Search other articles
Letting go of distractions
What distracts you the most from getting your work done? Do you feel a pull to check your email, texts or social media? Do you get an inclination to check the news or take care of a personal task? Or do you try to “multitask,” believing it will help you accomplish more?
How can we regain our focus in a world intent on breaking it? We spoke with Dominique Del Chiaro, Stanford Health Improvement Program (HIP) Healthy Living senior manager and instructor for HIP’s “Keys to Personal Productivity” class, on why it’s easy to get distracted, why multitasking doesn’t work, and how we can better focus on our work.
“Attention is the most important commodity in today’s world, and your attention is within your realm of control. Control your attention, control your life.1”
Multitasking is better defined as task switching — which our brains aren’t capable of handling well.
When the demands of home and work are high, which has increased for many since shelter-in-place, you may feel pressured to do more and accomplish tasks quickly. Multitasking is appealing because you feel you can do two or more things at once and be more productive. And we tend to believe that multitasking makes us better workers.
However, research2 shows that when you multitask between tasks that require cognitive effort, you’re not doing two things at once. Instead, you are rapidly switching between tasks, which our brains aren’t able to handle well. Studies3 have determined that workers who task switch take 50% more time to complete a task and are 40% less productive2 and less attentive to what we are actually doing.4 Additionally, our technology devices are designed to grab our attention, further distracting us from the task we are trying to complete.
Further research2,4 shows that multitasking makes us more prone to making mistakes, more likely to miss important information and cues, and less likely to retain information in working memory, which impairs our problem solving and creativity.
“We’re evolving from that information stage where we used to have to memorize because you didn’t have information at your fingertips. But we still have that mentality that we’re going to forget something, so we feel pressure to act immediately, which is where multitasking comes in — because it helps relieve the pressure that we have so much to do and not enough time.”
Technology contributes to an inability to focus.
Multimedia multitasking, such as switching between application windows or devices, impairs our memory and makes it difficult to filter relevant and irrelevant information, which can all harm the quality of our work.
Common technology distractions include:
- Leaving your email open all day and constantly receiving notifications
- Routinely having many application windows open on your monitor
- Browsing for information when you’re working on a difficult project
- Checking your smartphone
Technology can also be addicting. We get bursts of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that contributes to feelings of happiness and well-being, when we get account or app notifications, making us even more likely to check our devices when we should be focusing on another task.
Internal distractions can prompt you to avoid your work.
If you’re not focusing on your work, you may have anxiety about the difficulty of the task at hand or about incomplete tasks you’re not getting to currently. This anxiety may lead you to search for something to make you feel more comfortable and relieve your anxiety — so you may look for something new or unrelated to the task at hand to distract you.
You may also have a fear of missing out on something fundamentally important that others are experiencing, which is a fear that is exacerbated by the immediacy of social media and is a phenomena that can affect our self-esteem and ability to focus.
“We’re looking for an out from the perceived discomfort of a challenging or tedious task.”
Don’t be a slave to your devices. Set specific times to check your email or phone and control the information that you receive.
More than 70% of smartphone users5 check their phones once an hour or more, and employees spend an average of three hours a day checking work email.6 Technology not only divides our attention, but it overstimulates us and we get information overload, interfering with our cognitive functioning and decreasing our productivity and quality of work.7
“There are three places to practice controlling your attention: information, technology and behavior.”
Del Chiaro says you shouldn’t make email the first thing you do in the morning or your email becomes your to-do list. She recommends setting specific times to check your email or phone and limit checking to two or three times a day, unless your job requires you to answer email throughout the day. She advises asking people to keep the information in emails short, bold and important; and to not include individuals on your email threads where their input is not needed. Finally, she points out that you can use an out-of-office message when you’re planning to work on a project that will take more than two hours.
She cautions that the way you choose to set boundaries should make sense for your workflow and that you may have to take baby steps to get to where you want to be.
Another important tip is to not treat email like a verbal conversation. When an email requires a back-and-forth dialogue, it is more efficient to pick up the phone for a quick call rather than monitor an email thread throughout the day.
“I tell my team to text me if they need me for something important or need a quick answer. Some emails contain too much information and the imperative response is lost in drawn-out dialogue. As a communication tool, email was originally designed to be more like a memo than a report. Longer communications can be attached as a Word Document.”
Aim to stay on task for 20 to 30 minutes.
