Driven to Distraction

The reason you get distracted is twofold – on the one hand it’s natural, on the other hand it’s a choice.

Podcast Version:

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 distracted

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 project.

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 burnout.

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 finger.

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 urge. 

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 being uncomfortable.

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.

Summary

  • 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 emotions.     
  • 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 takes over. 
  • Getting clear about the need to use a distraction as a way to feel better is how you take back control of your life.    

If you’d like some help stop being driven to distraction, please feel free to schedule a free mini session or email me at dawn@cpa-moms-coach.com and we can get to work together.

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