In today’s fast-paced world, staying on task is no easy feat. Between constant email alerts, phone calls, and coworker interruptions, it’s a wonder we manage to get anything done.
Edward Hallowell, a leading expert on attention deficit disorder (ADD), and author of a new book Driven to Distraction at Work: How to Focus and Be More Productive says we spend 20 minutes out of every hour dealing with unplanned distractions. Hallowell says we can thank technology for the intensity and prevalence of workplace distractions.
“The mail used to come once or twice a day, now [email] comes once or twice a second,” he says. “We’ve broken down all the boundaries and made ourselves literally available 24/7.”
For the past 30 years, Hallowell has been treating patients who suffer from ADD and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)–neurological disorders characterized by poor concentration and hyperactivity. About 10 years ago, he started seeing an increase in adult patients thinking they had ADD but who tested negative for the disorder. That’s when Hallowell coined the term “attention deficit trait,” a characteristic that he says plagues many of us and is simply caused by too many work demands and distractions, but has no neurological basis. ADD is treatable, Hallowell explains, and starts by first understanding what is causing us to lose focus in the first place.
Hallowell highlights the six most common distractions we face at work:
Hallowell coined the term “screen sucking” to describe the pacifier effect of the Internet. As soon as we’re hit with that first feeling of boredom or frustration, we head to the Internet. “People go online and aren’t really doing anything terribly productive, but they’re just sucking on the screen,” he says.
The best way to control screen sucking, says Hallowell, is to split your day into chunks of focused work and chunks of potentially distracting elements of your job–such as answering emails and checking social media feeds. Scheduling some off-screen time is also important, especially if you’re working on a task that requires extreme focus. Turning off phone and email notices during times when you need to be productive can help fight the urge to screen suck.
“There’s something irresistible about an unopened message,” says Hallowell. “If you get cued–by a beep or a message icon–you want to see that that message is even if you know the odds are it’s of no or little importance.”
One of the most popular myths of our generation is that multitasking is the solution to our time-crunched lives. “Neurologically speaking, it’s impossible to pay attention to two cognitively demanding tasks simultaneously,” says Hallowell. This means if you’re on the phone with a client and reading an email from a colleague, your brain is rapidly shifting its focus from the phone call to the email; not handling both tasks at the same time.
Hallowell calls multitasking a recipe for mediocrity. While you may be able do both things at the same time, neither would be done very well. Your reading of the email wouldn’t be as comprehensive and you would likely not have as great a conversation as you would if you weren’t trying to multitask.
“You absolutely cannot perform at your best consistently over time if you’re multitasking,” says Hallowell. Although Hallowell agrees multitasking is sometimes necessary, such as taking notes during a meeting, he says we need to be cognizant we’re sacrificing some attention on both tasks, and then decide whether we can afford to surrender some degree of performance to get both tasks done simultaneously.
If you start your day off with a lengthy to-do list, you may inevitably find yourself flipping from one idea to another. On a really bad day, you may find while you’ve touched upon each of them, you haven’t completed a single one. Prioritizing and narrowing down tasks is key to avoiding idea hopping, says Hallowell.
Writing down your ideas as they come to you is another way to avoid getting distracted by your thoughts. Thinking about your dinner plans while in a meeting? Take a second to write it down, then go back to focusing on the meeting. “Once you write it down your brain will allow you to let go of it,” says Hallowell.
“Since 9/11, we have a national case of post-traumatic stress disorder,” says Hallowell. The proliferation of negative news has made us more anxious than ever. Coupled with the rampant negative news is the paradox that as much as we’ve become connected electronically, we’ve been disconnecting personally.
“That leaves us all the more vulnerable to worry, because when you feel alone you tend to worry more,” says Hallowell. This ambient anxiety can be incredibly distracting. The best anecdote, Hallowell says, is to never worry alone.
“The minute you talk to someone, your feeling of vulnerability goes down,” says Hallowell. Recognize when you’re feeling anxious and reach out to people closest to you to avoid these nagging thoughts from overwhelming you at work.
Do you find yourself always taking on jobs that other people should be responsible for, or doing them more favors than they do for you? It’s common for the hardest working–and the nicest–employees to suffer from this problem. But while helping out a coworker may seem you’re taking one for the team, it’s also distracting you from your own work.
“It’s like putting on the oxygen mask for yourself before you put it on for your child,” says Hallowell. “You’re not doing your group any favor if you’re burning out.” If you find yourself taking on more than your fair share of the burden, it may be time to reevaluate requests.
Perhaps you’ve tried everything all of these tips and still find yourself unable to focus and consistently running late. You may have undiagnosed ADD. Researchers estimate between 5 million to 20 million adult Americans have undiagnosed ADD.
Hallowell recommends seeking an evaluation. “The treatment can dramatically change your professional and personal life for the better,” he says.