Your goal is to be a productivity animal. Making the most of your workday. Every day.
Another goal is to communicate as efficiently and effectively as possible. With the right people. At the right time. With the right information.
Even when you do your best to prioritize, you don’t seem to make the progress you’d like. The right information seems elusive. Communication gets garbled, despite your efforts. The productivity never seems to get the traction you intended.
You’re trying to leverage the latest technology, the productivity apps, and the communication programs that allow you to communicate in real time.
You can’t simply resolve to get more accomplished in less time. You can’t add more hours to your workday.
Something has to change.
You can recognize that becoming more productive and communicating more clearly will require you to tame the beast: distraction.
The tools that we believe should allow us to be more efficient and more productive, are actually robbing of us of the most important arrow in our productivity quiver: focused attention.
Your drive to be a successful leader is met with frustration when modern technology collides with hardwired biology.
Unless you approach it with intentionality. So that you control how you do what you do. Based on why you do what you do.
Once you know how and when to eliminate distraction and how to channel the power of focused attention, your productivity will increase. Dramatically. Immediately.
It’s Worse Than You Thought
In order to stay informed and be as responsive as possible, most people are available via text, email, and phone. 24/7. Or at least during their waking hours.
You add some helpful apps, include your favorite social media platforms, and voilà— you’re as connected as anyone can be.
And that is where the distraction problem begins.
“Constant connectivity is one of the worst disruptions to our focus and productivity.” — Chris Bailey
- According to Timothy Wilson, in his book Strangers to Ourselves, your brain processes 11 million bits of information per second. However, you can only consciously process 40 of them at a time, and the rest are processed in your unconscious mind.
Let me repeat those numbers. Your conscious brain can only process 40 of the 11 million bits of information bombarding your brain every second.
You better be intentional about where you want to focus that limited capacity.
- According to a UC Irvine study conducted by Gloria Mark, the average knowledge worker is interrupted every 11 minutes. The same study estimated that it takes 23 minutes to return to the original task at the same level of concentration. The math doesn’t work. If we continue to allow interruptions, we’ll never get back to a focused state of concentration.
After only 20 minutes of interrupted performance people reported significantly higher stress, frustration, workload, effort, and pressure. Well, that’s not good.
- Gloria Mark also conducted a study that reflects that the distractions get heightened when we are working on a computer. We go an average of 40 seconds when working on a computer before we start to get distracted or interrupted. Nobody is going to claim that their best work occurs in their first 40 seconds!
- RescueTime analyzed the behavior of more than 50,000 of its users and found that the average knowledge worker “checks in” with communication tools every 6 minutes. A “check-in:” is defined as any time you switch to a communication tool while working on another productive task.
Every six minutes. Based on an eight-hour workday, that is 77 times. Per day.
77 times per day may be conservative.
Do you shut down your phone completely after the mythical eight-hour workday?
Nah, me neither.
- In its Anatomy at Work 2021, Asana determined that said the typical knowledge worker used an average of ten apps per day, that they checked 25 times per day. And that was pre-COVID. With remote work growing during the last year, those numbers have increased, according to Asana.
I’m not going to sort through each of these and figure out if any are mutually exclusive or if one study predates another study.
I AM going to say that these statistics should get your attention. They should frighten you.
Enough to conclude that you’re going to get a handle on this. And gain control.
Before you become a distracted, unproductive bowl of meh.
One more perspective to consider: We’re all connected to people who expect us to be available. At all times. Sometimes they’re friends. Sometimes they’re co-workers. Sometimes they’re our bosses.
(Note: this is where you look in the mirror and say — “Do I do that to my team?”)
The Daily Dopamine Drip
There is a chemical reaction taking place when you switch tasks. Beware.
Your brain is constantly looking for the new and the novel. When we switch tasks, your brain feels like you are more productive, simply because we are doing “more.” We feel busier. And we’re actually less productive.
But when we switch tasks, we get rewarded with a shot of dopamine. It’s that chemical that gets released in our brains associated with pleasure and reward.
The phone provides you a constant source of tiny dopamine surges, like you were hooked up to a slow-drip IV. You might learn something. You might see someone you know. Someone might like your post. Someone just texted you. Oh, another email! Did she reply to my message? What’s happening in the market? Did anybody post an IG story this morning? How many people visited my blog in the last hour? (yeah, guilty on that last one, more than once).
Now, where was I? Arrrrrrrrgh.
Most human beings (even the self-described efficient and productive ones!), spend a portion of their time procrastinating. There are certain tasks that we feel resistance towards. When we contemplate doing those tasks, we get impatient, frustrated, angry, bored, guilty, embarrassed, resentful, timid…you get it.
When this happens, the brain starts looking for something else to focus on. And it welcomes the distraction. And you get a shot of dopamine. This feels so much better than slogging through that task we’re avoiding.
Its bad enough that your procrastination got rewarded with an escape and a shot of feel-good juice. Unfortunately, it reinforces procrastination in the future and the search for more distractions. More distractions and more dopamine.
Biology vs. Technology
In addition, to the allure of the dopamine drip, there are other aspects of our biology working against the very technology that is supposed to make us infinitely more productive.
