Distraction is Killing My Productivity

I am very easily distracted. You honestly have no idea--Even in writing this, even just one sentence in, my thoughts have already bounced to different things. I'm writing in full-screen mode so that I'm at least less tempted to jump into another app or to respond to a notification... but the damage of the years and years of responding to buzzes and thoughts and ideas is deep.

Why? Because it's rewarding to look at a notification. We get a little dopamine shot in our head, no matter what it is. When someone sends us a message or a like or a heart or an email or a photo....we want to see it immediately. We usually want to respond immediately too. We live in a world where we are rewarded for being available, all the time, and to everyone.

As a result, sitting down and doing something that requires concentration is exceedingly difficult. We have to develop all kinds of strategies so that we can at least sort of attempt it. Strategies like having full-screen mode apps that hide everything else on your machine. Strategies like going into Do Not Disturb mode, or turning on Airplane mode. Or more extreme strategies of finding a remote location somewhere physically away from everything so that you can be undisturbed for even longer periods of time. 

How did we get here? I think evolution has a big piece to play. If you go back millions of years the only way to talk to someone was to physically be in the space with that person. Conversation happened around campfires, in homes, in villages, etc. There really wasn't any other way to speak with someone, save for some incredibly slow method like using a runner or carrier pigeon. 

In those scenarios, much like today, if you're with someone and they ask you a question or talk to you, you are almost definitely going to respond. If someone has your attention and is speaking to you, you're in a conversation and you're expected to reply. It would be very strange or rude to flat out ignore them, or stand there silent. (I understand there might be more reasons to ignore someone! But let's pretend we're all friends here).

Ok, so when in a conversation, we talk to each other. Now, however, we have this amazing ability to talk to people who aren't in the room with us. They don't even have to be in the same area, or same continent, or even the same planet. We can speak to someone instantly across the world....but the problem is that we typically expect that person will respond to us just the same way that they would if they WERE near us--because evolutionarily speaking, that's the only way that our brains know how to have a conversation. 

On the flip side, when we receive a message from someone, our brain is like: "Hey. Hey. Someone is talking to you. Hey. You should probably respond. Hey. When are you going to respond? Hey. Didn't you get the message?? Hellooo??"

Compound that with our phones and devices that literally ping us with noises and lights and screens lighting up, or watches that tap you, or whatever it is...and you see the issue. We're being programmed to immediately respond to any kind of stimuli, especially if it's communication. We treat every piece of information as if it's vitally critical to our well being, and our brains reward us for checking on these things.

Even having a phone near you is enough to distract you-- haven't you ever felt pulled to check it, just even for a second? It reminds you that it's there, waiting for you to pick it up and see if you received anymore likes or notifications on your funny dog video. This is our life now, and the result is that our attention spans and ability to do "deep work" are suffering like crazy. 

What can you do about it? I'm no expert, but here's what I'm doing about it. I'm training myself like I would train my dog. Dogs very much live in the present moment. If they're barking at you for your cheese plate, and you fully ignore them, they will eventually give up and walk away. (Or at least mine does, which I'm very grateful for). Then they're fully reset-- they are onto whatever is next. They don't dwell on that time you ignored their pleading, and they don't wonder about it, or try to analyze it. It's a beautiful thing. Eventually they learn that barking at you generally isn't a useful strategy to getting what they want.

Similar to that, I've been treating my mind like a dog mind. I do not reward it by checking that ping or that wrist tap. It's really hard at first. I still fail plenty of times. However in general it's improving a lot. I don't feel this huge draw to check who or what it is that is trying to get my attention. I understand that it will still be there later. Then after that initial 60 seconds or so, I've moved on. My friends may not appreciate this (they really don't), but it helps me with my work a whole lot. More importantly, it helps me with my happiness in general. I don't feel like I'm a slave to this slab of glass in my pocket. I decide when I want to reply and when I am available to chat, not my phone.

Of course the other strategy is what I mentioned earlier: I turned off 90% of the notifications my phone is capable of hitting me with. Most apps do not gain the precious real estate of my lock screen-- only iMessage notifications and phone calls. Everything else either doesn't appear anywhere (no red dots either), or stays in the notification center tray where I have to take an extra step to view it.

That means if I do fail and I tap my phone to wake it up...I usually don't see anything. No Instagram likes, no comments on photos, no emails, no sports scores, etc. All of that info is available to me if I really want to check it, but I am the one deciding. Not it. 

It's really great.

If you're looking to gain back some of your sanity and your productivity, try out a few of these strategies. Try not to check your phone the second it buzzes or rings. Wait 15 seconds and see how you feel. Then try waiting 30. Then 60. Then 2 minutes, and so on, until you've trained yourself that you don't need to immediately respond to everything and interrupt whatever it is you're doing.

I honestly think you'll find yourself happier and with more mental strength after just a few days of doing this.