Guess what, psychology is proving over and over that our brains are incapable of handling the plethora of new distractions swarming each and every one of us in this modern age of indulgence. But all is not lost fellow lazy millenial! There are some extremely simple tactics that can pull you out of the deep hole that is instant gratification that I’m here to share with you. This year let’s make distraction a thing of the past and identify what’s really going on.
Stop Lying to Yourself
Don’t act surprised, but I know your dirty little secret. I know you’re not working 100% of the time you’re at the office and that’s ok. I know you probably open a few facebook tabs here and there, browse around click a few likes laugh at a few videos and get right back to it right? We all do it’s human it’s whatever move past it. You will waste some time this year and that’s fine. What really really isn’t fine is lying to yourself about your ‘productive’ times. You see, we as humans like to categorize things. We naturally lump different activities into different boxes within our mind. For example:
Box 1: Lazy Activities
- Browse Facebook
- Check the price of that dress on Amazon real quick
- Browse Pinterest
- Chat with ex on messenger for way too long
- Back to Pinterest
- Ex is asking to come over later, better buy that dress anyway
- Back to Facebook
- I wonder what Jennifer Lawrence has been up to lately
You get the idea. These are obvious wastes of time and you’re damn well aware of it, no lying here.
Whereas we all have a second box, a box for productivity. These are activities our brain categorizes as productive towards a goal, work, deadline etc. What I’m asking you to do for the new year is reexamine what you consider to be productive work.
Behavioral economist Dan Ariely has devoted a large body of his research to human fallacies in productivity. What he’sfound is that essentially we’re all caught in a complex web of lies that we tell ourselves everyday. Now, in a less dramatic sense this doesn’t necessarily mean we’re all closet sociopaths, it’s just that we are fundamentally miscategorizing our daily activities. Casually checking your work’s twitter account does not count as anything other than wasted time. Reading an email is not welcome in Box 2. Neither is updating your work calendar or sending a memo to a colleague. It’s an extremely common phenomena to view these micro activities as productive. They feel like they’re achieving something and that they’re so far away from what you’d consider to be entertaining that they must be productive.
Tangible Effort and Creating a Sense of Progress
In the book Manage Your Day-to-Day Dan Ariely explains,
“ I think one of the biggest factors is progression markers. For many things, it’s hard to figure out how much progress you’re making. When you answer a thousand e-mails, you see every e-mail you answer. When you are thinking about a difficult problem, it feels like maybe there were thirty wasted hours and then finally you had a half hour at the end that was useful—because the idea kind of came to you. There isn’t a linear progression and a sense of progress. So I think the big question is: how do we make ourselves feel like we’re making progress?”
You see, we work on computers for almost all we do now. Back in the day when we had pen and paper for example we’d be able to watch our progress unfold with each word as page after page led to a larger stack of ‘tangible effort’. Now most people have huge abstract projects looming overhead with no clear markers of clear progress or movement. We get lost in simple instant gratification micro work that detracts from what we really need to be doing over and, at the end of the day, ends up becoming more harmful to us than anything from our entertainment Box.
The main reason we get stuck in this is because reading an email shows progress. We can feel it as the color changes to the familiar dark brown and a number shrinks to zero. We don’t have this sort of visual luxury for larger projects. So the solution is really to force yourself to create progress markers within your workflow. This can be achieved in a multitude of ways but I’ll quickly outline my favorites.
Plan each stage of your project into 1 hour chunks of work
This will give you a clear feeling of advancement as you check each box off one at a time. Each hour will feel useful towards your goal and you’ll feel more compelled to take on more thanks to the positive reinforcement. *Pro Tip* for those of you out there that are super lazy I suggest breaking it down even further into 15 minute bites of work. Trust me it makes things so much easier and realistic when you know in the back of your mind that you’ll only be distracted from youtube for 15 minutes.
Keep detailed notes on everything you do
Keeping notes makes everything you do feel worthwhile and meaningful. A major issue is that we feel that if we spent 1 hour researching something we feel like that hour was completely useless as we have nothing to show for it. Keeping notes subconsciously holds you accountable…to yourself. Trust me it feels great to watch your notes grow over time and also allows you to reflect on your methods!
Tell others what you’re doing
A large part of feeling progress is praise from others. We need this to keep motivated and feel like we’re working towards something that benefits society (which is the reason humans work in the first place). It may seem awkward at first but ask a friend if it’s alright that you update them about your progress on a task you’re working on. Most any good friend would understand and oblige. From here, give them an update on your progress by the hour. You could even forward your progress notes to them or share a basecamp account where you’ll be able to set up shared tasks within their system. If you don’t have a good friend willing to do this you could always update anyone you’re collaborating on the project with just be sure not to annoy them!
The Cycle of Distraction
It’s been found over and over that distraction kills productivity. In clinical studies, multitasking has shown that even small distractions can decrease our productivity significantly. A study at Central Connecticut State University discovered students texting while reading took about 25 percent longer to read than students without distractions. It may seem obvious but even small distractions can have lasting effects even when we’re not engaging with them. It was also found that when people have small distractions they tend to use it as an excuse to engage in further distractions referred to as the Cycle of Distraction.
You can probably relate to this right? You see a small notification for someone commenting on your facebook photo and you figure ‘why not check it out real quick it’ll only take 5 seconds to respond with a nice thank you and move on with my day’. You blink and it’s two hours later and you’re on a niche forum for whiskey distilling advocates… And you don’t even drink. But what’s interesting with this effect is that the ‘Cycle’ is referring to when you go from Facebook > Pinterest > Tumblr > Gmail > Twitter and then back to work. We all do this, we’re all juggling multiple social profiles and conversations but it’s the core of why distraction takes up so much damn time. We are incapable of limiting ourselves to just one quick distraction.
Furthermore, a psychology study done at the University of Copenhagen showed that people exposed to distraction and then unable to complete said distraction were unable to focus on further tasks. This was evidence of a ‘hangover effect’ of sorts proving that we’re not able to ‘just browse facebook for a few minutes’ or ‘skim that buzzfeed article real quick’ without lasting negative effects on our productivity. The box 1 mindset lingers long after we switch over to it.
The only solution to the cycle of distraction is to kill distraction completely even in it’s simplest form. Put out the flame before it consumes the whole damn forest. Flush the spider before it breeds. However you want to say it. Killing it while it’s small can save you hours per day. Turn off notifications for all of your social networks. It’s not just one network killing your time it’s a combination of all of them.