The art of being wise is the art of knowing what to overlook.  
-William James

Despite a daily meditation practice and some reasonably good planning habits, I’m easily (and increasingly) distracted. Twitter and Facebook are full of fascinating and often genuinely valuable information. Texts and emails demand my immediate attention. Breaking News is, well, always breaking. Spending my time on what is most important and tuning out the noise of constant distraction is one of the most profound challenges that I face each day. I know I’m not alone.

So, I decided to dig deeper into the topic of distraction—to understand what we are experiencing and to create new (and better) habits. I’ll begin with a few observations.

We are easily distracted. This is the human condition—not a 21st century phenomenon. Our brains are designed to scan the environment, and to pick up on any threats we perceive. “We are born interruption-driven—that’s how humans stay tuned to their environment.” The problem, of course, is that our brains were designed to be alert to physical threats in the environment, and our hyper-vigilance is no longer so useful. 

Attention is our greatest resource. William James, who lived in the 19th and early 20th century, wrote as eloquently about attention as anyone writing today. “Everyone knows what attention is,” he wrote. “It is the taking possession by the mind, in clear and vivid form, of one out of what seem several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought. It implies withdrawal from some things in order to deal effectively with others, and is a condition which has a real opposite in the confused, dazed, scatterbrained state…called distraction.” The capacity to choose what to attend to and what to ignore has always been essential for any creative or generative work.

It’s becoming harder to sustain focus and attention. With each passing day, there are stronger and more insidious pulls on our attention. Facebook, Twitter, texts, and email are all carefully designed to convince us that they require our attention—right now. Our smartphones, keeping us connected to all of these demands, are our constant companions.

For years I followed Andrew Sulllivan’s blog. He was a voracious blogger—my go-to person, especially during election seasons. I loved his writing, his perspective, his humor—and I loved that he seemed to never miss a beat. Then, a couple years ago, he stopped. Cold turkey. Last September he wrote about his experience in a long-form, beautifully written article, titled “My Distraction Sickness—and Yours.” He chronicles the acceleration of his engagement with the internet and social media—and the toll it took on his health and well-being. This paragraph particularly struck me:

“I was…a very early adopter of what we might now call living-in-the-web. And as the years went by, I realized I was no longer alone. Facebook soon gave everyone the equivalent of their own blog and their own audience. More and more people got a smartphone—connecting them instantly to a deluge of febrile content, forcing them to cull and absorb and assimilate the online torrent as relentlessly as I had once. Twitter emerged as a form of instant blogging of microthoughts. Users were as addicted to the feedback as I had long been—and even more prolific. Then the apps descended, like the rain, to inundate what was left of our free time. It was ubiquitous now, this virtual living, this never-stopping, this always-updating. I remember when I decided to raise the ante on my blog in 2007 and update every half-hour or so, and my editor looked at me as if I were insane. But the insanity was now banality; the once-unimaginable pace of the professional blogger was now the default for everyone.”

Sullivan shares the results of a 2015 study of young adults that showed that they used their phones for five hours a day—at 85 separate times. The users thought that they picked up their phones half as much as they did. “But whether they were aware of it or not, a new technology had seized control of around one-third of these young adults’ waking hours.”

Social media platforms and the apps that we use are designed based on gamification principles—we are rewarded for playing. This makes the interruptions to our work even more compelling. Sullivan writes:

“The interruptions often feel pleasant, of course, because they are usually the work of your friends. Distractions arrive in your brain connected to people you know (or think you know), which is the genius of social, peer-to-peer media. Since our earliest evolution, humans have been unusually passionate about gossip, which some attribute to the need to stay abreast of news among friends and family as our social networks expanded. We were hooked on information as eagerly as sugar. And give us access to gossip the way modernity has given us access to sugar and we have an uncontrollable impulse to binge.”

Distraction is costly. There is a growing body of research that describes the high price we pay for distraction. We are less productive and more stressed. Empathy levels are dropping as is the quality of our relationships.

Gloria Mark, a professor at the University of California, Irvine, who studies “interruption sciences,” found that the average knowledge worker switches tasks every three minutes, and can take nearly a half-hour to fully resume the original task. Maggie Johnson, author of Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age, shares research demonstrating that “Interruptions and the requisite recovery time now consume 28 percent of a worker’s day.” And, most research indicates that at least 50% of interruptions are “self-interruptions”—needing to find out who liked your Facebook post or a sudden urge to shop on eBay or Amazon.

The more interrupted employees indicated higher frustration, pressure, and stress. A fascinating finding: workers who were not interrupted worked more slowly. When they knew they’d be interrupted—or interrupt themselves, they seemed to compensate by working faster. This helped explain the higher stress levels.

Psychology Today reported on a study of nearly 300 students in middle school, high school and university. In addition to discovering that the students were only able to focus and stay on task for an average of three minutes at a time, and that nearly all the distractions came from technology, they also found that the more interruptions, the poorer the performance. Students who checked Facebook just once during the 15-minute study period were worse students than those who didn’t.

