Our era is defined by having immediate access to information and people. But this connectivity can come at a price.
“Everybody is going faster and processing exponentially more data points than we thought was ever possible,” says Dr. Edward M. Hallowell, an ADD and ADHD expert and the author of “Driven to Distraction at Work.” “That’s had a tremendous impact on people’s focus.”
Below, Hallowell shares the six most common workplace distractions and how to overcome them.
“Screen sucking” is what Hallowell calls the habit of becoming enraptured with something unproductive on a computer, smartphone, or tablet’s screen at the first feeling of boredom or frustration. The phrase “began as a joke, and it’s anything but a joke now,” Hallowell says. He considers it a modern phenomenon like global warming, except that “unlike global warming, it’s immediately solvable.”
The key is moderation, not abstinence.
He recalls being hired to consult for an investment firm where the manager believed that his employees were so transfixed by the second-to-second fluctuation of stocks on their Bloomberg terminals that they weren’t spending enough time actually researching which stocks to buy. Of course, the terminal was integral to the employees’ work, but they needed to be coached to arrange their days better.
Hallowell says that the solution to screen sucking is splitting your day into blocks of focused work followed by smaller blocks dedicated to more distracting elements of your job, whether it’s checking stock prices, scanning Twitter, or answering important emails. This strategy is similar to the Pomodoro Technique.
“Neurologically speaking, multitasking is impossible. You cannot pay close attention to two cognitively demanding tasks simultaneously,” Hallowell says.
That means that if you’re on the phone with one client and writing an email to another, your brain is not handling both tasks at the same time; instead, it’s rapidly switching its focus from the phone call to the email. Multitasking is exhausting for your brain, which has a limited amount of energy just like any other part of your body, and both tasks will suffer because of it.
One of Hallowell’s favourite examples is how most people naturally turn down the radio when they’re lost while driving. It’s because the brain knows it can’t focus on finding its way with a constant simultaneous input.
He says, however, that of course there will be times when it’s necessary to rapidly fluctuate your brain’s attention, like when you’re taking notes at a meeting. “I’m not saying never do it. I’m just saying be wise to the fact that you are giving something up when you do it,” Hallowell explains. Weigh the opportunity cost. If you know that sacrificing some attention to take notes in that meeting, for example, is more important than catching every word spoken, then go for it.
Hallowell believes that because so much information is at our fingertips during the workday, there’s an increasing amount of superficial ideas and projects that float around but never become fully realised.
It’s now common for workers to start their days with a long to-do list that inevitably brings them disappointment before they go home due to the chunk of items left unchecked.
Instead of hopping from idea to idea and finishing none, Hallowell says, write down three tasks, prioritise them, and then move forward.
With the speed of the media today, it’s easier than ever to become anxious over negative news, Hallowell says. “Couple that with the fact that as much as we’ve become connected electronically, we’ve disconnected interpersonally,” and he says you’ve got “a petri dish for worry,” an emotion that has tremendous power over our attention.
Hallowell says that there are more people distracted by this kind of ambient anxiety than ever before, and that most underestimate the power of a support network composed of strong relationships.
The best antidote is sharing any anxiety-inducing thoughts with the people closest to you either in person or over the phone so that they’re not overwhelming you at work.
Being the Hero
It’s common for the hardest-working employees to take on coworkers’ problems and responsibilities, distracting them from their own. If you find that either you or one of your employees has a hard time saying “no,” then it’s time to reevaluate your process and workload.
Those who inundate themselves with jobs that other people should be responsible for should realise that by doing favours, their work can suffer. Thus by trying to “be the hero,” they may actually hurt the company rather than help it.
Dropping the Ball
Maybe you’ve tried everything you can to control your impulses, but you still find yourself unable to plan, consistently late and frustrated, and an expert at procrastination. There’s a chance you may be an adult living with undiagnosed ADD/ADHD, Hallowell says. Researchers estimate that there are 5 million to 20 million adult Americans in that situation, with many of them in creative professions that require a high intellect.
“The ones who are doing really well, they’re thinking, ‘Well, nothing’s wrong with me.’ And maybe nothing’s ‘wrong’ with you, but you could be doing even better,” Hallowell explains.
He says that one of his patients is a self-made billionaire who told him that he wishes he’d received his diagnosis 20 years ago. The reason, Hallowell says, is that getting proper coaching, and medication in some cases, helps people stop denigrating themselves for being “lazy” and instead recognise they have a neurological issue. It then takes much less effort to accomplish the same things they had been doing successfully the rest of their lives.
When you take steps to become more focused, you become “happier, more productive, and more energetic, and have less internal conflict,” Hallowell says.
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