4 Strategies for Overcoming Distraction

Here is an excerpt from an article written by Chris Bailey for Harvard Business Review and the HBR Blog Network. To read the complete article, check out the wealth of free resources, obtain subscription information, and receive HBR email alerts, please click here.

Credit: Sarah Lawrence/Getty Images

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In the flurry of statistics that exist around personal productivity, there’s one I find especially alarming: The average person is distracted or interrupted every 40 seconds when working in front of their computer. In other words, we can’t work for even a single minute before we focus on something else. Sure, sometimes it’s easy to get back on track. But when our attention is completely derailed, research shows, it can take more than 20 minutes to refocus.

Why? Humans are hardwired for distraction. Our brain’s attentional system is programmed to respond to anything that’s pleasurable, threatening, or novel. We even have a novelty bias, wherein our brain is flooded with a pleasure chemical, dopamine, whenever we focus on something new.

In terms of our evolutionary history, this makes sense. Instead of focusing exclusively on, say, starting a fire, our ancient ancestors were distracted by novel threats — an approaching saber-toothed tiger, for example — and survived to see another day because of it.

While your situation may vary, I personally no longer face too many saber-toothed tigers in my daily life. The distractions that are novel, pleasurable, and threatening no longer aid our survival — instead, they tug our attention from what’s productive and meaningful. Facebook will forever be a more attractive object of attention than an Excel spreadsheet; checking email will always offer a bigger dopamine hit than the report we’re writing.

So how can you gain back control? After reading hundreds of studies, interviewing dozens of experts, and running the gamut of self-experiments (including attending meditation retreats and slogging through a monthlong period of self-induced boredom), I learned that countless strategies can help us mitigate distraction.

Here [is the first of] four of my favorites.

Create a distraction-free ritual. With so many distractions competing for our attention, we need to tame as many as we can in advance. A distraction-free mode — an ideal environment in which to hunker down and focus on your most important, complex tasks — will help. For my distraction-free mode, I enable a distractions blocker on my computer (I use an app named Freedom), put on noise-canceling headphones, leave my phone and tablet in another room, grab a coffee, and set an intention for what I want to accomplish. After focusing for 45 minutes, I treat myself to a 10-minute all-you-can-eat distraction buffet.

I tend to work from home; those who work in an open office may need to literally get up for a change of scenery for their distraction-free mode. After all, distractions happen 64% more often in an open office, and we’re interrupted by others more often in that environment as well.

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Here is a direct link to the complete article.


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