If you do a search on Google for the word “distraction”
you will get almost 200 million results.
Between the high rate of children and adults with Attention Deficit
Disorder and the amount of information that we are bombarded with on an hourly
basis, distraction appears to be the buzz word of the decade.
The issue for working moms is twofold – distractions at
work decrease your productivity and distractions at home decrease you both your
productivity and your connectivity. It
seems so important to make sure you have Outlook updating your emails every 5
seconds and it seems imperative that you clean out the refrigerator right now
before you go to bed.
Before you know it it’s either 6 pm, you’re still at work
and you haven’t gotten that complicated tax return started or maybe its 10 pm
and your husband went to bed without you as you go from cleaning the
refrigerator to folding laundry. Another
day got away from you and you feel frustrated and overwhelmed as you fall into
bed, dreading the next day on the hamster wheel.
When you are constantly being driven by distractions it feels
like you are the adorable dog named Doug in the 2009 Disney movie “Up”. Whenever Doug saw a squirrel, regardless of
what he was chasing, he’d immediately be distracted and go after the squirrel.
Your “squirrel” is usually anything new because new always seems better. Whether it’s a new book, a new exercise routine or a new outfit from an online shopping website you were looking at, you can be driven to distraction and chasing squirrels in your professional and personal life all day long.
This week I’m going to discuss why you get distracted and
how to get back on track.
Why you get
The reason you get distracted is that on the one hand
your brain is hardwired for distraction and on the other hand you choose to use
other things to distract yourself from feeling negative emotions. But just because it’s natural doesn’t mean
it’s necessary and just because you can distract yourself from feeling a
negative emotion doesn’t mean it’s helpful.
Distractions are sneaky because they seem really
important in the moment. The reason they
seem that way is because your brain is conditioned to respond to novelty therefore
that desire to check your Facebook page while you are working on that Financial
Report is actually normal.
Your brain is constantly processing, reconfiguring and
reconnecting trillions of connections each moment even when you are
resting. The resting brain looks like
planet Earth from space with electrical storms lighting up different regions of
the planet several times a second.
Your primitive brain has developed a “knee jerk” reflex
to focus on new information because when humans lived in caves they needed to
pay attention to the smallest things for their survival. The rustling of a bush could just be the wind
or it could be an animal waiting to pounce.
Things like the unique color of a car, a flash of light
or an odd sound all get your attention because their newness stands out. This is the reason why marketing and
advertising is so powerful.
For example, you pick up a Parenting magazine to read an
interesting article and you see an advertisement for a new shampoo that
promises to make you look like America’s Next Top Model. You may have picked up the magazine to read the
article that interests you but your brain is now focused on the new “shiny
object” in the form of an advertisement.
In addition to being natural, the other reason you get
distracted is because when you are feeling a negative emotion like frustration,
overwhelm or fear, you are often looking for some relief from these
emotions. These feelings are
uncomfortable and you want some comfort.
By being distracted by a “squirrel”, you pull your
attention away from the thing that you believe is creating your frustration,
overwhelm or fear. This new distraction then
becomes a way to buffer away those negative feelings.
For example, you have been dealing with a difficult
client this week and feeling frustrated and stressed. Today you’ve been working on their project for
a little over 10 minutes and the thought “I should probably check my email”
pops in your head and you welcome the opportunity to stop working on the
Since your brain spends an average 11 minutes focused on
something before it becomes distracted, you don’t even realize when you are
overriding the urge to get distracted or when you are giving in to it. When you give into it it’s because it brings
you some form of relief from what you are currently experiencing.
This pattern of Brain signal -> Urge for relief ->
Take action, happens without your conscious awareness. Next thing you know everyone is heading home
from work and you have distracted yourself all day in order to relieve the
feeling of frustration and overwhelm.
This is why so many women stay very busy and often wear
busyness like a badge of honor. When you
distract yourself by being busy, you don’t have to figure out what’s going on
at a deeper level and why you are feeling the way you do.
For example, instead of looking at the reason why you
feel disconnected from your spouse and what you can do to feel happier in your
marriage, you keep very busy with the house and the kids as a distraction. You believe that when you are busy, you will feel
better but that relief is temporary and the net negative effect is ultimately
How to get back on track
When was the last time you felt like “the day just got
away from me”, where you felt like you hardly got anything done? This is such a common issue, whether it
happens at work or at home.
As a working mom you are most likely looking to be
productive both professionally and personally.
The juggling act you do on a daily basis requires focus and an effort to
keep all the balls in the air from falling to the ground.
One interesting study found that office distractions eat
up an average of 2.1 hours a day. It’s
no wonder you wrestle with working late to get things done since over 2 hours
are often lost to distractions.
As I mentioned before, a study found that employees spend
an average of 11 minutes on a project before being distracted. After an interruption, it takes them on
average 25 minutes to return to the original task, if they do at all.
Distractions aren’t just frustrating, they can be
exhausting. By the time you get back to
where you were your ability to stay focused decreases even further because the
energy your brain requires to focus is less available now.
When your brain has less energy it has less capacity to
understand, decide and recall which then leads to more mistakes being made. It’s often why you walk into a room and
completely forget what you came for.
