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Last Updated on March 2, 2018

The Ugly Truth About the Things That Distract Us Every Day

The Ugly Truth About the Things That Distract Us Every Day

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

Reference

More by this author

Leon Ho

Founder & CEO of Lifehack

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How to Fight Information Overload

How to Fight Information Overload

Information overload is a creature that has been growing on the Internet’s back since its beginnings. The bigger the Internet gets, the more information there is. The more quality information we see, the more we want to consume it. The more we want to consume it, the more overloaded we feel.

This has to stop somewhere. And it can.

As the year comes to a close, there’s no time like the present to make the overloading stop.

What you need to do is focus on these 4 steps:

  1. Set your goals.
  2. Decide whether you really need the information.
  3. Consume only the minimal effective dose.
  4. Don’t procrastinate by consuming too much information.

But before I explain exactly what I mean, let’s discuss information overload in general.

The Nature of the Problem

The sole fact that there’s more and more information published online every single day is not the actual problem. Only the quality information becomes the problem. This sounds kind of strange…but bear with me.

When we see some half-baked blog post we don’t even consider reading it, we just skip to the next thing. But when we see something truly interesting — maybe even epic — we want to consume it. We even feel like we have to consume it. And that’s the real problem.

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No matter what topic we’re interested in, there are always hundreds of quality blogs publishing entries every single day (or every other day). Not to mention all the forums, message boards, social news sites, and so on. The amount of epic content on the Internet these days is so big that it’s virtually impossible for us to digest it all. But we try anyway.

That’s when we feel overloaded. If you’re not careful, one day you’ll find yourself reading the 15th blog post in a row on some nice WordPress tweaking techniques because you feel that for some reason, “you need to know this.”

Information overload is a plague. There’s no vaccine, there’s no cure. The only thing you have is self-control. Luckily, you’re not on your own. There are some tips you can follow to protect yourself from information overload and, ultimately, fight it. But first…

Why information overload is bad

It stops you from taking action. That’s the biggest problem here. When you try to consume more and more information every day, you start to notice that even though you’ve been reading tons of articles, watching tons of videos and listening to tons of podcasts, the stream of incoming information seems to be infinite.

Therefore, you convince yourself that you need to be on a constant lookout for new information if you want to be able to accomplish anything in your life, work and/or passion. The final result is that you are consuming way too much information, and taking way too little action because you don’t have enough time for it.

The belief that you need to be on this constant lookout for information is just not true.

You don’t need every piece of advice possible to live your life, do your work, or enjoy your passion.

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So how to recognize the portion of information that you really need? Start with your goals.

1. Set your goals

If you don’t have your goals put in place you’ll be just running around grabbing every possible advice and thinking that it’s “just what you’ve been looking for.”

Setting goals is a much more profound task than just a way to get rid of information overload. Now by “goals” I don’t mean things like “get rich, have kids, and live a good life”. I mean something much more within your immediate grasp. Something that can be achieved in the near future — like within a month (or a year) at most.

Basically, something that you want to attract to your life, and you already have some plan on how you’re going to make it happen. So no hopes and dreams, just actionable, precise goals.

Then once you have your goals, they become a set of strategies and tactics you need to act upon.

2. What to do when facing new information

Once you have your goals, plans, strategies and tasks you can use them to decide what information is really crucial.

First of all, if the information you’re about to read has nothing to do with your current goals and plans then skip it. You don’t need it.

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If it does then it’s time for another question. Will you be able to put this information into action immediately? Does it have the potential to maybe alter your nearest actions/tasks? Or is it so incredible that you absolutely need to take action on it right away? If the information is not actionable in a day or two (!) then skip it. (You’ll forget about it anyway.)

And that’s basically it. Digest only what can be used immediately. If you have a task that you need to do, consume only the information necessary for getting this one task done, nothing more.

You need to be focused in order to have clear judgment, and be able to decide whether some piece of information is mandatory or redundant. Self-control comes handy too … it’s quite easy to convince yourself that you really need something just because of poor self-control. Try to fight this temptation, and be as ruthless about it as possible – if the information is not matching your goals and plans, and you can’t take action on it in the near future then SKIP IT.

3. Minimal Effective Dose

There’s a thing called the MED – Minimal Effective Dose. I was first introduced to this idea by Tim Ferriss. In his book The 4-Hour Body,Tim illustrates the minimal effective dose by talking about medical drugs. Everybody knows that every pill has a MED, and after that specific dose no other positive effects occur, only some negative side effects if you overdose big.

Consuming information is somewhat similar. You need just a precise amount of it to help you to achieve your goals and put your plans into life. Everything more than that amount won’t improve your results any further. And if you try to consume too much of it, it will eventually stop you from taking any action altogether.

4. Don’t procrastinate by consuming more information

Probably one of the most common causes of consuming ridiculous amounts of information is the need to procrastinate. By reading yet another article we often feel that we are indeed working, and that we’re doing something good – we’re learning, which in result will make us a more complete and educated person.

This is just self-deception. The truth is we’re simply procrastinating. We don’t feel like doing what really needs to be done – the important stuff – so instead we find something else, and convince ourselves that “that thing” is equally important. Which is just not true.

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Don’t consume information just for the sake of it. It gets you nowhere.

In Closing

As you can see, information overload can be a real problem and it can have a sever impact on your productivity and overall performance. I know I have had my share of problems with it (and probably still have from time to time). But creating this simple set of rules helps me to fight it, and to keep my lizard brain from taking over. I hope it helps you too, especially as we head into a new year with a new chance at setting ourselves up for success.

Feel free to shoot me a comment below and share your own story of fighting information overload. What are you doing to keep it from sabotaging your life?

(Photo credit: Businessman with a Lot of Discarded Paper via Shutterstock)

Featured photo credit: Pexels via pexels.com

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