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Is Your, or Your Team's Ability to Focus Hindering Their Performance, Productivity, or Potential?

distraction focus meditation mindfulness Aug 31, 2021

Can you imagine spending a combined 7+ hours each day on your cell phone or watching TV?  That is exactly what the average adult does.  Recent data (2019) indicates the average adult spends 3.75 hours per day on their cell phone and another 3.5 hours per day watching TV, and if you game, you spend on average an additional hour a day gaming.  That equates to nearly a full-time job.

We spread our screen time throughout the entire day, implying a constant stream of interruptions while we work, spend time with family and friends, exercise, relax, drive, etc.  Between TV, the internet, our cell phone, tablet, social media, instant messaging, and gaming we are barraged and overloaded with information and consumed by distraction.  The creators of these digital devices and apps use social engineering, intermittent reinforcement, and other social approval techniques specifically designed to exploit our natural curiosity and desire to belong and socialize. (Newport, 2015)  

Consider the disturbing nature of this quote regarding the use of intermittent reinforcement.

“Psychology researchers have long considered intermittent reinforcement the most powerful motivator on the planet.  It is also the most manipulative.  Intermittent reinforcement is simply unpredictable, random rewards in response to repeated behavior, but there is no more powerful formula to get someone to feel or act in a desired way.  It can be elevated gradually (and subtly) to increasingly extreme levels, creating compliance that is obsessive and even self-destructive.” (Birch, 2015)

As disturbing as this is, it occurs daily and is what attracts you to most social media platforms.

Interestingly, two Harvard researchers conducted a study a few years ago and determined that each of us typically spends approximately 46.9% of our waking hours thinking about something other than what we are doing.  Their study also determined that the same wandering mind makes us unhappy. (Bradt, 2010)

Imagine discussing your medical condition with a Dr. who is paying attention to half the conversation, or maybe an appointment with your dentist who is only partially engaged.  The study, its findings and implications are both alarming and disturbing.

Distraction silently consumes our time and energy, hinders our ability to focus, negatively impacts our health and relationships, impedes our ability to conduct deep work, and inhibits our ability to intently listen to those who are important to us.  Learning to control your thoughts and ability to focus couldn’t be more timely or important.

Types of Distractions

Distractions generally fall into three categories. 

  • Manual distractions: objects we can physically touch such as our phone, tablet, computer, pets, etc. 
  • Environmental distractions: involve our surroundings and include stimuli such as sounds produced by radio, TV, passing cars, playing children, or the environment (temperature, precipitation, sunlight, darkness, etc.) within our workspace. 
  • Cognitive distractions: I refer to these as “the mother of all distractions” because they are the most complex and difficult to control.  These include the random thoughts that often trigger emotional responses that if unchecked, can quickly spiral out of control.  If you think about it, it is easier for others to control our thoughts by what they say or do, than it is for ourselves to control what we think.

None of the three distraction categories occur independently.  Most commonly, they are linked.  A physical distraction may lead to an environmental distraction, followed by a host of cognitive distractions.

Combined, these three types of distractions interrupt us as we try and focus on the task at hand.  Not only do they hinder our short-term progress as we work to complete a project, but they also initiate a cascade of reactions that can have negative long-term effects on our health and wellbeing.  The sequence of events looks like this:

  • Distractions trigger emotional responses such as anger, frustration, hatred, love, boredom etc.
  • The sympathetic nervous system responds with a fight, flight, or other emotional reaction.
  • Physiological responses include tightening of muscles, increased heart rate, rapid breathing, and many others.
  • Biological responses include the release of hormones that prepare the body for action. These hormones include testosterone, cortisol, adrenaline, and others.  While some of these physiological and biological responses may prove useful depending on the circumstances, they are often distracting and even harmful themselves.  Prolonged stress can result in loss of sleep, poor eating habits, weight gain, cardiovascular problems, and even mental health issues. 

Distraction is a complex process that hinders our progress and even damages our health, relationships, and general wellbeing if uncontrolled, and with no single or simple solution.  You don’t just flip a switch and instantly focus like a laser after being distracted for 8 hours / day, day-after-day.

Before you take action to defeat distractions, you must understand them, and their effects on your well-being and productivity.  You can’t fix a problem until you recognize, understand, and act to correct it.

Creating or improving your ability to focus requires a proactive approach.  A passive and reactive approach never works and will only lead to a continued distracted state.  Just like creating physical strength, speed, and any technical skill, it takes time and consistent “brain training” to create this laser like focus.

Combatting distraction requires multiple approaches.  I’ve created a four-step approach to help you create laser like focus:

Step 1:  Self-Accountability and Alignment

Nobody can fix your distraction addiction problem for you.  Best case, the only thing somebody is going to do is ask you to put down your cell phone or give you a strange look.  You can decide to do something about it, or you can remain in a distracted state and continue to experience the effects.  Do you want to be slave to your cell phone like everyone else, or do you want to control your own thoughts and actions to become your best-self? 

Your “personal compass” consisting of your purpose, priorities, values, and faith become your standard.  You either make a legitimate effort to live up to your established standard, or you continue to meander living a life of mediocrity like most others. 