We can’t go all out all day long. Our bodies work in Circadian rhythms, which is the body’s internal clock. It carries out the essential functions and processes of the body. There are times when we are naturally more energetic, other times more creative, and still other times when we are best able to accomplish focused work.
We can’t stay in laser-focus mode all our waking hours.
Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert of Harvard University completed a study that concluded that people spend 47% of their waking hours thinking about something other than what they’re doing. They’re thinking about events in the past, or what might happen in the future. Our minds wander. A lot.
Some of our tasks we can accomplish out of habit. We don’t need to think too deeply and waste a lot of brain energy.
We feel good that we’ve accomplished them, but when all is said and done, they haven’t helped us make progress on our most important tasks.
There are certain tasks that require our focused attention — without distraction. These are complex problems or situations that we haven’t encountered before. If we want to complete them with the level of quality and within the time frame we want, we need to amp up our focus.
We download apps, strap on wearables, stay connected with the latest technology. And then our brains remind us who is in control.
And that’s where you come in.
You’re the Captain Now
In an effort to get control of your time and increase your productivity, your overriding mindset needs to be one of Intentionality. Yes, it has a capital I.
Here are some useful practices for you to implement in order to tame the distraction beast:
- Record your distractions — during the course of your day be aware and document those things that cause your distractions. How many times a day do you pull out your phone? When do you do it? What motivates you to do it? Record those responses. Look at the patterns. Once you can identify what they are and why they occur, then you can address how to minimize or eliminate them.
- Go mindless and wander — when you notice your focus wavering, or if you recognize its already gone, embrace that fact. Step back and do something mindless. Go for a short walk. Complete a task like empty your wastebasket. Or go climb a flight or two of stairs. It should be a short activity, with a beginning and an end. It lets your mind reset and refocus. Another great time to take a break is after you’ve completed a significant task. You can come back energized to tackle the next important task.
- Go for a sprint — recognizing that you can’t focus at a high level all day long, schedule bursts of highly focused attention on a particular task. One process to embrace is the Pomodoro technique. You schedule 25 minutes of focused, uninterrupted time and you work as hard and fast as you can. You take a five or ten-minute break — go wandering (see above) — and then repeat the process. Hyperfocus, or Deep Work, is much more effective when it is scheduled for a specific, reasonable period of time. A sense of urgency helps to sharpen focus.
- Keep your priorities within your vision — each day you should start with identifying your top three priorities for the day (as previous posts have suggested, you identify them the night before and validate them as you start the new day). Be specific and set time limits, like “Have a draft of the proposal completed by 11:00 a.m.” Refer to them during the day. They will be a filter through which you can evaluate how you’re spending your time. The present activity is either helping make progress towards achieving your goal — or you are wasting time. This can help you avoid spending time on things that aren’t important.
- Plan in advance — you know that every day you will have messages and impulses that are trying to distract you. Plan out how you will eliminate them in advance. Perhaps it is turning off notifications. Maybe you put your phone in airplane mode. Maybe you’ve got two Pomodoro sprints on your calendar for the day. Maybe you keep your phone in another room for an hour. A sense of control is powerful. Not losing the battle to a smart phone creates a win. Small wins help you get the shot of dopamine for the right reasons.
- Meditate — wellness coach Dan Miller describes the value of meditation to relieve stress and to allow for greater focus when it is needed. Call it meditation or mindfulness, it weeds out some of the head trash and provides clarity. Miller also makes clear that a meditative state doesn’t need to come from a cross-legged, incense-burning approach. It may come from sitting in a relaxed position and controlling your breathing. Or it may come from a physical activity that doesn’t require you to think, like walking, running, yoga, or scuba diving(!). The requirement is to be fully present. You determine what works best for you.
- Schedule time for email, apps and social media — When you can batch shallow tasks, you can accomplish a lot in a short period of time. When you set a scheduled time for these activities you are less likely to stay in the time-sucking vortex of connectedness. Other than for these scheduled times, turn off notifications and reminders, so you get no messages, dings, buzzes or pop-ups to divert your attention.
Can’t You See the Beast Now?
New technology is introduced daily, designed to make us more productive, more reachable…and potentially more addicted. To the technology itself. To our phones. To our apps.
We want to leverage their features to be more productive and more efficient.
While the promise of the technology offers those things, our biology works against us.
We get distracted. Which makes us inefficient. Which make us unproductive.
We don’t want to be Dug, the talking dog, from the movie Up. But watch people get constantly distracted throughout their day and you start to wonder…
Recognize what causes your distractions and when they occur.
You can gain control by planning periods of focused attention, using hyperfocus to address your priorities and get deep work accomplished. On your terms. At your time.
You also need to wander, with your body and your mind. To eliminate clutter. So that you can focus when you need to.
Create routines. Build discipline.
You can reach a point that when a squirrel appears, you don’t notice. A phone buzzes near you and Pavlov’s dog starts barking.
You don’t even notice.
There you are, focused on your work. Nailing your priorities. Uber productive.
You haven’t just tamed the beast. Now you are the beast.