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Vulnerable to Distraction? The Truth Is You Actively Seek It Out

Vulnerable to Distraction? The Truth Is You Actively Seek It Out

In a world of cell phones, Facebook, and an entire Internet’s worth of cat videos, it’s difficult to keep yourself from getting distracted.

If only we could rid ourselves of all these distractions in our lives! Surely we would be much more productive if we weren’t always just one click away from all the world’s gathered information. But what if it’s not the Internet’s (or any outside source for that matter) fault? What if it’s actually us who actively seek out our own distractions? Well, according to science, distracting ourselves and procrastinating has always been a part of human nature.

Distractions are addictive

We know that distractions are bad for us, and we want to be able to stay productive with the tasks at hand. Why on earth would we actively try to distract ourselves? Because it feels good, that’s why.

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Whenever we distract ourselves, be it through watching that hilarious new cat video, or filling out that useless, but oh-so-entertaining personality quiz, our brains release a dose of dopamine. Dopamine is called “the body’s feel good chemical”. Unfortunately for us, dopamine happens to be highly addictive, making us want to come back for more.

That’s why we tend to be so inclined to distract ourselves; we’re literally addicted to it. Every time we procrastinate, we experience a tiny dopamine “high”, making us feel slightly better from the distraction than we would from the daunting task we’re escaping from.

And the stress and anxiety we often experience as we return to work after a bout of procrastination doesn’t exactly help in our brains’ conviction that distraction = good, work = bad.

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Why we love distractions

But why does it feel so good to distract ourselves? Why would our brains be so eager to reward us for scrolling through our Facebook timeline?

The simple answer: fear.

Studies have found that whenever our brains experience a sensation of anxiety, stress, or panic (such as from an overwhelming task, or too much work to be done), our bodies interpret these signals to mean impending danger, and triggers a slight fear response.

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Although our fear instinct evolved to help us survive in the past, we still have the same reactions to fear today. The typical person attempts to do everything in their power to avoid it. So if we experience a mild fear when confronted with work, our natural reaction is to distract ourselves from it, thereby removing the fear from our lives.

So whenever we’re pressured to get to work, we gladly accept any distraction that comes our way. Because even a temporary refuge of “safety” feels better than tackling the fear head on.

Becoming less vulnerable to distraction

Of course, just because it’s in your nature to distract yourself doesn’t mean you can’t beat it. There are, in fact, many ways to improve your odds of defeating those annoying distractions. And while everyone is affected to different degrees by procrastination, there are some sure-fire ways to help just about anyone get through it.

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For instance, simply admitting to yourself that your tendency for distractions is based on fear has been shown to greatly reduce procrastination. This is because simply knowing what is at the root of your distractions, you become much better at fighting them. Similarly, taking steps to reduce the stressful emotions, and by extension, your fear, associated with work has been show to work equally well.

Of course simpler solutions, such as removing any distractions in the first place (blocking your internet access, throwing your phone in a river, etc.) can greatly help your chances as well. Although this requires you to have the discipline to actually carry out these actions in the first place!

But whether your distractions come in the form of mindless internet browsing or long-winded phone calls, the fact remains that you are most likely the one to blame for seeking out your own distractions in the first place.

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Featured photo credit: Sebastiaan ter Burg via flickr.com

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Last Updated on July 21, 2021

The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work)

The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work)

No matter how well you set up your todo list and calendar, you aren’t going to get things done unless you have a reliable way of reminding yourself to actually do them.

Anyone who’s spent an hour writing up the perfect grocery list only to realize at the store that they forgot to bring the list understands the importance of reminders.

Reminders of some sort or another are what turn a collection of paper goods or web services into what David Allen calls a “trusted system.”[1]

A lot of people resist getting better organized. No matter what kind of chaotic mess, their lives are on a day-to-day basis because they know themselves well enough to know that there’s after all that work they’ll probably forget to take their lists with them when it matters most.

Fortunately, there are ways to make sure we remember to check our lists — and to remember to do the things we need to do, whether they’re on a list or not.