“Your purpose” provides the direction.  “Your priorities” create focus.  “Your values” guide you to the life of character you’ve decided to live.  “Your faith” integrates the other components and helps you to live a life of integrity where your thoughts, beliefs, and actions are aligned and help you live a purposeful and intentional life.

Step 2:  Purposeful Living (Goals)

Your goal setting system compliments your purpose and priorities but adds specificity by identifying your current location, where you are going (vision), the route you intend to take (way points), and the day-to-day structure to make progress (supporting habits). 

Your goals system adds purpose and direction to daily life and helps prevent you from meandering, and wasting valuable time through distraction and other sources of friction that drain your energy. 

Don’t rush, don’t waste time, but move with purpose.  Everything you do serves a purpose, otherwise don’t do it.  You don’t have time for it.

 Step 3:  Distraction Avoidance Strategies (Manual and Environmental)

Distraction avoidance strategies specifically apply to manual and environmental distractions, but when applied have a secondary effect on cognitive distractions.  Remember that distractions are often linked and occur sequentially.  An environmental distraction typically leads to a manual distraction which then results in a cognitive distraction.  The key is to interrupt this sequence and “break the chain” as quickly as possible. 

The idea behind manual distraction avoidance is simple:  “out of sight, out of mind”. 

Environmental distractions are your next challenge, and like their manual counterparts, you can proactively manage and mitigate their destructive affects.  Below are mitigation measures you can take to minimize the risk of environmental distractions:

  • Turn off the TV and radio and instead, listen to functional music designed to help you concentrate / relax.
  • Wear noise cancelling headphones.
  • Close shades / windows to reduce noise and visual distractions.
  • Close your office door to minimize visitors.

These avoidance strategies may sound draconian and unrealistic, but remember that you must be proactive.  Doing nothing will result in more distraction.  Focus on what you can control by avoiding the obvious pitfalls of manual and environmental distractions.  This simple and proactive approach is a significant step in avoiding cognitive distractions.

 Step 4:  Mindfulness (Controlling Our Thoughts).

Creating mindfulness is our proactive approach to defeating cognitive distractions.  You have probably heard the term “mindfulness” before, but maybe have never taken the time to fully understand its meaning and how it practically applies. 

What is mindfulness and why do we need to be mindful?

The above diagram depicts a simple explanation of mindfulness.  It is the ability to focus on the here and now, not what previously occurred or what is going to occur.  Whether you are in the middle of a workday, a competition, a training session, sitting in class, or simply visiting family or friends, mindfulness is the ability to stay in the present.  Being mindful sounds simple, but applying it is incredibly challenging. 

This constant pinging between the past, present, and future negatively affects us in many ways.  In an age where we are consumed by distraction, learning to control our mind couldn’t be more important.  We are more likely distracted today than before and it is hurting our performance across most aspects of life.  To be at our best, when it matters most, we need to be able to focus and concentrate on the task at hand.

 A Quick and Simple Mind Training Exercise Session

  • First, find a quiet location and a comfortable position.
  • Set an alarm for 5-10 min. Ease into the session with 5-10 deep breaths.  These initial breaths help to slow your heart rate, establish focus, and establish breath control.
  • Once settled, continue to focus your thought on your breathing. Controlling the frenetic mind is the challenge, but your control and focus will improve over time.  When your thought drifts, refocus on your breathing, and continue until the end of the session. 
  • Once your timer goes off, continue to focus on your breathing and complete the session with 5-10 additional deep breaths.
  • Finally, think about how the session went and make notes for any required changes, frustrations, or any other thoughts that may help you prepare or improve your next session.

Like physical exercise, consistency is the key.  The more you practice this process, the stronger your control of thought becomes.  Do not allow yourself to succumb to the frustration of not being able to control your mind.  Continue to practice and your ability to control your mind will improve.

 Conclusion

Remember the alarming findings of the Harvard Study referenced above that most people spend half their waking hours thinking about something other than what they are doing and the unhappiness this state creates. (Bradt, 2010)  If you need or want to “get in the zone” to perform, compete, live at your best, and be healthy and happy while doing so, you need to learn to focus, and being mindful will help. 

Your ability to focus and concentrate doesn’t mysteriously appear when you need it most.  You can’t be mindful in a time of need if you haven’t taken the time to create it. 

You can’t live half of your waking hours in a distracted state and expect to flip a switch to create laser like focus when you need it most.  It takes time and consistent effort.

If you want to live, perform, and compete intentionally, you must focus.  Don’t wander aimlessly unable to control your thoughts half your life.  Decide, commit, and take action to live intentionally. 

Sources:

Newport, C. (2015). Master Class: Digital Minimalism 101. Retrieved from Optimize.me: https://www.optimize.me/digital-minimalism/

Birch, A. (2015, April 12). The Most Powerful Motivator on the Planet: Intermittent Reinforcement. Retrieved from Psychopaths & Love: http://psychopathsandlove.com/intermittent-reinforcement/

Bradt, S. (2010, November 11). Wandering mind not a happy mind”. Retrieved from The Harvard Gazette: https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2010/11/wandering-mind-not-a-happy-mind/

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