What’s Really Going On When You’re Distracted?

Are you easily distracted? Have a hard time focusing on the work at hand? Perhaps you choose to take a quick look at your email just in case something urgent pops up?

We often rationalize our need always to be connected to our technology and respond like Pavlov’s dogs when we hear that ding ping. There is clearly some major FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) going on.

If this is resonating with you, may I suggest reading indistractable, by Nir Eyal? I gained a great deal of insight from reading it. Let me share my key take-aways.

He starts by breaking down the language. TRACTION comes from the Latin word trahere, meaning “to draw or pull.” When something has traction, it’s drawing us toward something we want in life. Conversely, DISTRACTION, derived from the same Latin root, means the “drawing away of the mind.” Distractions get in the way of making progress toward the life and goals we envision.

Traction = actions that move us toward what we really want.

Distraction = actions that move us away from what we really want.

AH-HA! Distraction stops us from achieving our goals!

We humans don’t like pain. And let’s be clear, many of our worthy goals are not easily achieved. It takes hard work and sacrifice. For example, we have to choose to spend our time studying rather than going to a movie if we want to ace that test.

So what drives our tendency toward distraction? The root cause of what motivates our behavior is to relieve discomfort/pain. Going to the movie is more pleasurable that studying…until test day.

Until we dig in and deal with the root cause of our distraction, we will continue to find ways to distract ourselves. As Nir Eyal states in his book, “Distraction isn’t about the distraction itself; rather, it’s about how we respond to it.” If we try to escape pain without dealing with the discomfort driving the desire to escape, we will continue to resort to one distraction or another.

Examples of our “pain” could include boredom, fear of getting out of our comfort zone, overwhelmed by the amount or scope of work, or avoiding a difficult relationship or conversation.

Below are three steps I found useful to help me respond more thoughtfully when distractions pop up:

  1. Look for the discomfort that precedes the distraction, focusing in on the trigger. What’s really going on inside?
    • Am I avoiding difficult work?
    • Am I bored?
  2. Write down the trigger. When we consciously notice the behavior, we can better manage our response.
    • Note the time of day.
    • What am I doing?
    • How did I feel when I noticed the trigger?
  3. Be on the lookout for distractions to occur when transitioning from one activity to another, (e.g., checking my phone when sitting at a red light, or taking a peek at social media between meetings). This may not always be a problem, but it can cause us to get off track.
    • Try the “10-minute rule.” Instead of giving in to the urge right away, wait for ten minutes. If, after ten minutes, you still want to perform that activity, then do it. This exercise can help us stop the impulsive behavior and recondition our minds to seek relief to internal triggers in a reflective vs. reactive manner.

Remember, distraction prevents us from spending time on what’s important.

Throughout the day, be intentional in thinking about WHY you are going to tackle your to-do list. That WHY filter will also shape what’s on your to-do list.

The one thing you can control is the time you put into a task. When it comes to living the life you want, making sure you allocate time to living your values should be your focus. That is where you gain traction. Don’t allow distraction to get in your way!

Martha Duesterhoft is a Partner with PeopleResults. Follow her on Twitter @mduesterhoft or connect by email at mduesterhoft@people-results.com.