This post and the follow-up I’ll be posting next week are based on the “Handling Distractions” chapter from my new eBook, The Writing Engine: A Practical Guide to Writing Motivation. Have I mentioned it’s free to download and share?
The true cost of distraction
Distractions are pernicious for even more reasons than might be immediately obvious. They
- offer unwanted invitations to stop doing whatever we’re doing,
- require two mental “reboots,” one to address the distraction and another to return to work,
- interfere with focus and immersion–distractions lower the number of pieces of information and connections we can keep in mind at once and force us to retrace our steps,
- cut into time set aside for work toward a goal,
- make otherwise productive activities more frustrating and less pleasurable,
- encourage errors,
- help discourage us from doing constructive things in the first place (due to feeling like we won’t be able to work uninterruptedly), and
- interfere with “flow” states, in which we’re engrossed in what we’re doing, highly productive, and enjoying ourselves.
If you have trouble screening out distractions, there are several useful techniques you can employ–but it may also help to know that focusing despite distractions, like virtually any other skill, is one that improves with practice. My experience certainly bears that out. It used to be that I couldn’t write or focus on work when there was any kind of noise around me, but there came a time when my home office had to share space with the playroom. Pushing through sometimes difficult writing sessions with kids playing in the background, I eventually became much more resistant to distraction, and a couple of years after that process began, I found myself cheerfully writing a book in the middle of a social gathering, and even contributing a little to the conversation from time to time. I I didn’t do anything special to gain this skill except to keep trying to write even when distractions made it hard.
What our brains have to do to handle distractions
In his book Brain Rules: 12 Rules for Surviving and Thriving at Home, Work and School, developmental neurobiologist John Medina describes the process the brain goes through when it has to shift attention from one kind of task to another. It has to disengage from the first task, shutting down the systems it was using; assess the new task; fire up new systems for it; handle the new task; then go through the whole thing all over again when we switch back. Says Medina, “a person who is interrupted takes 50 percent longer to complete a task. Not only that, he or she makes up to 50 percent more errors.”
In other words, a two-minute interruption takes a lot more than two minutes away from whatever it interrupted. That interruption can also mean the difference between being in flow and being out of it
So, it pays to prevent distractions. There are at least four ways to do this: choosing your location, managing responsibilities, devising rules, and erecting barriers. Next week, we’ll talk about each of these strategies in more detail.