In most cases, we need a lot of pushing at first, for example by making a reminder, but eventually we build up enough momentum that doing what needs doing becomes a habit — not an exception.

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From Creating Reminders to Building Habits

A habit is any act we engage in automatically without thinking about it.

For example, when you brush your teeth, you don’t have to think about every single step from start to finish; once you stagger up to the sink, habit takes over (and, really, habit got you to the sink in the first place) and you find yourself putting toothpaste on your toothbrush, putting the toothbrush in your mouth (and never your ear!), spitting, rinsing, and so on without any conscious effort at all.

This is a good thing because if you’re anything like me, you’re not even capable of conscious thought when you’re brushing your teeth.

The good news is you already have a whole set of productivity habits you’ve built up over the course of your life. The bad news is, a lot of them aren’t very good habits.

That quick game Frogger to “loosen you up” before you get working, that always ends up being 6 hours of Frogger –– that’s a habit. And as you know, habits like that can be hard to break — which is one of the reasons why habits are so important in the first place.

Once you’ve replaced an unproductive habit with a more productive one, the new habit will be just as hard to break as the old one was. Getting there, though, can be a chore!

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The old saw about anything you do for 21 days becoming a habit has been pretty much discredited, but there is a kernel of truth there — anything you do long enough becomes an ingrained behavior, a habit. Some people pick up habits quickly, others over a longer time span, but eventually, the behaviors become automatic.

Building productive habits, then, is a matter of repeating a desired behavior over a long enough period of time that you start doing it without thinking.

But how do you remember to do that? And what about the things that don’t need to be habits — the one-off events, like taking your paycheck stubs to your mortgage banker or making a particular phone call?

The trick to reminding yourself often enough for something to become a habit, or just that one time that you need to do something, is to interrupt yourself in some way in a way that triggers the desired behavior.

The Wonderful Thing About Triggers — Reminders

A trigger is anything that you put “in your way” to remind you to do something. The best triggers are related in some way to the behavior you want to produce.

For instance, if you want to remember to take something to work that you wouldn’t normally take, you might place it in front of the door so you have to pick it up to get out of your house.

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But anything that catches your attention and reminds you to do something can be a trigger. An alarm clock or kitchen timer is a perfect example — when the bell rings, you know to wake up or take the quiche out of the oven. (Hopefully you remember which trigger goes with which behavior!)

If you want to instill a habit, the thing to do is to place a trigger in your path to remind you to do whatever it is you’re trying to make into a habit — and keep it there until you realize that you’ve already done the thing it’s supposed to remind you of.

For instance, a post-it saying “count your calories” placed on the refrigerator door (or maybe on your favorite sugary snack itself)  can help you remember that you’re supposed to be cutting back — until one day you realize that you don’t need to be reminded anymore.

These triggers all require a lot of forethought, though — you have to remember that you need to remember something in the first place.

For a lot of tasks, the best reminder is one that’s completely automated — you set it up and then forget about it, trusting the trigger to pop up when you need it.

How to Make a Reminder Works for You

Computers and ubiquity of mobile Internet-connected devices make it possible to set up automatic triggers for just about anything.

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Desktop software like Outlook will pop up reminders on your desktop screen, and most online services go an extra step and send reminders via email or SMS text message — just the thing to keep you on track. Sandy, for example, just does automatic reminders.

Automated reminders can help you build habits — but it can also help you remember things that are too important to be trusted even to habit. Diabetics who need to take their insulin, HIV patients whose medication must be taken at an exact time in a precise order, phone calls that have to be made exactly on time, and other crucial events require triggers even when the habit is already in place.

My advice is to set reminders for just about everything — have them sent to your mobile phone in some way (either through a built-in calendar or an online service that sends updates) so you never have to think about it — and never have to worry about forgetting.

Your weekly review is a good time to enter new reminders for the coming weeks or months. I simply don’t want to think about what I’m supposed to be doing; I want to be reminded so I can think just about actually doing it.

I tend to use my calendar for reminders, mostly, though I do like Sandy quite a bit.

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Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

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Reference

[1] Getting Things Done: Trusted System

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