by Rachel Fagan, M.Ed, Samaritan's Life Coach
Joe sets aside an hour of designated time to work on a project at his office, only to be interrupted fifteen minutes in by a coworker who stops by with a “quick question,” one that requires him to send an email. While in his account, he notices the list of unread emails that will “just take a minute to respond to,” so he does. As he sits back down to work, he receives a text message on his smartwatch from his wife asking if he can pick their daughter up from swim lessons that night while she runs errands. Joe responds and returns to his work, his mind now swirling with lingering thoughts about his coworker’s question. He can’t even remember where he left off on his project, and he’s now tired and has completely lost interest in the task at hand. He steps out to grab a coffee from the kitchenette to help reset. Sixty minutes have passed, and very little has been accomplished in terms of what Joe intended to focus on.
While the example is fictional, it isn’t far-fetched. In fact, it likely underrepresents the number of interruptions and distractions that the average person experiences, something glaringly evident even for myself as I write this article. We are living in a culture of instant gratification and a general expectation of being available “on demand.” However, constantly being “available” is not typically sustainable over long periods of time. Furthermore, there are increasing numbers of research studies that indicate that distractions are quite costly in terms of productivity, efficiency, energy, attention, communication, comprehension, and overall performance.
Why It Happens
According to Dr. David Rock of the NeuroLeadership Institute, our “attention is a limited resource.” Focusing attention on something costs us energy, and the more our energy is drained without being restored, the more difficult it is to focus. Furthermore, every time we become distracted, we move our attention to focus on something else (also known as task-switching), and this costs even more energy (Rock, 2009)
When people think of distractions, external triggers are often what first come to mind. These originate outside of us, such as people, objects, noises, technology, etc. Our bodies are equipped with senses to make us aware of our surroundings, so the more people and things we allow in our surroundings, the more our senses will have to filter.
Internal triggers, on the other hand, originate within us from our own thoughts or emotions, and for this reason, they can sometimes be tricky to identify (Distractions, 2022). Self-doubt is a powerful internal trigger that creeps in when we lack confidence in ourselves and our abilities, making us second-guess our next move. Another internal trigger is mental clutter or having too much on our mind, causing us to frequently task-switch mentally, leading to fatigue, stress, or feeling overwhelmed. “Shiny object syndrome” occurs when something else seems more interesting, appealing, or worth pursuing than what is currently underway (Gardner, 2017).
What Can You Do About It?
The good news is that we can eliminate and prevent some of the distractions in our lives with a little intentional preparation.
Plan Your Environment-Our environments largely influence our triggers, so tidying up your surroundings is a great place to start. Be sure to have all necessary materials in place before starting on a task, and remove temptations (snacks, people, pets, games, devices, etc.), or at least make them inconvenient to access.
Adopt a Healthy Lifestyle-Physical discomfort is distracting in itself, so it should come as no surprise to hear that fueling your body with nutritious foods, staying hydrated, getting enough sleep, and exercising are all great steps to take toward boosting your immune system and supporting your mind to manage distractions when they are unavoidable.
Communicate Clearly-If you have not “trained” others how and when they can have access to you (and sometimes even if you have), people are going to proceed to get your attention however and whenever they choose to. Non-existing or unclear expectations and boundaries are often the cause of interruptions from others, so it can be helpful to communicate ahead of time exactly what you need and why, as well as options of what they could do while you are unavailable. This may include asking others to send you an email or schedule a meeting with you if they need your attention instead of “stopping by.”
Plan for Progress-Distractions kill productivity, and sometimes the way we approach tasks can lead to distractions. Set specific goals and deadlines, break large tasks down into less complex steps, and approach them one at a time. Designate specific periods of time for focused work, free thinking (where distractions and mind wandering are permitted), and breaks to recharge, and remember to set time limits for each. If you are easily distracted, aim for 25 minutes of focused work followed by a 5-minute break.
Unplug from Technology-Almost all forms of modern technology seem
to have a notification system, from the devices themselves to the programs they run. Some can be very helpful, but I often wonder if we sometimes go further than necessary with technology. I honestly cannot think of an instance where I would need to be notified when my cats enter and exit their litter boxes, but this technology exists. Just because we can be notified doesn’t mean it’s necessary. Take advantage of notification preference settings and unplug when you can. If you do not find value in a mailing list or channel that you subscribed to, UNSUBSCRIBE. When all else fails, Airplane Mode or Do Not Disturb work great.
Mind Your Mental Health-Being aware of your thoughts and feelings may very well be half the battle to combatting distraction, but tuning in takes some intentional practice. It may be helpful to keep track of your distractions for a few days to see if you notice any patterns. When you become aware of being distracted, immediately take action to redirect yourself. If you are distracted by self-doubt, work to build self-confidence. Start by recalling times in your past where you’ve felt valued or experienced success. Write these down and consider keeping them in a “Feel Good Folder” for days when you need a boost. If you have a lot on your mind, try doing a “brain dump,” where you write down everything without sorting or judging, and use this as a working task list. Track your progress for more challenging tasks so that you can see how much you are accomplishing. If you are confused or feeling overwhelmed with a task, ask for clarification or help. Finally, support good mental health by managing stress levels, keeping your brain sharp with concentration games and puzzles, and strengthening your focus stamina through meditation or practicing with short blocks of focus time followed by a “brain break” (Gardner, 2017).
Do you know what competes for your attention? Distractions may be all around us, but we can learn to work with them with a little intention. The key is knowing what your triggers are and having some strategies to counter them.
Gardner, M. (2017, October 13). 4 types of inner distraction and how to eliminate them. Medium. Retrieved February 25, 2023, from https://medium.com/@thetimedoctoruk/4-types-of-inner-distraction-and-how-to-eliminate-them-654560648d33
Rock, D. (2009, October 4). Easily distracted? Why it can be so hard to focus. Psychology Today. Retrieved February 25, 2023, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/your-brain-at-work/200910/easily-distracted
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. (2022, July 25). Distractions. Learning Center. Retrieved February 25, 2023,