27 September 2023

Overcome your distractions and get work done

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Ashley Stahl* says many of us can be too easily distracted — often because we secretly want to be distracted in the first place.

Your phone is constantly buzzing, your computer screen keeps showing new email notifications and that co-worker stopped by yet again to ask for a project update.

Distractions live everywhere.

If you’re anything like me, you probably sat over brunch with friends this weekend and noticed that everyone’s head was buried in their phones.

I’ll be the first to admit I can be guilty of this.

There are times when I look back on a conversation and simply can’t remember what was said.

I used to think it was because I had a poor memory but the reality is, I was just distracted from what was happening right in front of me.

All this distraction leads to increased anxiety and up to a 96 per cent reduction in work productivity.

Simply knowing your co-worker could come to your desk while you’re deep in thought creates a lingering chronic sense of anxiety and distraction.

As an author writing about making life changes I love seeking out other authors and thought leaders to pick their brains.

This led me to invite Nir Eyal, author of Hooked: How To Form Habit Building Habits, to share his research and learnings.

Here is the four-step process he shared with me.

Master your internal triggers

It’s time to stop blaming technology.

Yes, there are external triggers which prompt you toward distraction, but Eyal indicated that the most common cause for distraction is actually internal triggers.

You will always be able to find a distraction to cope with the internal emotion you want to avoid.

In order to remove the psychological need for this distraction, you must first recognise what emotions prompt you to seek distraction in the first place.

Master your internal triggers so they guide you towards attraction: The tasks you want to do versus those you are avoiding.

This all starts with recognition, as distractions can be perceived as positive actions, when really they are distractions wearing a mask.

Be honest with yourself: Do you use meditation as a way to hide from taking action, or hit the gym as an excuse to keep yourself from doing the work that needs to be done?

Make time for traction

Distraction is anything that pulls you away from what you are planning to do.

In order to find traction, you need to create intention in each action you take.

A great way Eyal described this was to turn your values into time.

To do this you must first know your core values.

When you understand what you value deeply, you will know what actions in your day drive you closer to this truth.

I suggest that each Sunday night, you create a calendar for the week ahead and fill it with actions aligned with your values.

If you are a visual person, consider colour-coding each action with the value you hold close to you.

For example, all family events are purple, all work hours are blue, and all creative thinking time blocked as yellow.

Begin to remove the stigmas you hold on the actions you take, as long as you do them with intention in your schedule.

So many people think social media apps are bad for you, and yes, if you are checking them every 15 minutes, it’s a major time-suck and huge distraction.

Nonetheless, if you use it intentionally, it can be a great vehicle for creativity, connection and learning.

If you want to scroll social media, Eyal recommends carving out intentional time for this.

Then these actions will no longer be distractions, but something you’re fully present in with traction.

Hack back your external triggers

Devices are designed to hack your attention.

Alarms tell you to do something you planned.

Apps catch your attention with notifications.

It’s a matter of weeding out which external triggers are helping you…and which are hurting you.

Take back the control and spend a moment going into the notifications section of your phone so you can turn off the constant interruptions.

On an iPhone, you can even set limitations on the amount of time each app is accessible within the day.

You can do this at work, too, because if there is one thing we know, it’s that the open office floor plan is a distraction haven.

Know it is okay to ask for quiet time to be alone and work.

If your role requires you to come up with new and novel solutions or problem solve a long burning issue, block time on your calendar for this.

Prevent distraction with pacts

Eyal shared two powerful ideas to use as pacts that lead you away from distractions and into traction — effort and price.

Build a barrier between you and your distraction that requires a certain level of effort to break through.

Eyal has gone as far as installing an outlet timer that turns his internet off at 10pm.

He can turn it back on, but that means he must go into the office room, and work through the outlet to reset it.

Getting out of bed in the morning can be a really big problem for some people, try using a Ruggie alarm clock to keep you from staying distracted lying in bed.

The alarm clock sound won’t turn off unless you stand on the rug for up to three minutes.

Talk about a way to get yourself out of bed in the morning.

If all else fails, know that financial costs incentivise you to stick to your word.

Better yet, if you commit yourself to send money to a cause you don’t support it makes you even less likely to give in.

A woman told her story about how she made a commitment that if she ever smoked again, she would have to give $5,000 to the Ku Klux Klan.

Needless to say, she never smoked again.

*Ashley Stahl is a career coach, keynote speaker, podcast host (You Turn Podcast) and author. In a previous life she was award-winning counter-terrorism professional.

This article first appeared at forbes.com.

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