Let’s jump right in with statistics today. Inc. Magazine says that we’re spending an average of just 1 minute and 15 seconds on a task before being interrupted. Other statistics say that it takes 23-25 minutes to get back on track after an interruption. To put it another way, Dr. Gloria Mark, from the Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences at the University of California, found that average information workers are interrupted every three minutes. If you do some super-high-level complicated math with me, that comes out to about 20 times every hour.
Research shows that we typically don’t return immediately to the task that was interrupted, either. We usually tackle two other tasks before returning to the original one. Most of those twenty-time-an-hour interruptions are very minor. About four of them every hour are more serious interruptions. If you’re paying attention to how all those numbers work together (and why would you, that’s why I’m here), the interruptions, the being sidetracked, the time to get back into what you were doing…you’d realize that there’s no way we’re completing our work.
And yet, things do get done. Studies looking at that question found that first, we do push many tasks off until later. And second, we do actually complete tasks, but they’re being done more quickly than they should be and with more mistakes.
Those are all work-related statistics. But, the same thing is happening to us at home, in our cars, and at the dinner table. I’m fairly certain no one will argue with me when I say that we live in a world full of distractions. With the advent of cell phones, we now have many of those distractions in our hand at all times. A study commissioned by Nokia showed that users check their smartphones an average of 150 times during a waking day of 16 hours. With more high-level math, I figure that’s every 6-1/2 minutes.
This is what we think of when we hear the word distraction, and these are a big deal. They affect our productivity in work and happiness in life.
But, they’re not the only kind of distraction we deal with.
External distractions are typically what come to mind when someone says the word “distraction”. Co-workers stopping by your desk to talk about last nights devastating seventh-game loss in the Stanley Cup playoffs. Yeah, I don’t want to talk about that. Now you’re stuck reliving it with every acquaintance that sees you in the hallway.
The phone ringing.
A loud sound from the next room.
The dog sticking his cold nose against your leg.
The really awful music playing in the coffee shop where you're working.
Your boss calling you.
The constant notifications on your phone.
These are all external distractions.
What can you do about them? How can you control external distractions? To some degree, you can’t. But, you do have more control than you think. When you need an uninterrupted span of time, Unplug from browsers and phones. Turn off all the notifications on that phone. Lock your door. Stop checking email. Put your headphones on. Put a sign on your chair, your desk, or your door that says you’re busy, please do not disturb unless you’re on fire.
Remember, your technology is for your convenience. Your phone is available to you so that you have access to people and services when you want that access. It’s not there so that anyone can hijack your time and attention whenever they please.
Obviously, there are some situations which you can’t control, but more often than not, you can drastically reduce external distractions by setting and communicating boundaries.
External distractions are only part of the puzzle, though. Surprisingly, studies find that external distractions don’t explain many of the distractions we experience. They’re actually coming from inside of us. An internal distraction might be a sudden urge to check the weather. Again. A need to make a non-critical phone call right now, stopping what you're doing for a candy bar, texting a friend, or checking to see how many likes we have on our last post—even though we just looked a moment ago and we’ve received no new notifications since then.
We’ve trained ourselves to be constantly receiving input. Our brains get a shot of dopamine when we see a text notification and that encourages us to do it again. Yes, the chemistry is against us. But, we also have created those habits. I realized last week that I’m automatically reaching for my phone at stop lights. On a 12 minute drive. I don’t need to look at my phone on a twelve-minute drive. And yet I’m habituated to pick it up whenever I stop. I also have a habit of turning to it when I have any break in activity or input. We head straight for our phones when the stream of input stops.
We avoid the hard things by distracting ourselves. This isn’t only the hard stuff like relationships or work problems, though it includes those things. It’s also things like silence. Being alone with our own thoughts. Or, dealing with failure. Fear can send us straight to distraction because it’s so much easier.
And I just hinted at another reason we distract ourselves. Avoidance. We’re avoiding pain, fear, work, effort, people, or our own inner monologue. Distractions keep us from hearing, seeing, or feeling things we’re uncomfortable with. And we spend an awful lot of effort to stay comfortable.
Eliminating internal distractions is trickier than external ones. Breaking and reforming habits, training our brave muscles to not live life out of fear and learning to be willing to feel discomfort are a lot more difficult, are a lot harder work than locking a door or turning off phone notifications. But, they also have a higher potential to create a distraction-free life.
When we think about distraction, we’re often thinking about productivity. But, there are other things we get distracted from.
We are constantly being pulled away from the present. We let texts, emails, and social media interrupt and distract us from conversations we’re having now. We let worries and anxiety interrupt and distract us from experiences we’re having now. We let the television or YouTube distract us from the people next to us. Whether we’re intentionally using distraction or allowing it to happen, it’s one of the most destructive forces to our presence in our own life. It’s choosing that a social media post from someone you barely know is more important than the conversation you’re having right now. It’s choosing that a fear or worry about something that might happen is more important than what’s actually happening. It’s choosing that what’s happening on a screen is more important than the real world around you.
I’ve had a parenting crisis develop in the last few days. I have some tough choices to make that affect my son and his summer plans. He had a piano recital last night. It was really hard to set aside the worry and the trying to figure out what to do, but that performance of his would never happen again. The decision didn’t need to be made last night, I needed to sleep on it anyway. So, letting worry and anxiety distract me from the evening with him made no sense. It wasn’t easy to set aside that distraction, but it was worth it.
Distractions from the present kill happiness, damage relationships, and inhibit life experiences.
There’s one more type of distraction I want to mention today as well. Distraction from mission. Do you have a mission in life? A purpose? Do you have roles you want to succeed in, like parenting or your career? Do you have goals you want to achieve?
I had a pastor friend once who used to say that sheep don’t typically choose a big adventure and get lost. They nibble themselves lost. They notice a patch of grass next to the path they’re on and pause to take a few bites. Then they look up and see another bit of enticing green a few steps away and they step over and nibble that. Doing that a few times without paying attention makes it really easy to look up a half hour later and realize you have no idea where you are.
You’ve nibbled yourself lost.
While my pastor friend was talking about sin in our lives, the analogy has served me well in a lot of other situations. It applies to distraction as well. One distraction easily leads to another and before you know it you’re lost.
If you’ve ever started reading an online article about the upcoming political summit in Europe and 20 minutes later realized you were now watching a YouTube video about talking to baby animals, you’ve experienced this phenomenon.
Not that I’ve ever done that. Nope. Definitely not.
On a larger scale, this happens with our lives and our goals as well. If you aren’t paying attention, if you don’t have a practice that keeps your goal or life direction in front of you, the distractions of life will creep in and you’ll nibble yourself off the path you want to be on.
A classic book of psychology was published in 1890. In it, William James wrote, “My experience is what I agree to attend to.” That statement is still true today. Maura Thomas, who is said to be the most oft-cited writer on attention management, says it this way, “Your attention determines the experiences you have and the experiences you have determine the life you live. Or said another way: you must control your attention to control your life.”
This month as we talk about our attention, realize the point is not just to be more productive at work. The reason our attention matters is that what we pay attention to prospers. What we pay attention to creates the life we live.
So, as I close this episode today, think about these two questions:
What are you paying attention to? And, how much are you allowing yourself to be distracted from it?