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Why has distraction become such a big issue?

If you’ve been finding it harder to stay on track, you’re not alone. Collectively the workplace is rife with complaints of too many interruptions from phone calls, people, meetings, our own thoughts, and of course our beloved email inbox.

Being distractible has been important to our survival. It’s just that today we’ve taken the art of distractibility to a new level.

We evolved with a beautifully efficient system that enables us to detect and respond to changes in our environment. Noticing what’s going on around us is a vital survival tool needed just as much today, as in the day of avoiding becoming a sabre tooth tiger’s lunch. Attention and distraction work hand-in-hand.

When we are in that delicious state of “flow” as coined by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, we’re happily and completely absorbed in whatever task we are doing. We become unaware of the passage of time and feel calm and confident in our thought processes.

But being in flow is often a transient and too short-lived state because other things can get in its way. 

While it is easy to lay the blame squarely at the feet of our technology, remember it was designed that way. Other factors also need to be considered including:

1. Your level of interest.

If the thought of filling in your tax form doesn’t excite you, it’s harder to find the motivation to do it, even though you understand there will be consequences to not completing the task. 

This is where distraction can come to the rescue. If procrastination is your middle name, getting started is made easier by choosing to do something even if it’s a low-value task such as entering all your tax receipts for your last business trip. Ticking off that initial small task rewards the brain and kickstarts the motivation to get you going.

2. The level of difficulty of the work. 

We operate with a Goldilocks brain. We don’t want our work to be too easy because that’s boring and the brain doesn’t pay attention to boring things, or too hard, because this causes us to feel more stressed and diminishes our ability to stay focused. 

Mindset plays a big role here. If you can’t be stuffed to do work you find monotonous or tedious, or be willing to step up to the challenge of taking on something difficult because you may get it wrong, it’s hard to stay focused. Here distraction can play a positive role by treating the tasks as a game, putting in place a series of rewards for participating and persevering. Setting yourself a series of smaller tasks breaks down the enormity of a big challenge and the tedium of boring work.

By the way, you might not want to make the reward a muffin, as too many of those can be disastrous for the waistline, but a small reward to look forward to is highly motivating, helps to elevate mood and keeps you more open-minded.

3. Your level of enthusiasm.

Perhaps you’ve noticed some people appear more easily distracted than others and it’s not always the difficulty level of the task. New research suggests that it is our conscious choice of how much we want to participate that also plays a role. If you’re determined to find a way to solve a problem or learn a new skill, even when it’s hard, you’re more likely to find a solution.

4. Your level of auto-focus.

Just like a camera on autofocus new research has shown how the brain can be triggered by environmental cues to become more focused and effectively out-manoeuvre those pesky distractions. This supersedes the previous idea that managing distractions required the conscious awareness of what is happening prior to bringing the mind back to attention. It appears our clever brain has already worked out an alternative pathway.

5. Your curious mind.

The notion of the absent-minded professor reflects the idea they have so many ideas dancing around their head that they are completely distracted by their own thoughts. Is this a bad thing? Not necessarily. While some will suggest a high level of distractibility is due to a superior intellect, it may boil down to a structural difference in brain structure. One study suggests that our individual variability in the level of distraction can be predicted by structural differences in those areas of the brain associated with selective attention. 

Not all distraction is bad, it’s about looking for ways to use them appropriately to help us be more productive.

Dr Jenny Brockis

Dr Jenny Brockis is a medical practitioner and internationally board-certified lifestyle medicine physician, workplace health and wellbeing consultant, podcaster, keynote speaker and best-selling author. Her new book 'Thriving Mind: How to Cultivate a Good Life' (Wiley) is available online and at all good bookstores.

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