Let’s take a multiple-choice quiz. Don’t worry, it’s only one question.
Q: On average, how many interruptions does a person face during a typical workday?
If you picked C, you’re right! According to a workplace study, people face an average of 87 interruptions per day—22 are external interruptions, and 65 are triggered by the individuals themselves. While not all these interruptions are massive, they are just enough to shift our focus from one thing to another. And even that small shift comes at a cost. As we’ve noted over the last few weeks, to be consistently productive, we must strengthen our ability to focus. But this battle is about more than the improved productivity that comes with better attention management. The ultimate payoff is creating a life of choice that honors things that are most important to us. It’s more than just exercising focus. It’s about taking back control over our time and our priorities.
Aspirations vs. Experiences
What do we want to focus on? Is it a significant project at work that keeps getting pushed off or pushed back? Maybe it’s capturing more time to be present with family when we are home. In our frenzied environment, accomplishing the things that are most meaningful to us doesn’t just happen. Most of us are drawn like a moth to the flame to what’s immediate rather than what we would deem the most important things. If we want to shift aspirational desires to formative experiences, it will require us to gain control over two parts of our lives.
First, it requires us to control our external factors.
- Control our technology. We must remember that technology is meant to serve us, not the other way around! We can take control by switching off “push” notifications, which are designed to grab our attention. This will allow us to engage in stretches of focused work on tasks and activities that we choose. As often as possible, and especially when we’re working, let’s keep our phone on silent and out of sight.
- Control our environment. We must set boundaries with others, especially in situations like an open-office setting. While popular in many circles, the open atmosphere is notorious for being bombarded with interruptions. Some professionals have found success with using headphones or putting up a “do not disturb” sign at their cubicle. If we have a private office, shutting our door can communicate that we are seeking privacy. If things are bad, try teaming up with co-workers to designate a specific time of day to do heads-down work.
Here’s a neglected truth: while our productivity suffers because we are distracted by outside interruptions, it’s our own brains that become the distraction. Remember that 22 of our daily interruptions are external, but 65 are internal, so we must learn to control those factors as well.
- Control our behavior. When our external controls are in place, we should use our time to practice focusing deeply on one task at a time, remembering that multitasking erodes efficiency. A couple of disciplines that will strengthen our ability to focus deeply include: taking 10-minute “reboot” breaks during the day when we step away from our computer and “unplugging” altogether from technology for 15-20 minutes a day, gradually building up our stamina to an hour.
- Control our thoughts. For many of us, our thoughts are the wild card, which is why we’ve left it to last. Regardless of whether we like it, minds wander—even if it’s a well-disciplined mind. We should notice when our mind is veering off in a new direction, and gently guide our focus to where we want it. Sometimes these interruptions are a gift because small critical tasks may come to mind while we are doing focused work. Accept the gift by jotting it down on a notepad and then come back to it later. Do the same with information you want to look up online, phone calls you want to make, and emails you need to send.
Practicing attention management will not eliminate distractions from our day. But as we start to recognize when we become distracted and build our “attention muscle” through healthy habits, we’ll start to reclaim our life and devote more of ourselves to what’s important.
Final Thought: Let’s not allow distractions to wreck our aspirations and intentions!