Del Chiaro recommends 20 to 30 minutes as a good length of time to strive to stay focused on one task at a time. You may need to start with a shorter length of time if you’re easily distracted.
“If you’ve been multitasking, you may have to retrain yourself to single task. It can be hard in the beginning because you feel the pull to check your email, browse the internet or start a new task.”
She recommends preparing what you need before you start your task and to minimize distractions in your area. For example, make a to-do list, silence your email notifications and close out tabs in your internet browser and other open application windows. If you’re able, you should put your phone in another room, as research8 shows that the mere presence of your phone near you — even if it’s on silent — reduces your cognitive capacity. If you need to keep your phone by you, then put it on airplane mode.
Set a timer when you’re ready to start. After the 20 to 30 minutes are up, you should celebrate by taking a mini-break. Del Chiaro recommends choosing something where there is a clear delineation from work, such as getting a glass of water or taking a short walk.
“I like to put on a song and dance when I hit the 30-minute mark.”
Eventually you want to work up to a 50-minute single task session to be productive with projects. Del Chiaro advises scheduling an hour on your calendar to reserve the time and using the last 10 minutes as a mini-break.
If you feel overwhelmed, do a brain dump or take a break.
You may feel overwhelmed and not sure where to begin. If so, start with a brain dump. Make a list of all the things you feel like you have to do, categorize the items that go together, and then prioritize what is on your list.
If you feel frustrated or stuck while working, then you’re likely not being productive. Short breaks can help you recharge and come up with creative ideas and solutions in your work. Del Chiaro says that body movement is good to help the mind reset. You don’t have to do an aerobics class; it can be a simple activity that only takes a few minutes, such as stretching, a short walk, skipping, jumping jacks, squats — or her favorite, busting out a favorite dance move.
Discipline is the highest form of self-care — and it’s empowering.
For a lot of people, including Del Chiaro, discipline does not come easy. She reframes it as self-care to encourage herself to make choices that may be uncomfortable in the moment, but that will have significant long-term improvements for her life.
She says it’s a good idea to have a mindfulness practice, whether a guided meditation or self-meditation practice, which helps refocus your mind. Research9 shows that mindfulness at work can improve your focus, attention and ability to work under stress. Just 10 minutes of mindfulness meditation can help you regain attention and feel calm.
Deep breathing can help your mind reset. Start by gently stretching your neck and then relaxing your body in a comfortable position. If it’s difficult to relax the body, try tensing and then relaxing your arms, legs or glutes. Then, perform four-seven-eight triangular breathing for two to three minutes. To complete, breathe in for four seconds, hold for seven seconds, and exhale through your mouth for eight seconds.
“After deep breathing, guide your mind to repeat a word or short phrase that brings you a sense of well-being. Something like, ‘I am calm and relaxed’ or ‘Peace is within me.’ When other thoughts try to distract your mind, gently go back to the word or phrase. Even five to seven minutes can help to destress and reduce anxiety. It’s simple and, if you practice, it works!”
Stanford offers several mindfulness resources, such as Healthy Living classes in contemplative practices and stress and resiliency. You can also purchase the Headspace app, which is offered at a special rate through Healthy Living.
“When you institute attention management into your life, you feel freedom and empowerment. You are claiming your time for how you want to do your job.”
By Katie Shumake
- Thomas, MN. Attention management: How to create success and gain productivity. Simple Truths, Naperville, IL. 2019.
- Rubinstein JS, Meyer DE, Evans JE. Executive control of cognitive processes in task switching. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance. 2001;27(4):763–797.
- Gendreau, R. (2007). The new techno culture in the workplace and at home. Journal of American Academy of Business, Cambridge, 11(2), 191-196.
- Uncapher MR, Wagner AD. Minds and brains of media multitaskers: Current findings and future directions. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA. 2018;115(4):9889-9896.
- Gallup. Most U.S. smartphone owners check phone at least hourly. 2015.
- CMO by Adobe. If you think email is dead, think again. 2019.
- American Psychological Association. Multitasking: Switching costs. 2006.
- Ward AF, Duke K., Gneezy A, Bos MW. Brain drain: The mere presence of one’s own smartphone reduces available cognitive capacity. Journal of the Association for Consumer Research. 2017;2(2):140-154.
- Levy, MD, Wobbrock, JO, Kazniak, AW, Ostergren. The effects of mindfulness meditation training on multitasking in a high-stress environment. 2012. http://faculty.washington.edu/wobbrock/pubs/gi-12.02.pdf