Introduction – Focus and Concentration
According to research by the National Center for Biotechnology Information of the National Library of Medicine, the average attention span in the year 2000 was 12 seconds. By 2015, it had shrunk to 8.25.
We often joke about how electronic devices and instant internet gratification have shortened our attention spans to that of small furry mammals, but what the above statistic shows is that this is no joke at all. We are increasingly logging in to our social media accounts and then forgetting what it was we were going to do there.
Why is this happening? First, ask anyone you meet today how they’re doing, and they’re likely to respond with, “I’m busy.” In fact, they may only be able to get out one word: “Busy.” Their busy schedule may not allow for more than two syllables.
“Busy” is considered a good thing. After all, it means you’re being productive. If you’re busy, it means work is going well, you’re earning money, your life is rich and full of things, you have a schedule full of appointments and activities with people important to you, and you’re generally getting ahead in the world.
Or it means that the precious time of your life is getting squeezed to death by meaningless distractions that are outside of your control.
Another reason this is happening is the abundance of technology and the rate of information and content consumption we face today. If you own a smartphone, you surely understand technology’s power to distract. We now have 24-hour access to breaking news and mindless entertainment. And with all of the bleeping alerts and notifications, you can guarantee that you won’t miss a single second of it.
This access to information is a miracle of the modern age. It’s not a bad thing. But it opens the door to mindless distractions that weigh you down and keep you from dealing with more important things.
The Pros and Cons of Digital Distraction
Aside from our miniscule attention span, there are real risks and worries about the distraction bombardment of daily life. There is some evidence that suggests that heavy internet use, video games, and social media impact the brain in negative ways. Studies suggest that this technology interferes with the brain’s natural functions and can even alter the brain, impacting our ability to read, reason, and relate to other people.
Already, the information glut is impacting the workplace negatively. For example, you might text while talking to friends or check social media during a meeting. Some organizations, as a result, have banned laptops, mobile phones and other devices during work or certain parts of the workday.
On the other hand, there is evidence to suggest that shortened attention spans may make us smarter, enabling us to better multi-task, collaborate and create.
It’s not your fault that you can no longer listen to more than ten seconds of a YouTube video before checking out the suggested videos on the sidebar. We used to turn things off, but now we live in a world of 24-hour mindless entertainment and breaking news.
Whether you’re drowning in a sea of distractions or you’re learning to turn distractions into opportunities for getting things done, the important thing is to identify and control your distractors.
Where is the Noise Coming From?
What are your main distractions? It may seem simple enough to identify them and they’re usually related to technology. But for the purposes of really uncovering the distractors that hound you, we’ll need to make a slightly deeper analysis. In addition, not all distractions are of a technological nature. Let’s take a broader view.
Research into distractions, which refers to them as “noise,” identifies two broad categories – external inference and internal interference.
External noise comes from outside. There are two types:
Distractions. This is noise that’s irrelevant to what you’re doing right now. An example would be overhearing people talking while you’re sitting at your desk. These are distractions that should be ignored.
Interruptions. An interruption happens when you’re working on a primary goal but also engaging in a secondary goal at the same time. An interruption can be either something that actually disrupts your work or it could be multi-tasking. An example of an interruption is when you’re responding to email during a meeting. Your focus should be solely on the meeting and the business at hand.
Internal interference refers to the noise that comes from within. These are not distractions that come from other people or your environment, but your own mind and will.
Intrusions. An intrusion happens when unwanted or distracting thoughts enter your head. While you’re trying to focus on something, your mind wanders.
Diversions. A diversion is, like an interruption, a type of multi-tasking. But here, you’re mentally engaged in two different things at the same time. For example, you’re listening to a presentation but planning another work task while listening.
Distractions can be annoying but they can also hurt productivity in a significant way. One report shows that 55% of people are frequently distracted throughout their workday. The report found that 25% of people were completely unproductive 7 or more hours per week. If you do the math, this translates to 2.3 days of lost productivity per employee per month.
What are these distractions that are costing us so much productivity? They include:
External – Colleagues carrying on small talk, music, people stopping by your disk to say hello or invite you for coffee, noise, and instant messaging.
Work – High volume or increases in email, responding to pressing emails (which prevents you from getting work done), last minute requests, interruptions from clients, disorganized desks or workspaces and needless phone calls.
Internal – Mind wandering, multi-tasking, planning future tasks while performing present ones.
Personal – Social media, personal email, internet surfing, personal phone calls, personal family issues, text messages, fatigue.
As you can see from the examples above, not all distractions are social media notifications or phone calls. Things like having a messy desk or poor discipline (letting your mind wander) can be just as insidious as constant email notifications.
It’s impossible to keep every distraction from affecting you. But with some conscious effort and simple changes, you can identify the worst distractions and get them under control.