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Distractions! A bird chirping will steal your attention one minute, and then something else happens and you no longer hear it. Below, Cheryl Bond explains what actually distracts us and why.
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It’s always been a challenge to prevent distractions while working, but as technology advanced over the past 20 years, interruptions spun out of control. An average workday involves 50-60 interruptions and most are unimportant. Combine this with the “new normal” of back-to-back virtual meetings and you have a workforce that spends significantly less time in a productive “flow” state and significantly more time feeling stressed and out of control. (For more information on the research see the Harvard Business Review, https://hbr.org/2019/12/10-quick-tips-for-avoiding-distractions-at-work).
Advice on keeping distractions at bay is plentiful, but these tips and techniques mostly look like good ideas for other people. That’s how it works – without a personal realization, even the best advice in the world is nearly impossible to implement. When you forget where your feelings and experience come from, you can become your own worst enemy – forgetting who is having the thinking in the first place. More importantly, you forget the power of your mind to bring you new thoughts at any time.
Let’s look at some of this well- intentioned advice from an understanding of how the mind works.
Step Back from Urgency — Many of my clients work in biotech. They’re busy creating vaccines, battling cancer and solving the problems of other serious illnesses. One of them recently asked “what if warp speed is the new normal?” During the pandemic, many organizations developed an overarching sense of urgency as a cornerstone of their everyday culture.
Culture is simply a collection of shared beliefs.
Luckily, beliefs are made of thought. This is good news – it means you don’t have to hop on the urgency bandwagon. When you realize that your perspective on work is created from thought and the capacity to think differently exists in your mind, you might see options you haven’t yet considered.
Responding to IMs, Group Chats, and Emails – Nothing can snap you out of flow state like the ping of a new IM, text, or email. Even if you don’t stop to reply, your focus suffers a bit. So what happens when that interruption occurs frequently? Common advice recommends closing the chat box, turning off audible signals, and setting dedicated windows for responding. But again, those tips look possible for other people, not you. Of course, there are real emergencies but not every interruption has to be a distraction. When you realize you don’t have to pay attention to every thought or distraction that bubbles up, you gain mental clarity. An insight is possible and could bring you a strategy that works for you.
Taking Control of Your Calendar – In one of my very first jobs I spent over half of my day managing the calendar of a busy executive using the telephone and a paper calendar notebook. Today’s calendar apps should have made this process more efficient. So why do my clients complain about being triple booked in meetings all day long with no time to reflect or creatively solve problems? Again, we’re our own worst enemies. Once we believe (think) that we don’t control our calendars, we live with the stress and frustration that thinking creates. As we’re sucked into the vortex of frustration and stress, we have a harder time seeing alternatives.
So what’s the key to being able to control the pace of the work day and experience more pockets of the creative and satisfying flow state?
It’s knowing that mental clarity and focus are not elusive states experienced by some lucky people. All minds work the same way. Your mind is governed by forces (principles) that explain why distractions can upset your flow and rob you of your time. Whatever you think is going to determine your experience in the moment.
However, these forces within your mind also make it possible to see what your thinking is doing and to have new thinking. When you understand this, your mind settles down naturally and you don’t pay attention to every thought that floats through. Thoughts can come, they can go. Understanding that you think allows you to decide which ones deserve your attention.