There’s a new epidemic in town and it’s not the measles. We are in the midst of an epidemic of distraction – everyone trying to function in a state of continuous partial attention. That’s why last month’s Inside the Circle poll asked what distracts you the most. Other people’s priorities topped the list for a third of the people voting in the poll. In other words we can’t focus on our own priorities because we are busy being interrupted by or helping to other people.
Surprisingly TV, internet and social media distractions got far fewer votes. What’s interesting about that is the average person spends between 6 and 9 hours a day looking at a screen of some kind. Even if you factor out work related screen time, that still leaves several hours when we are distracting ourselves by checking email, posting on Facebook, watching kitty videos or reruns of The Big Bang Theory.
Perhaps we don’t recognize screen time as the big distraction it actually is. That might be because we tend to do it in bite size chunks or without thinking about it. A few minutes here and a few minutes there doesn’t seem like it has much of an impact. But once you interrupt an activity to do something else, it can take more than 20 minutes to eventually fully refocus on the original task. Given that we self-interrupt with a variety of screen time activities frequently though out the day, it’s no wonder than our productivity suffers.
Interesting conversation but let’s not get distracted by it. The poll suggested the main cause of your distraction comes from people around you.
Why is it that we are continually distracted by other people’s priorities?
It likely comes down to one or both of two things – prioritizing and saying no. It’s easy to be distracted when someone is pestering you. Any parent knows the familiar refrain: “Mom/Dad I need you to do this.” Or perhaps a co-worker or boss who drops a file on your desk declaring, “I need this asap.”
Our response is usually to drop what we are doing and deal with it right now, or we add the new task to our long list of things that need our attention. Just having a list in and of itself is distracting. While you are doing one thing, you are thinking about the other things too.
It could be that you actually recognize that the request conflicts with your priorities, but you focus on it anyway because you are uncomfortable saying no to the person.
So how can you minimize distractions that come from other people wanting you to do stuff?
Practice pausing before responding. First that allows you to become aware of the distraction rather than simply operating on auto-pilot. Pausing gives you an opportunity to respond rather than react. When we don’t pause, we miss the choice point that allows us to consciously pick what we want to do. Most of the time, we simply react in the way we are in the habit of reacting. By creating a momentary pause we can determine where this request fits in our list of priorities.
Being mindful of the choice point gives you an opportunity to consciously accept or decline. What you are actually doing is creating a new habit of responding to replace your old habit of reacting. Sure it takes some practice, but it works.
Now that you are actually paying attention to your choice, you have the opportunity to sometimes say no. That might mean “no period” or it might mean “not now”. Lots of people get stuck on being able to say no because they believe they can’t do it, but actually they do it all the time. For every yes, there is also a no. When you yes to distractions from other people, yes to responding right now, yes to fixing their problem, you are saying no to your own priorities and focus. If you have the skill to say no to yourself, you can say no to others when necessary.
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