3 Unconventional Ways to Overcome Distraction

with guest Nir Eyal #MakingBank S4E27

We live in the age of distraction. The rings, the dings, the buzzes, and the beeps are constantly vying for our attention, promising to deliver that cherished dopamine in the form of entertainment, news, gossip, and more. With everything going on around us, it can be a real challenge to get work done, and almost all of us have had entire days slip by, lost in a sea of distractions. 

From this perspective, you would think that distraction has only been a problem for the past decade, when in fact Plato was discussing this same topic over 2,500 years ago, coining the term ‘akrasia,’ or the act of doing something that is not in one’s best interest. Clearly, people were getting distracted for quite some time before Steve Jobs came around. 

When we only blame external distractions, we’re missing half the picture, and you can even argue that they’re more of a symptom than they are the root cause. If we want to mitigate these distractions and make sure we are being our most productive selves, we first need to turn our attention inward. Have we made the right choices? Are we in the right career? Is there something we’ve been avoiding that, if dealt with, would help quiet our mind? 

To truly understand why we get distracted, and how we can rectify this problem, we need to focus on 3 key areas. 

1. Internal Distractions 

First, we need to acknowledge and understand the distractions that originate from within. Daydreaming, thinking of an ex, or getting wrapped up in fears and worries that we have no control over are all examples of inner distractions that can often be far more consuming than external ones. 

Nir Eyal, an entrepreneur, published author, and expert on overcoming distraction, stresses the need for us to build habits and acquire the right internal tools to help mitigate internal distractions. Instead of trying to play whack-a-mole as our mind loses focus, it’s about building a lifestyle where our attention is less likely to drift in the first place. 

What steps can we take to do that? One important area is to make sure we are processing our thoughts and emotions fully. Nir divulges that 90% of his work as a consultant is listening. He tells us that we need to spend time every day listening to our own thoughts, just letting them come out uninterrupted. Depending on what works for you, this can be done by going for a walk, talking to a friend, or even just penciling in 20 minutes on your schedule every day to lie on your bed and let your thoughts float to the surface. 

When we do this, we give ourselves space and time to fully feel our internal world and work out any issues we may be having, whether work-related or personal. This can restore our peace of mind, allowing us to have more focus during the times we are meant to be working. 

2. If You Don’t Want to Get Distracted, Work on Something You’re Interested In 

Most of us will have some sort of memory of a class that we just could not pay attention to, and our grades suffered because of it. It may not have been the toughest subject, but our lack of interest in it made it very hard to get an A regardless. If only we could have taken classes that we found interesting, we would have been able to achieve a much higher GPA. 

Ask yourself: why are you getting distracted? Do you find your work interesting? Is it truly what you want to do? The beauty – and sometimes difficulty – of adult life is that we have an abundance of options. We’re not in school anymore, and we can choose to focus on whatever career we want to. 

If we’re constantly underwhelmed, under-challenged, and unenthused at work, maybe the problem isn’t distraction; maybe we just need to find a new career. If you are working on something that you find intellectually stimulating, or at least interesting, you’re going to have a much easier time paying attention and you’re naturally going to do better work. 

3. The Myth of Multitasking 

Multitasking. Depending on who you ask, it’s either the key to a successful workday or the bane of our existence. Research is siding with the latter interpretation. 

The reality is that we only have one mind and can only use it to pay attention to one thing at a time. When we try to divide that attention we wind up doing subpar work across the board. 

Trying to take in the news while answering your emails? You’re either not going to get the news or risk sending an inappropriate email to the CEO. 

Even if the concept is just having several problems on the back burner all day long, research indicates that your work is going to suffer because of it and there won’t be any time saved anyway. 

If you want to be productive, focus on one goal at a time. It’s perfectly fine to have more than one goal per day or even to have multiple goals over an extended period of time that you work on simultaneously, but you will be much more effective on both if you compartmentalize and devote all of your energy to each of them at separate times. 

To help do this, read our article on staying on track that can help set barriers around your time, signaling to your brain what to focus on. Scheduling is another important hack in order to break up our day and control what we’re focusing on and mitigate distractions. 

Whatever you’re doing, being as present and devoted to that activity as possible will help you achieve the best results. Whether it’s work, processing your thoughts, or spending time with loved ones, limiting our distractions and being able to live in the moment will reward us tenfold. Build the habits, get in the flow, and make sure you’re dedicating some time every day to what’s going on internally, and watch your distractions fall away more easily than you thought possible. 

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