We live in an age of endless distractions and interruptions.
You have probably heard about research linking the frequent use of digital devices to reduced happiness, difficulty focussing, and reduced cognitive performance and productivity.
Most likely you also know that the urge to check your emails or digital media is akin to other types of behavioural addiction. Similar to a shopping or gambling addiction, each time you engage with your devices a small shot of dopamine is released in various regions of your brain. It keeps you coming back again and again, even when you know that this is not in your best interest.
So, can you overcome your addiction to distraction and focus on things that really matter to you?
Yes. As an expert on resilience, mindfulness and well-being, I work with people to change habitual patterns of behaviour.
Here are my suggestions for some powerful inner shifts that you can utilise to radically enhance your productivity, focus and clarity.
Shift 1: Chain yourself to the smartphone pole
Remember the ancient Greek mythology and adventures of Odysseus?
Odysseus is well aware, that as his ship gets close to the Sirens, their seductive call will overwhelm his rational capacities and their intoxicating song will make him forget his best interests and jump to his death. So, wisely, before getting into reach of the Sirens, he gets his crew chain him to the ship mast.
Our digital devices are Sirens of our modern age. They are utterly addictive and intoxicating and this means that we simply can’t trust ourselves to make rational and good decisions when we are in the presence of their temptation. Just like our Greek hero, we better set strict limits around how to use these appliances before we are exposed to their lures.
Some hands-on strategies to put this into action are:
Deleting any addictive apps off your devices (if that appears too radical, move them off the main screen or into a folder - out of sight, out of mind).
Monitor your usage patterns and break the habit by first introducing a small pattern change:
For example, if you usually check emails and digital platforms as soon as you wake up – try to wait until say 10 am instead. This dislodges the grip that your habit has on you. You are taking back control.
Set your device on “grey scale” – so you are not drawn to the colourful pictures and graphics.
When you are working, and at least 2 hours before bedtime switch your phone “airplane mode” or “do not disturb” to eliminate incoming distractions.
During evenings and weekends unplug your Wi-Fi router.
Downgrade to a smaller phone with less functionality.
Shift 2: Become aware of the distraction attraction
How often do you feel the need to check your emails or phone? When specifically does it happen? Say for example, you have a busy day filled with back-to-back meetings, projects and pressing deadlines. Then, unexpectedly, you have a short opening in your day and without even thinking about it, you take your phone and are diving into Facebook, news, emails or other distractions.
This impulsive behaviour is more harmful still when you are at home. It may cause you to answer your children’s wish to play by responding, “In just a minute,” while staring at our device, or causing you to interject a conversation with a friend, a meal or an important meeting with intermittent surreptitious glances at our device.
The science and practice of mindfulness teaches us that the best response to this desire is to simply become aware. When you feel the impulse to check your email, your Facebook account, the stock price or text message, simply become aware of the experience of craving without acting on it. Notice what the feeling is like. Notice which thoughts arise.
Then you can make a considered choice as to whether or not to indulge the urge. Even if you do still end up with your Email, Facebook or Instagram, this micro-moment of awareness changes everything. It takes you out of autopilot-mode and gives you back the ability to choose how spend your time and energy.
Shift 3: Make Flow-time
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi used the term “flow” to describe a state of complete absorption in the task at hand. Flow is the antidote to distraction and trains your mind, as well as creates new neural connections. It is the state we encounter from time to time where our sense of self and time dissolves, where we get more done in a matter of hours than we might ordinarily accomplish in several days. Studies show that this state is available to everyone - no matter your IQ, status or occupation.
But here’s the catch. Flow requires a space free from interruptions and distraction. Here are a few tips that help to create spaces in your day for full engagement:
Schedule “flow-state blocks” on your calendar. They won’t just happen by themselves. Tell everyone, you cannot be interrupted and switch everything off you don’t need for the flow-work.
Change your work location to being at home, at a quiet coffee shop or in another environment free from interruptions during these times.
Switch your device to “airplane mode” or voicemail.
Close your email program and internet browser.
Shift 4: Do nothing
We live in an age were doing has become the ultimate virtue. People brag about how busy they are and how much they work and do. We design our days to fill all the gaps and spaces.
This has caused us to eliminate any idle moments – and allow time for simply being. Science, however, has shown that our body-minds are not designed for this “permanently powered-on” state.
To be happier, more focused and productive we need to have downtime, time to pause, breathe, gaze at the view and do NOTHING.
Learn to experience again what happens when you plan a few blocks of time each day for doing nothing. Allow yourself to experience a few moments where you simply release yourself from the expectation of doing anything at all.
You could take a walk, simply breathe or take in the view. Take time well before you go to bed to reflect on your day so you can fall asleep easily at night, having done your “processing”. Idle moments allow you to come back to the present. They allow you glimpses of gratitude, and remind you of the importance of savouring and enjoying this fragile life - it could go away at any moment.
I am not saying implementing these shifts is going to be easy. It will require resisting your automatic habits of digital distraction. Yet the reward will be great. In a world where disruption and distraction has become the culture, your ability to skilfully resist these forces and manage your attention and energy will give you greater resilience and focus, and the ultimate competitive edge.