Tag Archives: distractions

How digital distractions drain your productivity

Digital distractions can make you feel productive and responsive, when in fact you’re just engaging in mindless, insignificant tasks. While digital technology broadens your access to information, makes communication easier, and provides other advantages, it often pulls you away from your true priorities.

For the most part, productivity means getting the most important things done, efficiently and effectively, while feeling satisfied with your progress and cultivating personal freedom for yourself. With this in mind, here’s how digital distractions drain your productivity:

Weaken your focus muscle

Paying attention to the task at hand is required to start, tackle and complete it. The ubiquitous presence of smartphones, tablets, laptops, and 24/7 online access erodes your ability to fully attend to one thing, concentrate, and work through problems, especially when they’re complex and require deep thought.

In January 2017, the Pew Research Center released fact sheets showing about 77% of Americans own a smartphone; nearly 73% state they have broadband service at home; 69% of U.S. adults use social media; nearly eight-in-ten U.S. adults own a desktop or laptop computer; and about half own tablet computers.

With digital technology at your fingertips, quick answers and instant gratification are expected. Over time, without consistent training and regular exercise, your focus muscle weakens immensely. And when faced with a difficult problem or averse task that needs to get done, you’ll be more tempted to look to your digital devices for a quick fix.

The brain’s prefrontal cortex craves novelty. The dopamine high you get from checking emails, text messages, social media and other digital information creates a feedback loop that encourages you to lose focus and seek external stimulation. The effects are sub-par results, more mistakes, and a prioritization of low-value busy work over high-value intentional work.

Encourage the counterproductive practice of multitasking (switch tasking) 

Doing more than one thing at a time  – commonly known as multitasking – is often viewed as a strength and skill. Companies misguidedly expect their employees to prioritize multiple projects and manage two or four or six tasks at once.

Although technology allows different processes to occur simultaneously, the human brain processes only one thing at a time, sequentially. As a result, juggling two or more tasks at one time — especially when they each demand high focus — is counterproductive.

In The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High Tech World, neuroscientist Adam Gazzaley and psychologist Larry D. Rosen point out the brain has a limited capacity to pay attention, which makes it impossible to focus on two or more completely unrelated tasks at the same time.

You can do multiple, related tasks toward one outcome, such as when you drive a car, make breakfast, or attend to other simple routines. You can also background task very well, such as watch a movie while you exercise on the treadmill or listen to classical music while you cook. But when it comes to high-attention tasks — such as replying to emails while participating in a conference call, or texting while listening to an audio book — the best you can do is switch between tasks at rapid speeds.

In a University of California – Irvine study, researchers found it takes, on average, up to 20 minutes to refocus on an activity after being interrupted by email or another minor distraction. Each time you divert your attention from one task to another, you add to the time it would otherwise take you to complete it.

As your brain takes in new information on the second task, your attention becomes scattered and you lose your primary focus on the first task.  You then have to catch up on the information you missed or the thought process you abandoned to fully get back to the first task. Plus, attention residue from a prior unfinished task affects your performance on the new task.

Even if you consider yourself a super multitasker, you are still more productive when you attend to one thing, take a break, and then move to the next.

Reduce your brain power

Strong cognitive abilities allow you to be truly productive in creative projects or high-value assignments.  In Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School, molecular biologist John Medina explains how digital distractions bombard the brain’s prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for exercising willpower, goal-setting, decision-making, planning, making moral judgments, and carrying out other executive functions. He breaks down the process into four steps:

Step 1- shift alert. The prefrontal cortex acts a switchboard in alerting the brain to shift attention. Blood rushes to this region of the brain when you’re about to start working on task #1, such as writing a research paper.

Step 2 –  rule activation for task #1. This includes a two-part message. The first part is a search query to locate the neurons needed to carry out the task. The second part encodes a command to rouse the neurons, once found.

Step 3 – disengagement from task #1. While you’re working on task #1, there’s an interruption related to task #2, such as a text message from a friend. Because the rules for writing the research paper and replying to the text message are different, your brain has to disengage from task #1 before you can attend to task #2. Blood then rushes to the prefrontal cortex, alerting the brain to shift attention to the second task.

Step 4 – rule activation for task #2. The two-part message for rule activation to attend to task #2 is triggered. After the switch is completed, you may then address the second task.

Because these four steps have to occur in sequence each time you switch from one task to the next, your productivity dips when you give in to digital distractions.

Researchers found that persons who engage in heavier media-multitasking (i.e. toggle between many different websites, apps, programs or other digital stimuli) generally perform worse on cognitive control tasks and exhibit more socio-emotional difficulties. They tend to have less grey matter in certain parts of the brain, which serves to process information and is linked with intelligence, as well as thought and emotional control.

A neuroscientist at Stanford, Russel Poldrack, found that learning new information while being distracted causes the information to go the striatum (a region of the brain for storing new procedures and skills), but not to the hippocampus (a region of the brain for storing new facts and ideas, which makes information easier to recall or retrieve). In short, digital distractions negatively affect your memory.

Impair mental wellbeing

The constant stream of emails, instant messages, text messages, social media notifications, and online news produces information overload and mental fatigue. The fear of missing out (FOMO) keeps you hunched over your smartphone instead of attuned to the present.

Heavy media-multitasking, like switching from one app to the next, produces the stress hormone cortisol and the fight-or-flight hormone adrenaline.  One study found that smartphone overuse is linked to depression, anxiety and sleep problems.

In Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, Sherry Turkle discusses how technology affects your capacity for solitude and development of empathy, which are critical for forming and sustaining human relationships. But in this digital age, you’re more likely to use the train ride or bus commute to consume more information on your electronic device, rather than think or reflect quietly. Instead of enjoying a face-to-face conversation on your break, you clear out your email inbox and scroll through news feeds.

