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The Ugly Truth About the Things That Distract Us Every Day

The Ugly Truth About the Things That Distract Us Every Day
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Employees waste about 60 hours per month — or roughly 759 hours per year — on workplace distractions such as chatty colleagues coming into your office, unnecessary phone calls, instant message and email notifications that probably didn’t need to be answered, and more.[1] Our default condition as humans is often to respond to “push,” i.e. embrace a distraction without even realizing we’re doing it.[2]

Checking email when it pings or turning a five-minute conversation with a chatty colleague into a 35-minute one are obvious distractions. There are also hidden distractions throughout our daily lives: suddenly gazing out the window, absent-mindedly checking Facebook, online shopping, and staring at your computer but not doing anything. We are often hard-wired to pursue instant gratification, and simultaneously lack the motivation to stay focused.

Distractions keep us busy, but not productive

The end result of all these distractions is one of the great productivity challenges of our time: the confusion of “busy” and “productive.” Those words do not mean the same thing. It’s a giant lie. When you consistently give into distractions, you are only doing repetitive work that enables the operation of a task.

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This is what many workers actually don’t realize they’re doing for the bulk of a year. They’re seemingly busy but aren’t actually achieving anything. You arrive at work and start checking emails. You respond. Next thing you know, it’s 12 noon — almost lunch — and all you’ve done is answering emails. In the afternoon, you update documents. When you leave work, you haven’t really done anything big. Your day was all shallow work. You might not even realize it because you did get some things done. In fact, 7.5 out of every 10 minutes of an employee’s day is spent on these low-value tasks.[3]

Some call this “checking boxes,” but another term for it is “shallow work.” This was termed by author and Georgetown professor Cal Newport in his book Deep WorkIn shallow work, because it’s so task-driven and often immediate (putting out fires), no real improvements are made, and no big goals or breakthroughs can truly be attained. Imagine responding to emails and formatting documents for an entire calendar year, you would not feel fulfilled.

Regain your control on distractions

1. Block out uncontrollable distractions

This can be done with “time blocking,” which some also call “uninterrupted work time.”[4] Basecamp founder Jason Fried has called four hours of uninterrupted work “the greatest gift someone can give themselves.”[5]

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To execute this, simply block out time on your own office calendar — maybe a few hours Monday morning to set the tone of the week, a few hours on Wednesday to work on long-term projects, and a few hours on Friday to plan for the next week. People will often see the time, assume you are in another meeting, and not try to get access to you during those blocks unless it’s urgent. If you can successfully block out a few hours a couple of times per week, you can ultimately regain 150 hours/month of productivity.[6]

Be the CEO of your own time. You can’t always be available to everyone at that second, because you’ll run in circles on different projects and burn out.

2. Watch out for your work pattern

Once you have better control of your time, you need to find a way to reduce your internal distractions. One approach is to keep a scoreboard. Track your time and see what’s spent on shallow projects and what’s spent on deeper, strategic work.

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If you work 50 hours/week and see that only 2 hours are spent strategically, the scoreboard should indicate to you that a change is necessary. You will never completely eliminate shallow work, no. Some things just need to get done. But you need to have a balance that leans toward deeper work.

3. Use small wins to stay motivated

Your brain needs to win. And it needs to win often. When you don’t feel excited about what you do, your mind shifts its focus. The book, The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work tells that tracking and recognizing efforts of small, daily achievements can enhance workers motivation and increase positive emotions. Any accomplishment, no matter how small, activates the reward circuitry of our brains. When you feel that what you do has values, you will not lose your motivation so easily.

Staying focus in a distracted world

The world is an extremely distracted place right now. In a given minute on Facebook, 236,000 statuses and 136,000 photos are posted.[7] The amount of distraction available to us is very large, and probably growing. Because of decreased attention spans, we focus only about six hours per week.[8] That’s less than at any other time in human history we’ve studied.

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If you’re getting more done in less time and focusing on the right priorities, you would be a competitive advantage for your career and personal development. It’s very hard to advance professionally if you’re seen as a drone worker — one that answers emails and updates spreadsheets. Those are cogs in the machine. While necessary, no one thinks of them as irreplaceable. By getting rid of distractions, increases the quality of your work, your own personal motivation, your focus, and your career aspects. You will move towards doing more meaningful works that are more strategic and essential to the company’s future growth.

If you see the benefits of making the transition away from task-driven, repetitive, shallow work to a more focused work in your career, I will show you how to transit from shallow work to deep work in my next article. Come on back for that.

Featured photo credit: Jeannie Phan via jeanniephan.com

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Reference

More by this author

Leon Ho

Founder & CEO of Lifehack

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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)
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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.

More on Building Habits

Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

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Reference

[1] Getting Things Done: Trusted System

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