Working Toward A One-Track Mind (In A Good Way)

November 14, 2018

One day last week I was driving to work. It was a normal morning, and I was headed west on Lake Street because every road and highway leading into downtown Minneapolis is a disaster. I peeked at my phone to check a text that came in and …. just like that! I looked up, slammed on my brakes and narrowly avoided rear-ending a pickup in front of me. It was a close call.

I made my way in to the office, and it began to dawn on me just how much distraction has become a part of my everyday life and in the lives of so many around me. That day alone, I was in three meetings, and in every one I noticed at least one person with their nose stuck in a laptop or their eyes glazed over while looking at their phone. Since then I catch it virtually everywhere. In meetings, during calls, in one-on-one conversations with friends…at work and away from it, hanging out with friends on a weekend. We are all frying ourselves with the information available at our fingertips, whether it’s useful or not.

I didn’t have a cell phone until I was 29. I lived through the 80s and 90s when none of this was the norm. So the more I thought about it, the more my curiosity got the better of me, and I checked out what might be at the root of this desperate need to be otherwise engaged.

I fully acknowledge I can be as distracted at work as the next guy or gal, though I’ve always attributed it to my pretty elevated skill of multi-tasking. But an article recently published in The New York Times made me give it a little more thought.

It posited that distraction at work isn’t really about social media or news alerts or the latest celebrity gossip or sports scores, but instead it may be a symptom of not having enough, or complex enough, work to do.

Gasp! “That couldn’t apply to me,” I thought, quickly recalling my multi-tasking prowess.

In the article, entitled “Distracted? Work Harder!,” author and productivity consultant Chris Bailey says, “We procrastinate by doing mindless, distracting tasks that make us feel productive, but in reality accomplish little.”

He goes on to cite psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who wrote, “We’re most likely to enter into that state of total work immersion when the challenge of completing a task is roughly equal to our ability to complete it. We get bored when our skills greatly exceed the demands of our work… And we feel anxious when the demands of a task exceed our skills — as when we’re unprepared to give a presentation.”

So by that logic, is distraction truly just a device for procrastination? While I might be a good multi-tasker, I’m definitely a skilled procrastinator. When I think about the things I do while in the act of putting off work, it often can be traced back to social media, news consumption or playing stupid games on my phone (hello Pokémon Go).

Bailey also shared that “The research surrounding attention suggests that our minds are biologically wired to focus on anything that’s novel, pleasurable or threatening — and distractions can be an enticing cocktail of all three.”

So what can you do to reduce your own propensity for distraction? How can you tamp down on the novel, the pleasurable or the threatening? The article shares a few tips, including downloading applications for your laptop that block distractions, or leaving your phone in another room (can you even imagine?!?). Bailey also says that “intention is the key to productivity.” If that is true, can’t we all choose to be more intentional in our interactions, whether that’s in a meeting, on a call or in face-to-face conversations? Simply put, it shouldn’t be so hard. We can reduce our distractions by being intentionally engaged. By being thoughtful. By being in the moment. By being respectful of other people’s time. It all sounds so simple. And maybe it is?

We’ve experimented with “laptops closed” rules in some of our account meetings at work, and it’s easy to see the efficiency we gain when doing so. Our leadership meetings have a standing no-laptop rule, which leads to better content and conversation.

In the end, distractions are what you allow them to be. I was lucky not to have killed someone (or myself) in the car that day. Clearly distractions at work aren’t as potentially lethal, but they’re part of a larger societal issue. Thanks to my little Lake Street brush with fate, I’m challenging myself to cut the distractions as much as possible, just to see how much better I operate and to learn how much they take away from my everyday quality of life. Anybody with me?