This is an original essay by Nate Klemp, co-author of the New York Times bestseller "Start Here: Master the Lifelong Habit of Wellbeing," published by Simon & Schuster and available now.
Distraction might just be the number one killer of productivity, engagement, and innovation. Why distraction?
Unlike any other time in human history, we are now deluged by information and apps designed to grab our attention. Instagram, Facebook, LinkedIn, news alerts, gaming apps, and blogs — this infinite sea of information calls out for our attention as we go through our day. And yet even when we resist the urge to engage with these seductive distractions, even when we are hard at work, we still encounter extreme conditions of distraction. If you’re trying to focus all of your attention on writing a report, for instance, you must still contend with emails, texts, Slack notifications, phone calls, and other work-related distractions.
This isn’t just idle conjecture. The emerging research on workplace distraction paints a disturbing picture. It shows that most of us spend our days in what psychologist Linda Stone has called the state of “continuous partial attention.”
The research on distraction has found that multitasking — one of our primary coping mechanisms for dealing with distraction — diminishes cognitive performance. In a study conducted by researchers at Gresham College London, for instance, they found that multitasking is associated with a 10-point reduction in effective IQ. Now, you might be thinking, “a 10 point drop in IQ isn’t all that bad.” But this is the cognitive equivalent of smoking marijuana or skipping an entire night of sleep.
The research also shows that these conditions of distraction make it almost impossible to focus. Research conducted by Microsoft and workplace expert Gloria Mark of UC Irvine shows that after each interruption, it takes somewhere between 23 and 25 minutes to refocus on the task at hand.
And, finally, this emerging body of research shows that many of us are literally addicted to these productivity-draining behaviors. As Adam Alter recounts in "Irresistible," many of us have developed a “behavioral addiction” to our devices. This form of addiction is different from a substance addiction, but it activates the very same brain regions as other devastating forms of behavioral addiction: shopping, gambling, or binge eating.
4 Tips for Distraction-Proofing Your Company
In the midst of these extreme conditions of distraction, how can we bring focus to our companies? Here are four tactics we have used with firms in law, consulting, professional services, and other industries to help organizations create a culture of focus.
Offline Time for Engagement
One of the most powerful strategies for building organizational focus is setting aside a time for fully engaged work. This might be an hour or two at the beginning of each workday. The goal is to reserve a block of time that is free from distractions — a period when employees have the freedom to shut down their email program, put their phone on “airplane mode,” and focus on their highest priority tasks.
Starting Each Meeting with a Pause
Meetings have become a time of unapologetic multitasking. During conference calls, video conferencing, or even in person meetings, I find that half the participants are subtly texting, writing emails, or checking the latest news. One way to mitigate this problem is to start each meeting with a brief, 60-second, opportunity for everyone in the room to get fully present. At my company, we call this the “XT Arrival.” It’s a 60-second pause where everyone is invited to do whatever they need to do to get present. This might be taking a few deep breaths or it might mean sending that last text or email before the meetings starts. We have found that this simple ritual dramatically enhances the level of focus and engagement throughout the meeting.
Overcoming Device Addiction
Let’s face it, our addiction to our devices is the main thing keeping most of us from being more focused and engaged at work and at home. To begin unwinding this addiction, here are a few strategies to consider:
- Delete the addictive apps off your phone. If that’s too radical, move them off the main screen or into a folder that’s out of sight.
- Use the new iOS 12 Screen Time tool in the Settings menu to monitor your usage patterns.
- Put your phone on grey scale so that you aren’t as enchanted by the colorful graphics
- Use “airplane mode” or “do not disturb” to silence incoming distractions
- Consider unplugging your router during nights or weekends
- Downgrade to a smaller phone
Providing Space for Creative Insight
Great ideas rarely emerge from a stressed out and distracted state. Instead, our most innovative insights often come when we give the mind a chance to relax, wander, and run free. This is why we hear so many stories of breakthrough insights arriving in the shower, on a run, or during a vacation.
Consider the story behind Lin Manuel Miranda’s hit musical "Hamilton." It’s no accident, says Miranda, that the insight came during a vacation in Mexico: “When I picked up Ron Chernow’s biography [of Hamilton], I was at a resort in Mexico on my first vacation from ‘In The Heights,’ which I had been working for seven years to bring to Broadway… The moment my brain got a moment’s rest, ‘Hamilton’ walked into it.”
So it turns out that we need space to let the mind relax, focus, and arrive at innovative new insights. This space for innovation might arise through allowing employees to go “off grid” while on vacation, scheduling occasional company off-sites, or reserving one day each month for exploring new ideas and insights.
The momentum of distraction is strong. So it’s important that we counter these productivity-diminishing conditions with a comprehensive strategy for helping our top talent focus and engage fully in their work. The result of this effort isn’t just happier employees. It’s an exponential increase in productivity and innovation.
Nate Klemp, PhD, is the Co-Founder and Chief Innovation Officer at LIFE Cross Training (LIFE XT), a company devoted to giving knowledge workers the tools to train resilience, wellbeing, and peak performance. Along with Eric Langshur, he is the co-author of the New York Times best-seller Start Here: Master the Lifelong Habit of Wellbeing. Nate holds a B.A. and M.A. from Stanford University and a PhD from Princeton University. Follow Nate on LinkedIn.