated 5 times with lunch in between. 15 minutes acted as a nice reward and so was a high motivation. Because at no point my mental energy was spent I could focus, and I was less likely to act on internal distraction. This pattern was repeated for a a month; the repetition caused a positive feedback loop. High motivation = less distractions = feeling of satisfaction = high motivation.
Handling external disruptions:
External events initiate a different process to internal distraction. The disruption has to come first which acts as a trigger to enter “distraction mode” – a mental search for information. When information is found you can either decide to act on it, or to ignore it.
The intrusion of people and events is not within your control. However acting on such intrusions is. You can make a conscious choice to either act upon a distraction, or not to. There are no exceptions because it is irrelevant how motivated you are. Remember if someone is contacting you because of something essential, that doesn’t count as distraction but a re prioritising of tasks.
The general rule would be to not allow yourself to be disrupted. Someone else’s loud music can be fixed with earplugs for example. Should you need to re prioritise your list of task following an external distraction, only do the essential tasks and leave the necessary ones until later. Remember, what you were working on was already essential; read “The necessary effect” for more information.
- Identify what objects are likely to act as a “trigger” and remove them
- Remove clutter, it can break the procrastination cycle
- Work only when you are naturally more motivated. e.g. avoid the post lunch dip or working late at night
- Increase you tempo. A burst of speed will force you to focus more intently on the task
- Take regular breaks as these will act as a positive incentive to work harder
- Allocate yourself a time slot, and see how much work you can get done in that time
- Eat the right foods to boost concentration. (More on this later)
- Exercise properly, and I mean properly.
- Get your sleep. This is probably the biggest single factor (More on this also later)