Today, we face a relentless stream of digital distractions.
Wired for distraction
Like a browser window with dozens of open tabs, the human brain is built for distraction. In the wake of the Information Age, it’s no surprise that digital distractions are at the top of the list. According to a 2018 study, most Americans check their phone an average of 80 times each day, with some users checking their phones up to 300 times daily.
Evolutionarily, there’s a good reason to be wired for distraction. Distractibility served our ancestors well, giving them an edge over predators by keying them to changes in their environment, i.e. noting the rustle of leaves as a dangerous animal approaches. In modern environments, however, that distractibility is less of a boon and more of a drawback.
Endless external stimuli
Today, we face a relentless stream of digital distractions. From the 24/7 news cycle to social media push notifications, the technology that unites modern culture also exacerbates our natural distractibility, making prolonged focus a challenge.
Unsurprisingly, the pandemic poured gasoline on an already combustible situation. As employees moved to a work-from-home model and students entered the virtual classroom, digital distractions became even more ubiquitous.
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A study in distraction
Neuroscientists have found that focus ebbs and flows over the course of a day, as well as throughout the work week. In a study conducted by The Potential Project, a global research and consulting firm, their app tracked participants’ focus and readiness for ‘deep work’ throughout the day.
Key insights that surfaced from the study included:
- Over half of all employees and leaders who participated in the test admitted to a significant disruption in the flow of work due to excess mind wandering.
- When asked about their stress levels, only 20% of participants said they were able to properly manage their stress levels during the work week.
- Younger people in junior leadership roles were 26% less focused compared to more senior leaders.
- Additional research has shown younger cohorts falling off task more often due to greater reliance on social media and other digital applications. Interestingly, though these younger individuals were considered ‘less focused,’ they did not report additional stress.
- In a regular Monday to Friday work week, the focus started high. By Thursday morning, however, participants’ ability to regulate both their focus and stress declined rapidly, with the biggest drop-off late Friday afternoon.
- Open feedback from users indicated the primary reason for end-of-the-week stress: unfinished tasks and the pressure of having to work over the weekend.
The sleep factor
The American Academy of Sleep Medicine recommends a minimum of seven hours of sleep each night, with a recommended range of between seven to eight hours for healthy adults. However, recent surveys of working professionals showed that most respondents averaged barely six and a half hours of sleep. The effects of this sleep deficit on their focus and concentration were notable.
Many survey respondents reported poorer workplace performance due to tiredness, with over half admitting to struggling to stay focused in meetings, taking longer to complete tasks, and finding it challenging to generate new ideas.
Along with lack of focus and diminished creative capacities, participants demonstrated less motivation to learn and were less able to manage competing demands. Those who did manage to keep a healthy sleep routine throughout the week, especially on Thursday night, were 15% more focused and 12% better able to manage workplace stress.
Simple tips to stay focused
There is good news. While the battle for our attention is constantly waging, focus is a skill that can be learned, cultivated, and improved. While staying on task requires internal and external discipline, solutions don’t have to be complex.
Research has pointed the finger at social media as a leading cause of digital distractions. A simple solution? Turn off notifications. Note that this doesn’t mean dropping offline entirely. Scheduling times to check notifications provide a reward for staying focused while removing digital distractions.
Control the environment
Another option for those who work from home, attend virtual school, or otherwise have control of their workspace is to physically adjust the space to minimize distractions. That may mean moving a desk so that it no longer faces a window, or simply leaving a phone in another room.
In a New York Times article, Nir Eyal, the author of the book, “Indistractable,” recommends setting up clear signs so young children understand when not to interrupt. Eyal suggests finding the craziest hat you can find — he calls it his concentration crown.
“When my daughter sees me wearing it, I don’t need to interrupt my call and explain that I’m busy, because she knows the hat means that daddy’s working and can’t be distracted,” Eyal said.
In a study conducted by The Potential Project, participants who regularly practiced mindfulness were 22% more focused and 23% better able to manage their stress. While non-mindful employees often found themselves losing focus in the middle of a workday, their mindful colleagues were able to avoid distractions and continue to operate at peak performance.
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Build a schedule
Instead of having a “to-do” list, consider creating a schedule. This should include break times, times to check and respond to emails, and times to work on specific projects. This approach gives each task a mini-deadline, allowing you to prioritize what’s important while still providing room to relax and recharge.
This article was adapted from our sister site, Elite Learning, written by Kristen Digwood, MSPT, DPT, CLT.