Sherry Turkle, professor of Science and Technology at MIT, and author of Reclaiming Conversation, explores the impact of our use of technology—demonstrating that our capacity for empathy and building meaningful relationships is negatively affected by our reliance on our devices. I would argue that this, too, is a result of our high levels of distraction. We rarely have a conversation with our phone—and its demands—being out of reach.

Respond to Distraction by Cultivating Attention

Our response to this reality must begin by acknowledging the power of distractions and becoming aware of the toll that they are taking. We also need to own our own habits of distraction—acknowledging the degree to which we react to the strong pulls—it’s not just other people. We then can become significantly more mindful in our responses, and experiment with new habits that will reduce the level of distraction. Maggie Jackson argues:

“The P.D.A., the cellphone and the computer did not usher in our hypermobile, split-focus, cybercentric culture…Our age of speed and overload has been building for generations… What’s needed is a renaissance of attention — a revaluing and cultivating of the art of attention, to help us achieve depth of thought and relations in this complex, high-tech time.”

The Ongoing Work of Managing Distractions

Several years ago, I was experiencing excruciating knee pain. I worked with a brilliant Physical Therapist, Chris, and after a session or two, was feeling much better. Excitedly, I told Chris that I looked forward to never having to think about my knee again. Chris became visibly angry with me. I would always have to think about my knee, he told me. I could manage the situation if I paid attention and remained conscious of my movement. Not thinking about my knee was a path back to pain.

That’s pretty much how I now think about managing attention. It’s going to require ongoing conscious effort—there are too many stimuli, they are too powerful and too enticing to be able to find one fix to the problem of attention. On top of that, our brains are wired to make it very easy to be distracted.

With that as a caveat, I share a few strategies that are (currently) working for me. Try one or more—or create your own.

Build Your Attention Muscle

While meditation has not “solved” my attention problem, it’s helped. Having time each day without distractions gives me a point of reference when I am bombarded with stimuli. In addition, I am training my brain to notice distractions and regain attention. Putting on a timer and knowing that I’m not getting up, no matter how scattered my mind is, is one of the most important parts of my day. If formal meditation is not for you (and do consider trying it before you decide it isn’t!), find another way to practice paying attention without distraction. Take a 10-minute walk without listening to music. Stare out the window for a few minutes.

Embrace Real Conversations

There’s a scene in Netflix’s Master of None that I’ve watched over and over. After Dev, the protagonist, has his cell phone stolen, he begins to look around, ostensibly to see who might have taken it. For a minute or two, the camera pans the beautiful Italian piazza where the scene is shot and observes person after person, looking down, absorbed in their phone—oblivious to the world outside of them.

This seems like it shouldn’t even need to be a suggestion—or a “practice”—yet, there is much truth in this scene. We are forgetting to converse with one another—and rarely having conversations without our phones there to distract us.

Another attention practice is to be in conversation with another person. Move away from your computer. Put everything aside. Practice listening, practice speaking. And, here’s a novel idea. Consider using your phone as a… phone. It’s also a tool for real conversation!

Consciously Decide to Resist Distractions

I’m a big fan of “time blocking.” I plot my day, identify the tasks that are most important, think about when my most productive times are, and commit to blocks of time that I will work without distraction—self-interruptions or external distractions. I move my phone out of view and out of reach during these times. I reward myself at the end of these times with a quick check of Facebook or Twitter—or a non-tech break that includes stretching, a brief walk, or talking with a colleague.

Carry a Notebook

I used to take notes in my phone, and began to notice that every time I took my phone out to take a note, I got drawn in. I now keep a little notebook in my bag. It feels strange NOT to use one of the best tools we’ve got for note-taking—but it’s really working. I’m much less distracted when I’m with other people or in meetings. I have even learned that I don’t have to search Google for an answer in the middle of a conversation. It can wait. The conversation matters more.

Embrace Boredom

This is a big one—it’s probably worthy of an entire post. The value of time out, a wandering mind, and boredom for creativity and being effective at “time on” is the topic of extensive research. Reaching for our phones whenever we have a free moment means we don’t give ourselves that time. We’d all benefit from time out without our devices. Find small ways to bring technology-free downtime into your day.

The Unique Role of a Leader

I would also argue that leaders have a unique responsibility to bring this topic into the open—to begin a conversation about distraction and attention. This will require the vulnerability to admit where they are subject to distraction and how they are working on getting better. Leaders can encourage employees to put some of the habits described above into practice in their teams, to encourage people to support one another, to make it visible.

As the Buddha taught, “Whatever the mind ponders and dwells on, by that is it shaped.” With deliberate practice, we can learn to direct our focus and attention towards what matters most. If we don’t—if we allow the myriad stimuli that we’re exposed to every moment of the day whisk us away into a state of distraction—we may be putting our health, our productivity, and our humanity at risk.

Taming Distraction Habit