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How to Cope with More of Those Pesky Distractions

How to Cope with More of Those Pesky Distractions

Using “concentric defenses” to keep off interruptions you can’t avoid in other ways
Bamburgh Castle, England

Most of the articles you read about dealing with time- and attention-wasting distractions concentrate on avoiding them altogether (shutting yourself away, better organization, better time allocation) or not adding to their number yourself (minimizing responding to e-mails and IMs, filtering phone calls, avoiding gossiping).

This is fine. But what about those that simply get through such defenses: the phone calls you can’t avoid, the personal visits to your desk, the calls from your boss? Are there any ways to deal with those and still keep your mind focused on what you need to be doing?

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There are; and that’s the subject of this article.

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What are “concentric defenses?”
The approach I’m advocating is based on the idea of “concentric defenses:” an idea first used by builders of medieval castles. The concept is simple: you start with an outer defense — maybe a ditch or moat — to try to prevent attackers ever reaching you. If that fails, they are faced with high walls and guard towers. Capture those and you find another set of walls and towers inside them. In effect, the attacker has to start all over again.

Drawing of concentric castle

Most castles of this type had maybe three lines of defense, including the moat. Some had four, with a final tower or “keep” inside the second set of walls. I’m suggesting six progressive lines of defense against distractions and interruptions, so you can deal with everything from the thoughtless colleague to the boss who demands that you drop everything else and attention to her need — now!

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The six concentric defenses against distractions and interruptions

Here they are. I’m going to assume that you’ve already tried the conventional means of avoid the distractions (noted above) and it’s either broken through or wasn’t going to be stopped by those anyway:

  • The first defense is the simplest: simply ignore the distraction altogether. This won’t work with a personal caller, but it can be done with phone calls and e-mails — so long as you are sure who’s calling. Ignore the interruption until you’re ready to deal with it — which may be never.
  • Your second line of defense should be to note down the subject of the interruption — so you can be sure of dealing with it later — then pay it no further attention. This works well with e-mail requests for data or simple phone calls. Even a few personal visits can be handled this way, so long as the visitor doesn’t expect an extended conversation. Make sure you do get back to it and supply what was asked for. That way, people will trust the process in future and not expect anything else to make them feel certain that you’ve heard.
  • The third line is to deal with those who need to know, clearly, that you’ve heard them and will respond in due course. I call this “acknowledge, note, repeat, and shelve.” Acknowledge the request; make sure they see you note it down (or assure them that you’re doing so); repeat back, if necessary; then shelve. The same proviso applies as with the previous defense: you must prove that you will deal with whatever they wanted — only later, when it suits your schedule.
  • That still won’t be enough for some people, who suspect you’re fobbing them off and will simply ignore what they want; or that “when it suits you” may turn out to be some indefinite time, far in the future, when the response will be useless anyway. For that, use the fourth defense line: “acknowledge, schedule, repeat with scheduled time, and shelve.” You acknowledge the request, set a definite time to deal with it, repeat the time to show you’re committed to it, then shelve the request until then. This works very well with boss-generated requests of a non-urgent nature.
  • By now we’re down to those interrupters who simply won’t accept a promise to deal with the need later. For them, I suggest the fifth line: “Acknowledge, do the minimum, schedule the rest, then shelve and get on.” You acknowledge what they want, do the absolute minimum you can to deal with it right away (to demonstrate that you really will give them what they want), set a firm schedule to complete the job, and shelve it until then. You’ve suffered some interruption, but probably not enough to set you back seriously with what you were doing. This should be your automatic defense for bosses who demand to see action on your part, even when the request is not really that urgent.
  • The final, sixth line of defense is the one you should use with the boss who won’t be satisfied with anything less than instant action on your part, however much that interferes with your other work. In such cases, you need to reverse one of the earlier defenses: you acknowledge the request, note down carefully exactly where you are in what you are currently doing (so you can get back to that place quickly afterwards), deal FULLY with the boss’s imperious demands, and forget about what you had to set aside to do this.

    This last step is vital. If you keep thinking about what you had to leave to deal with the boss’s demands, you’ll feel more and more anxious and frustrated; plus you won’t really have all your mind on whatever you’re having to do to satisfy the boss. It may therefore take you longer, and that will certainly make you feel more angry and stressed.

That is my list of suggestions. You may have found other ways of dealing with distractions you didn’t generate yourself and you can’t avoid. If so, add a comment to this article and share them with other readers, please. Today may be the day you help someone who’s struggling with a problem you know how to solve.

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Last Updated on July 17, 2019

The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

What happens in our heads when we set goals?

Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

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Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

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One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

The Neurology of Ownership

Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

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But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

The Upshot for Goal-Setters

So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

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It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

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Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

Reference

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