This article first appeared in Alpha Efficiency Magazine: Issue 8: Confidence, subscribe and buy here
A lot has been said about “Multitasking”. Previously a watchword for the highly productive, popular opinion has gradually realized that multitasking destroys focus and output. Finding the right workflow means keeping things as simple as possible, and distractions out of sight. When you have a single point of focus, time seems to pass more slowly. Single-tasking can let you immerse yourself into a task, forgetting the constraints of time and instead of allowing yourself to become fully immersed in the realm of creativity and achievement.
The thought process and deep contemplation are the things that drive the biggest results in our effort to accomplish long-term goals. In order to be able to think about things that matter we need solitude and quiet; In the 21st century that can be an incredibly difficult thing to find. The world is stuffed with distractions and interruptions. Our technology, designed to serve us, bombards us with new requests, notifications, and reminders. Our friends and family are in near-constant communication and our co-workers and clients expect immediate responses to their ideas and questions.
Distractions on the phone
Ever since I got my first smartphone, I knew that I had to keep the distractions to a bare minimum, but that proved to be more of a problem than I thought because my habitual addiction to engagement was already established. Perhaps I wasn’t reacting to the phone in a similar way that I’ve used to, but there was a genuine “fear of missing out” on whatever might be on my phone when it was out of my sight.
Smartphones deliver a double-whammy of distraction and interruption. Distraction is inherent; There are a hundred different things you can do on your phone: checking Facebook, reading the news, playing Angry Birds. Your smartphone will pander to the slightest weakening of your resolve and serve up a platter of distractions for your enjoyment. If that weren’t enough, smartphones are also designed for the interruption. The sheer number of alerts and notifications that a phone can generate can be staggering; left uncontrolled you’ll be inundated with an endless stream of pings that will interrupt your thought process.
Turning my phone to silent full time helped me tremendously. It is something that I keep doing until this very day, regardless of what I am doing. It at least allows me to retain some form of control over myself, instead of being left to the mercy of the device. During the day I have a hard time controlling myself, and if I have something external at my fingertips that is dictating my attention, then what kind of life am I running? Sometimes my phone is on silent; sometimes it’s in Do Not Disturb mode. Occasionally I’ll even put it into airplane mode to ensure that I’m completely distraction-free.
if I have something external at my fingertips that is dictating my attention, than what kind of life am I running?
Distractions on the computer
If you thought that the phone was the worst offender, think again. Technology puts us in this skewed paradigm where, like trained dogs, we habitually check our emails, bounce instant messages with our co-workers and respond to social media stimuli. Having the quality time of working for 20 uninterrupted minutes becomes a luxury, that is very hard to afford. If you work in an “open plan” office as so many do your distractions and interruptions won’t just be digital; you’ll be bombarded by background noise, chatter and people appearing at your desk with an “urgent question.” How often do you turn those people away?
Over the years I’ve fine-tuned my computer productivity by training myself to shut off the browser tabs and apps that are not running. I’ve seen thousands of people that have hundreds of tabs open at the same time in their browser, and all they see from a website are favicons, and they seem to spend hours finding the tab that they’ve previously opened.
These distractions hurt the bottom line in a very major way. They increase the amount of time we spend switching between the applications, and further diminishing the power of continuity between the tasks. The faster the user is, the less of a problem it is. However not all people are quick enough, nor am I often times. What happens in this intermittence is that I can get completely lost, and one instant message later, I completely forget what I tried to accomplish in between these tasks.
Most computers don’t really have an “airplane mode” or “Do Not Disturb” mode. Sometimes the answer is as straightforward as turning off your wi-fi connection to unplug from all the social media and instant messaging noise, but that’s not always feasible if you’re researching online and the physical distractions can still be present. If I can, I like to take myself away from it all and go somewhere peaceful and quiet. If I’m writing, I might take off to the beach or sit in my car. Being unavailable both digitally and physically can be the only way to achieve the level of solitude and quiet you need to get the job done.
Like an addict in denial you don’t realize how powerful the internal craving for distraction is until you force yourself to go without it.
But out of all distractions we face in this distributed culture of multitasking and constant noise, the biggest distraction is found within our mind. When you physically shut down the distractions, they still remain in your mind. After years of notifications abuse, we are wired to respond to our phones and react to them in a similar fashion to how Pavlov’s dogs reacted to the bells. We anticipate the response, we positively salivate at the prospect of the next notification and we drop everything to respond to it.
This generation is accustomed to operating in an environment of white noise. It’s considered normal to be checking your phone in the company of others. I sometimes like to do that thing where you put your phones on the table at dinner and the first person to check their pays for everyone else. It sounds ridiculous, but like an addict, in denial, you don’t realize how powerful the internal craving for distraction is until you force yourself to go without it.
The side effect of all this noise is that our own minds become crowded, noisy places. If you’ve ever tried meditating you’ll know how hard it is to settle into that quiet, calm place where the everyday chatter of your brain subsides and your deeper thoughts take over. Scuba diving is a similar sensation – when you get under the water and all you can hear is the sound of your own breathing, it can take a few minutes for the chaos of your brain to calm down and for that internal voice to subside and relax into the calm and quiet of the ocean.
Put Aside the Distractions
It’s difficult to avoid distractions and interruptions in a world so jam-packed with stimuli. When you live with it every day it can be easy to become complacent and blind to the extent to which you are bombarded with them every day. Learn to recognize those occasions that demand quiet and solitude and take deliberate steps to remove those distractions, whether that’s by turning off alerts on your devices, unplugging from the Internet or removing yourself from the distracting environment entirely.
If you get yourself into the mindset of achieving focus you’ll become more comfortable in those calm and quiet moments, unlocking a new level of productivity by achieving greater concentration for longer periods of time.
Put aside the distractions. Do some deep thinking.