The 7 Habits of Highly Distracted People
I’ll start this article with a confession. I get easily distracted and have a hard time getting back into a focused, productive zone. The following habits and practices are things I grappled with, and still do from time to time.
If you feel you get distracted easily, you might find some benefit in overcoming, or at least becoming aware of the following patterns of behavior.
1- Fragmented attention
Attention is the most valuable thing we have. When we jump from email to phone calls, to text messages, and then back to the computer screen, then a Twitter or Facebook update, we don’t get anything important done. We allow interruptions and curiosity to hijack our day, without any meaningful benefit.
The bouncing from one thing to the other turns into a habit over time, and we can’t seem to focus on anything for more than a few minutes. Our attention muscle gets weaker, which makes it harder to change the habit … and we feel trapped.
We can consider attention a mental muscle that we need to strengthen. The best way to do this is to do it gradually over time with the least amount of willpower (it’s a finite resource that gets depleted pretty quickly). You can:
Turn distraction into a reward. Minimizing or blocking interruptions is doable and fairly simple. But there is always the temptation to override our own rules and give in to the temptations. So it’s best to give ourselves a distracting treat.
Block time for what matters. Set a block of time for doing work that matters. You can start with as little as 15 minutes and keep building up. For 15 minutes of meaningful work, you can reward yourself with five minutes online—guilt free.
Increase your focus block gradually and increase your reward at a much lower rate. For example, work for one hour and get a 15-minute distraction reward.
2- Confused priorities
I’ve noticed the moment I ignore what’s important, everything becomes fair game, and I get lost in an illusion of urgency.
There are urgent things that we need to do. And they need to be dealt with in a timely manner. But when I’m in the middle of an important project and I realize I forgot to pay a bill, I don’t need to stop everything and do it. I can write a note and get back to my work. But instead I’ll jump on it and spend 15 minutes or so. Then I’ll remember something else.
By that point I stopped working and resistance got the best of me. So I resort to numbing my brain with distractions. It all started with ignoring what’s important.
It’s fairly easy to stop anything. It’s much harder to pick up, especially if we lose momentum. Knowing what’s important and choosing to do it, is a skill. We get better at it with practice.
Other than matters of life and death, choose to do the most important things first, and then deal with urgent tasks that are not time sensitive.
3- No routine systems in place
The best way to deal with routine stuff is to create systems for them. This applies to checking and responding to email, tidying up your workplace or home, paying bills, or anything else that you do on a daily/regular basis.
If you are active on social media, you can set a time during the day or evening and stick to it every day. Then you don’t have to keep checking every five minutes. Also this can be a reward for doing your important work.
Systems are productivity habits. And like any habit, they need to be started with simple and easy to do steps. Look into the activities you do regularly and see how you can turn them into an automatic routine that you do, without much thought.
For example if you make your bed, it’s best to do it in the morning after you get ready, just do it. You can schedule an hour on the weekend to look at your finances and pay your bills.
Automating and doing routine stuff will clear the mind of recurring distractions. So we’ll have more mental space to focus on the important non-routine actions and goals.
4- The un-finishing habit
This is a result of divided attention and constant interruptions. We start so many things, but don’t finish any of them.
I’ve experienced this first hand and can tell you it’s not only annoying but also painful and demotivating. The unfinished projects pile up after so much time and effort, without any meaningful results.
The best approach is to focus on a few things and push everything else to the side—at least for now.
Finish one large project at a time. And don’t fall prey to the temptations of doubting your choice. If you give a project your undivided attention and realize you don’t want to get it done, that’s fine. You can completely drop it, and move on.
5- Not committing
To commit to something is to give it your full attention, energy, and devotion. When we’re distracted, we’re not fully committed. We’re toying with priorities and time and expecting to get serious results.
Commitment means that we decide to do something and we do it, and continue to do it till we complete it, or drop it.
6- Procrastination mastery
You know you’re highly distracted if the same things remain on your list not for days or weeks, but for months and years. Then you have become a master of procrastination.
We turn important tasks into a future that never comes. Why? Because we’re busy being distracted.
We all face the mighty force of procrastination. We can’t completely eliminate resistance, but we can start and focus on a few things and learn to let go of everything else.
7- Overwhelm addiction
All of the above lead to constantly feeling overwhelmed—too many things to do (or look at), and too little time.
The reality though is we have too many distractions and too little focus. And this is the real cause of overwhelm.
When we hide behind overwhelm, we’re reacting most of the time to outer influences and demands. If there is an urgent work task, we’ll dive into it and ignore everything else. When there is nothing urgent, we’re back to distractions and nothing important gets done. This feast or famine approach to productivity compounds overwhelm and stress.
We don’t need to consciously eliminate overwhelm. When we cut down on distractions, we create time for what matters. Then we direct our attention and gradually work through the important stuff. Overwhelm will dissolve on its own as we move through our tasks and goals.
If you’re too distracted to read the full article, here is a short summary. :)
- Make it really hard to be distracted. Turn off notifications, block distracting sites, and toolbars.
- Prioritize your tasks, and do the most important thing first. Reward yourself with a bit of distraction.
- Build your attention muscle over time focusing for 15 minutes on your important project and gradually increasing your focus block.
- Create simple and easy systems for routine tasks.
- Commit to action and do it. And repeat.
- Work daily on your big projects and build up momentum.
- Let go of wanting to fight overwhelm and just be one with what you’re doing.
All of the above steps are not radical or new. We all can work with them. It’s a matter of desire to consciously choose to do things differently and get meaningful results, instead of numbing ourselves with distractions and overwhelm.