Here are a few helpful ways to slow down the brain’s
natural tendency to be distracted as well as override the desire to use
distractions to escape from negative emotions:
Your Braking System
In the book Your Brain At Work, author David Rock explains that you have an area of your brain that “brakes” many types of urges and responses. It is the most fragile, temperamental and energy-hungry region of the brain which means at best it only works every now and then.
Since this braking system is located in the higher part
of your brain, your capacity to put on the brakes decreases each time you do
so. It’s like having a car whose brake
pads nearly disappear each time you apply them unless there is a long rest
period between uses.
An interesting study showed that half a second before a
“voluntary” movement like lifting a finger, the brain sends a signal. This signal relates to a movement about to
occur and happens before any conscious awareness of the desire to move your
So basically your brain decides “I will move my finger”
about 0.3 seconds before you are aware of it.
The remaining 0.2 seconds is when you have the ability to veto the
In order to inhibit an impulse it requires catching the
impulse when it first emerges, before the momentum of an action takes
over. Things like removing external
distractions by turning off email alerts or clearing your mind before a
difficult task are a few of the authors recommendations.
One of the powerful ways the author recommends in order
to not be driven by distraction is to use language. If you can explain the urge to be distracted
in words it’s more likely that you can catch yourself about to do something
before you take action.
The more explicit the language is the more veto power you
have. So if you have language for the
way you get mentally tired, you will catch this exhaustion and need for
distraction as it happens; if you have language to describe the feeling of
overwhelm, you will more likely notice it as it happens.
For example, if you know that you often get distracted at
work when something you are working on is challenging, you can notice when you
are about to distract yourself and say “Uh oh, here I go distracting myself
because this is hard”. By pausing to use
language to describe what is happening, you give your brain time to choose
whether the distraction is in your best interest.
By understanding how your brain processes distractions
you can have more veto power over dealing with too much information, too many
demands on your attention and other challenges.
The Escape Hatch
Since your brain is conditioned to respond to novelty,
new “squirrels” pop up in your life all the time. These new shiny objects seem like a really
good idea to focus on.
Besides the brain’s natural tendency to be distracted by
novelty, your brain uses distractions as a way to escape what you are currently
experiencing. You may think you have a
good reason for doing whatever the distraction is causing you to do but it often
is unnecessary and a way to not be present with yourself.
When you don’t want to be present with yourself it’s
because you are experiencing some negative emotion and you just want some immediate
relief. Distractions offer you a buffer
or an avoidance tactic in order to feel better.
The insidious thing about distractions is that they are
often a way to avoid having a more intimate relationship with yourself. They are a way to stay on the surface level
with yourself so that you don’t have to figure out what’s going on at a deeper
level for you.
They help you to avoid managing your mind in order to
have a better life. In order to have
lasting, long-term changes in your life you need to first get comfortable with
The best way to stop using the escape hatch of
distractions is to figure out their root cause by first getting clear about how
you were feeling prior to the distraction.
Were you experiencing negative emotion and what was that emotion?
Next you need to know the thoughts creating that negative
emotion by getting clear about the thought you had that led to that negative emotion. The reason you distracted yourself by doing
something else is because you had a thought that created a negative feeling
that you didn’t want to feel.
For example, if you notice that you keep going to the
snack room at work whenever you are working on a certain client’s file, check
in with yourself and ask what you were feeling before you got up to go to the
snack room and what were you thinking before you had that feeling.
Getting clear about the need to use a distraction as a
way to feel better is how you take back control of your life. Maybe you weren’t feeling confident in your
ability to work on the client’s file because you were thinking a thought like
“I’m probably not the most capable person in the office to be working on this”.
Once you understand that you had a thought that led to a
feeling you were uncomfortable with, you have a better understanding of your
need for distraction. You now know what
you were trying to avoid and can use the higher part of your brain to decide
how you want to think and feel instead.
For example, the next time you notice the desire to
distract yourself by going to the snack room you can use the braking system to
pause, you can use language to describe what’s going on and you can check in
with how you are feeling and what you are thinking which will look like this:
- About to get up to go to the snack room ->
Pause -> “I’m about to go to the snack room” -> “I’m feeling frustrated”
-> “I’m frustrated because this project is more complicated than I thought”.
Uncovering the thoughts behind the need for distraction
will help you shine a light on what’s been driving your actions. Then you can manage your mind by choosing a
better feeling thought, creating the feeling that will drive the actions that
will get you much better long-term results which could look like this:
- Thought: I’m curious if there’s a simpler way to
see this project -> Feeling: Curious -> Action: Take a different approach,
ask someone for help, consider other projects that were similar.
The next time something is vying for your attention, just
know that you are in control. You don’t
need to let those rascally vermin run the show any longer.
- The reason you get distracted is twofold – on
the one hand your brain is hardwired for distraction and on the other hand you
choose to use other things to distract yourself from feeling negative
- The resting brain looks like planet Earth from
space with electrical storms lighting up different regions of the planet
several times a second.
- When you distract yourself by being busy, you
don’t have to figure out what’s going on at a deeper level and why you are
feeling the way you do.
- In order to inhibit an impulse it requires
catching the impulse when it first emerges, before the momentum of an action
- Getting clear about the need to use a
distraction as a way to feel better is how you take back control of your
If you’d like some help stop
being driven to distraction, please feel free to schedule a free mini
session or email me at email@example.com and we can get to work together.