Slack messages, emails, texts, phone calls, notifications, interruptions from colleagues, spouses, or children. The barrage of distractions is endless. It can feel like the world is conspiring against your ability to focus; in fact, it is. But not the way you’re thinking.
It is tempting to blame our distraction on factors such as social media, smartphones, and the 24/7 news cycle. While our hyper-connected world does not help matters, the real source of our battles with distraction is not external. Rather, this is an internal problem, tied to our evolutionary wiring.
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Scanning for Danger
Researchers from Princeton University and the University of California, Berkeley, have found that even when it feels like we are focused on a single task, our brains are constantly scanning the outside environment to see if something else might be more important. For example, while it might feel like you are focused exclusively on reading the words in this sentence, your brain is imperceptibly scanning your environment a rate of up to four times per second.
The research, which found almost identical results between humans and macaque monkeys, suggests that these so-called neural oscillations are part of our evolutionary wiring. They formed as an adaptation to a time when life was far more dangerous. This is problematic. While danger still exists, it is exceedingly rare in the workplace. The part of our brains responsible for scanning the environment, however, does not make this distinction. And so the same neurological impulse that prevented our ancestors from getting eaten by a saber-tooth tiger now leaves us perpetually scanning social media, our inboxes, and our physical surroundings for something more important than the task at hand.
What You Can Do About It
Learning to bounce back from distraction and resume your focus is a skill that can be cultivated like any other. However, don’t fall into the trap of assuming that getting focused is simply a matter of willpower. If we know that our brains are wired for distraction, it follows that relying on willpower alone is not a sustainable approach. It is far more important to create an environment where our propensity for distraction is mitigated in the first place. Here are some examples of how to approach this:
- Turn off push notifications: This year, I turned off push notifications on all my devices for all but a few carefully selected apps. This simple move alone reduced a tremendous amount of useless noise.
- Clear the home page of your smartphone: Another smartphone tip — move every app you don’t use regularly off the main page. You’ll be amazed at how refreshing it is to not be visually assaulted with dozens of app icons every time you unlock your phone.
- Set yourself up for focus: Before you leave your desk for the evening or next break, pick the task you want to start with when you return. Then, close or minimize every tab or application unrelated to this task. Make your next task the first and only thing you see upon your return.
- Speaking of browser tabs…: Do you really need 38 of them open? Go through them periodically and close down anything that isn’t mission-critical. These extraneous tabs are a ripe breeding ground for distraction.
- Batch process your email: As a filter for false urgency, the military general and statesman Napoleon used to famously wait three weeks before opening his mail. Do you really need to check your email every 10 minutes? With few exceptions, checking it a couple of times a day is probably sufficient.
- Use do-not-disturb (DND): This is probably the single most effective productivity feature ever invented. The best part? It’s built into every major device, no special apps required.
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Don’t fight your nature
Trying to get focused work done is never easy. While today’s hyper-connected work environment certainly doesn’t help matters, the problem of distraction is not unique to our time. On the contrary, it is part of the human condition. Once we understand that our propensity for distraction is part of our evolutionary wiring, we can more effectively counteract it. By taking small steps to reduce sources of distraction in our environment we can greatly improve our chances of staying focused on the task at hand.