The truth about distraction and how you can fix it

Admit it.

Your mind is becoming more vulnerable by the day. With each emerging technology from AirPods to iPads, your ability to focus is quickly slipping away. Immersing ourselves in any type of long-form work that requires heightened attentiveness is now challenged by a wave of repeated interruption. It is a chore in itself to bring our brain back to its original point of attention the second we feel that buzz in our pocket.

We crave the gratification that comes with notifications and compulsively check social media platforms at every opportunity. It has become less of a hobby and more of a routine.

According to author Cal Newport, “professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit”, is a superpower in the 21st century. He defines this as “Deep Work”.

“To succeed with deep work you must rewire your brain to be comfortable resisting distracting stimuli.”

In Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, Newport discusses how engaging in things under the umbrella of “Shallow Work” (email, texting, social media, etc.) can permanently reduce our capacity to complete a single project at a consistently high-level. He acknowledges that sometimes these distractions are unavoidable, but finishing complex tasks in a specific window of time is becoming a very valuable skill.

Modern distractions have made us increasingly disconnected in the age of connectivity. Not only with other people, but with ourselves. The internet has enabled anyone with a smartphone or keyboard to have a voice, leading to an overflow of content and a maelstrom of noise.

We can’t even efficiently watch television anymore without using our phones simultaneously. A study by the Mobile Marketing Association found that “88% Of U.S. Consumers Use Mobile As Second Screen While Watching TV”.

So what exactly can we do about this growing issue?

Distraction Is Not What You Think

“We use our gadgets for distraction and entertainment. We use them to avoid work while giving the impression that we’re actually working hard.”- Meghan Daum

The underlying problem is a fundamental misunderstanding of what distraction is and where it stems from.

Distraction is not technology.

It is also not multitasking or mind wandering.

In fact, Psychology Today notes that there is a stark difference between being distracted and letting your mind drift. When there is a distraction, we usually have a goal that we are trying to accomplish. When the mind wanders it is more meaningless- and this can actually be psychologically restorative, contributing to your creative energies in a way that hijacked attention does not.

Distraction in more simple terms is:

The process of diverting the attention of an individual or group from a desired area of focus and thereby blocking or diminishing the reception of desired information.

I’ll admit that I have a tendency to blame the availability of “noise” on my lack of concentration. Listening to music while writing, reading an article at the gym, responding to an email while studying; all of these secondary actions are detaching me from my main objective.

Multitasking is not an adequate solution either. Just because you can get away with switching between different mediums doesn’t mean that you should. Fragmented attention leads way to incomplete work, delayed timelines, and ultimately a less than perfect final product.

Learn To Control Your Mind

Imagine life without being “switched on” all of the time. Our world is dominated by accessible technologies and being distracted in modern society is normal.

“Years ago, you had to work with a quill or a manual typewriter. You needed to wait for the post office and you had no free and highly-leveraged outlet for your work to be seen by others. You had no access to a huge, instant and free library of the work that has come before… and yet, despite all of those missing elements, great work was created.”- Seth Godin

The problem is that the items deviating our attention away from what matters are increasingly rewarding.

I’m not saying that we should completely cut off digital distractions-they do have some incredible benefits. Just keep in mind when you are using them and make sure that the time allocated towards phone scrolling is appropriate. If you feel the urge to check notifications, create several small blocks in your schedule to do so.

You can also try downloading an app that limits how long you can spend on other apps. Once you have gone over the set limit, they go into a soft lock mode. This has been especially beneficial for preventing “night scrolling” when you’re trying to go to sleep.

We’re living in an era of communication revolution, so it is becoming increasingly important to develop proper habits that minimize distractions and turn the focal point towards completing tasks with total attentiveness.

Productivity guru Tim Ferris leaves his phone in airplane mode for 80% of the day. He also leaves an hour every morning to work on one important or uncomfortable task. While Ferris probably has an assistant managing his schedule, it is important to note that everyone can find unique ways to do function in a distraction-free environment.

How many people would actually be willing to switch their phone to airplane mode everyday in the name of getting something done? Probably very few.

In Conclusion

“Information is no longer a scarce resource — attention is.”- Clive Thompson, New York Times Magazine

The growing amount of distractions in 2019 are not en excuse to be unfocused- we have too easily adapted to a world that is pro noise. Interruptions have eroded our ability to concentrate, constantly drawing us away from efficiently accomplishing anything.

Everyone is guilty of getting sucked down the occasional YouTube wormhole.

Then you blink and 45 minutes are gone. Technology isn’t going anywhere and will only become more essential as we move forward. Don’t blame physical objects and settings for your inability to focus. Instead, try looking intrinsically at the root of the obstacle.

In reality, each individual has total control over how and where they contribute their time and attention.

It all comes down to your priorities.

This article first appeared on Medium.

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