The age of distraction

And how we can all get a bit more focus back in our lives

We’ve all done it.

We visit a web page to look at one simple thing, and half an hour later, we’re still engrossed in a totally different site, drawn away from our task by the magnetism of sensational, hilarious, shocking and fascinating images, videos and headlines.

Or just as we are about to finish that report, the email alert sounds, and the pull of the ding is just too much.

So why can’t we wait? Why do we feel compelled to stop the one task we should be prioritising, and allow ourselves to be dragged into unproductive space?

According to Debora Brockwell, Programme Director for Henley Business School’s Developing Management Practice programme, there are lots of reasons why we get distracted: ‘Often it’s because we are simply unclear about our roles and responsibilities, so we don’t know where the boundaries lie,’ she says. ‘Boredom can also be a significant factor, and for some people, distractions have just become a bad habit, but sometimes we simply use them as a way of delaying or avoiding having to face up to a task we find daunting in some way.’

Debora knows that it’s important to understand the root cause of the problem in order to define an effective strategy for controlling managers’ time more effectively, but whatever the underlying factors, there are ways to combat it.

‘Being clear about what is expected of us is a good starting point. And we can set finite timescales for having breaks from long tasks. We need to set the ground rules. It’s OK to say no to a caller who interrupts your flow, or ask them to call back at a more convenient time.

‘Technology has given us all an excuse to avoid doing the things we don’t want to do, so it makes sense to turn off audible alerts, and allocate set times for checking emails, social media and our favourite websites.

‘And avoiding difficult tasks is a classic, so get those jobs out of the way at the start of the day. If jobs seem to be too big to be manageable, break them down into more digestible chunks, or find a buddy with whom you can share the responsibility.

‘But more than anything,’ Debora says, ‘we must be honest with ourselves about when and where we are most likely to be distracted, and plan our work schedules around the periods when we are likely to be most productive. Some people work best in the evenings, so they tend to get distracted more during the day. If we can plan tasks to coincide with the times when we know we’ll be most alert, we have a much better chance of fulfilling them with energy and passion.’

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