Resilience Bites #8 – Masterfully Managing Distraction in Action

Are you noticing yourself getting more distracted? Working from home, you might be aware that you are making more trips to the fridge, spending more time on social media or staring aimlessly out of the window.

You are not alone! Our brains are distraction finding machines and that’s one of the reasons why sitting for hours in a zoom call can be so hard – we are trying to focus our attention and even more importantly maybe, appear as if we are focusing intently. It also means we are working against our biology as our brains are designed to wander (the mind wandering part of our brain is called the default network).

The Myth of Sustained Attention

Our brains are better designed for distraction than sustained focus. In our earliest of times, anything that was different was considered a potential danger, so we developed a master error detection mechanism that scanned constantly for difference and danger.

Fast forward 200,000 years and that same mechanism, which is built for reacting to the unexpected and for zeroing in on changes, is now responding to email pop ups, social media notifications, ‘pings’ on our smartphones etc.  Our brains love novelty!

Managing our Attention

Research from Gloria Mark of the University of California Irvine reveals that distraction is costing us, not just in our ability to be productive (it takes 23 minutes and 15 seconds to fully return to a task after a distraction), but in our whole sense of wellbeing, calm and being present.

We can develop our ability to pay attention for longer periods, avoiding the temptation** to switch tasks and falling prey to distractions, by practising mindful attention (this is using the direct experience network of our brain).

For example, we can become an impartial observer of our wandering thoughts and bring them back (without judgement) to the present moment and current task. Think of it as being like a surfer passing up the opportunity to ride the waves that aren’t right. We can learn to be a mental surfer and surf our thought waves.

**Rather than waste your precious willpower trying to avoid distractions – reduce temptation by turning off notifications and keeping only the application you are working on at the time. Multitasking is a 21st Century myth!

Here are 4 key tips for mastering distraction in action:-

1.    Mindfully Transition from Task to Task

We can learn to direct our attention and effort by being more intentional about how we transition between tasks. Each time we switch, we often do so mindlessly, starting with whatever is in front of us or has distracted us most recently. This is energy draining for our brain and our quality of work suffers.

With mindful attention, we can pause to take time between moving from one task to starting another to make a mindful choice of what is worthy of our attention next.  These are important decision points and we need to recognise them as such.

2.    Taking a Mindful Moment

Before we start a new task, we can take a mindful moment to reflect on 3 questions to enable us to direct our energy and efforts in an intentional way.

1.    What is the most important task I need to complete now?

2.    What value is there in completing this?

3.    How much mental energy is this going to take and how tired am I now? (We can    be more productive executing complex tasks when our brain is at its freshest).

3. Create and respect Boundaries

Many of our clients are reporting that working from home is resulting in longer hours, fewer breaks and increased fatigue. This is not how our brains and bodies are designed to operate. We have natural ultradian rhythms where our energy peaks and wanes over a period of between 90 – 110 minutes, after which we need a 20 minute work and screen break.

With good intention, we might set an alarm (we have apps on our laptops); the problem is we often just turn them off and carry on – don’t!

A work life balance when working from home can be a real challenge – make sure you are getting out into fresh air, regularly moving your body and partaking of brain-friendly nutrition see resilience bites #3

4. Build in Recovery Time to Create Meaningful Distractions

Our brains need time to recover from activities. There is a positive purpose to daydreaming and mind wandering! We can hit the refresh button by allowing our brain to actively mind wander and here are 4 ways to do this productively and proactively:

  • Take a few deep breaths – breathe deeply and slowly from your

diaphragm. This changes our physiology and calms us down.

Covid through Comedy face-book page) now archived but still accessible

  • Appreciate a piece of art, a plant, the view from a window (notice the

shades of colour/movement/sounds)

  • Close your eyes, listen to a piece of music and notice the different instruments
  • If possible, take a power nap. Only 7 to 10 mins is enough, and the benefit will

last for around 2.5 hours

5. Prioritise Mindfully at the End of Each Day (bonus tip!)

At the end of each work day. take some time to think about the next day to help you prioritise mindfully:

  • What needs to be done to set you up from the ‘get go’ for tomorrow?
  • How realistic is your ‘to do’ list – are you setting yourself up for success or failure?
  • What could be postponed, carried over, outsourced or delegated?
  • What should just not be done at all?
  • What breaks have been planned in?

In Summary

Whatever we can create as a distraction management practice will quickly become habit and will stand us in good stead for a return to the office or pre-pandemic work practices. Be kind to yourself and recognise that reacting to distractions is a normal part of brain function and we can take greater control through proactive distraction management.

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