Expanding connections through social media is not the same as building deep relationships and honing real friendships, which help to reduce stress and anxiety.  When your mental wellbeing is compromised, it’s harder to commit to and work on challenging projects.

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Avoiding and minimizing online distractions are necessary to get the right things done, with better results and in the least amount of time. To gain control over your digital device usage and online media consumption,  read 5 quick tips on dealing with digital distractions.

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Photo by: Benedicto de Jesus

Multitasking: 6 Steps to Help You Quit

When you have numerous things to do, the best way to complete them in less time and with greater ease is to single-task. Focusing on one task at a time and diving deeply into each create better outcomes.chess

But competing demands, endless crises, constant interruptions, and ongoing distractions can push you into multitasking (i.e. attending to two or more tasks simultaneously).

Like any ingrained habit, multitasking can be hard to break.

Here are 6 steps to help you quit:

Step #1 – Accept your limits and the limits of multitasking.

You are a limited resource. Your energy and attention-span are limited. Your time is limited to 24 hours in a day. Multitasking has its limits, too.

The human brain allows you to juggle only simple, routine tasks that require little attention or use different channels of mental processing. So you might be able to listen to voicemail while you’re cleaning your desk, but not while you’re responding to email.

Multitasking gives the illusion that you’re attending to several active tasks at once. But the most you can really do is switch quickly from one task to the next (switch-tasking). Or perform a mindless and mundane task in the background while you attend to another (background tasking).

Multitasking doesn’t work for projects that demand high-quality attention, active engagement, complex thought, and creative decision-making.

Once you accept your limits and the drawbacks of multitasking, you will be more inclined to focus on one thing at a time.

Step #2 – Make deliberate choices about your priorities.

All things seem urgent and important when you fail to prioritize. External busyness involves having too much on your agenda. Internal busyness comes from worry and anxiety over unfinished tasks. Instead of trying to get it all done, focus on getting the right things done.

Keep a to-do list that is short, simple and specific. Pick the top three most important tasks that you want to or must complete in the day. Include one meaningful, creative task that will help you reach a long-term goal or make progress on a huge project.

Create a not-to-do list as well. Say no to meaningless tasks that you can avoid, delay or delegate. Shed the things that don’t serve you well and clash with your real to-dos. Don’t agree to every meeting request. Don’t check your email every five minutes. Don’t surf the Web first thing at work.

Step #3 – Block out time to work on your top priorities.

Do your most important tasks or your meaningful, creative tasks first, before the distractions and interruptions pile up. Or schedule appropriate time blocks such as 15, 30, 60 or 90 minutes, when your energy is at its peak, to do them. Designating specific times to focus on your highest priorities will help you screen out your lowest priorities.

Include buffers in your schedule for taking breaks, as well as for accommodating urgent requests or performing administrative duties. When the time block for your top priorities expires (or your energy drops and attention wanes), you can use the white space on your calendar to unwind, perform reactionary work or do routine tasks.

Step #4 – Respond skillfully to urgent requests.  

Reacting quickly to whatever arises at work can provide instant gratification. It feels good to avert a crisis, rescue others, and save the day. But constant firefighting carries long-term costs and consequences. It leaves you with less time to chip away at your important, high-value projects.

When an unexpected, last-minute request comes in, pause and take a breath. Ask yourself whether it’s truly an emergency that you must deal with, right then and there. If it is, get help or describe what else is on your plate. If it’s not, explain why you’re not the best person to handle it or negotiate the due date.

Remind your boss and supervisors about deadlines for other projects and how much time you need to get them done right. Have them make the tough choices and reprioritize for you if you lack the autonomy to do so.

Respond promptly to clients’ urgent requests, but don’t assume you must take immediate action. Describe the next steps and the proposed timeline for delivering the product or service that meets their needs. Demanding clients might just want to blow off steam or explore how much they can push you around. If they truly expect you to drop everything else to satisfy their demands in every situation, consider dropping them.

Step #5 – Set boundaries and push back on interruptions.

Your boss, supervisors, clients and colleagues have their own priorities and agendas, which often conflict with your own. Setting clear expectations and educating others about your work habits and responsibilities will help you minimize interruptions.

Establish boundaries and honor them to ensure that others respect your time. If you need to focus on completing a certain task, close your office door, tell your assistant to hold non-urgent calls, and send an email to key colleagues asking them to connect only on matters that can’t wait.

Push back on interruptions, particularly when you’re working on a major project or you’re up against a deadline. If a colleague stops by your office when you don’t have time to talk, have her send a meeting request or check back with you tomorrow.

Step #6 – Eliminate distractions.  

Emails, IMs, text messages, social media, telephone calls, wi-fi and the like create information overload that can easily distract you from your true priorities. While technology is omnipresent and hard to avoid, unplugging from it at designated times is within reach.

When you need to focus on an important project, silence your cell phone ringer, turn off your email notification, and unplug from the Internet. Respond to telephone messages and emails in batches, once every hour or so. You don’t need to reply to every single telephone call or email as it comes in. Log on to the Internet during a set period, instead of constantly surfing it throughout the day.

Clutter on your desk and in your workspace is also distracting. Keeping piles of files in your field of vision will trigger your multitasking habit. You will spend more time searching for documents, have more trouble focusing, and create stress looking at all the projects and tasks you have yet to do.

Strive to keep your desk clear, except for the one project or task you’re working on in that moment. Maintain a system that allows you to purge, archive and store your files in an organized way, rather than have them grow into a cluttered mess.

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By implementing these 6 steps, you can begin to kick the habit of multitasking and move toward single-tasking. You can start with step #1 or any step that is most practical for you.  They will help you become a focused, single-tasker who gets the right things done in less time and with greater ease.

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Photo by: alvarogd