Examining the State of Distraction

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Distractions–the things that prevent us from giving someone or something our full attention–are present around us all the time. If it’s not coming externally through notifications on our devices, it’s likely to come from within. Maybe you remembered that you have to make an appointment or you’re really curious about the score of a game. Maybe you’re not quite engaged or feeling bored. Either way, we succumb so fast and so easily that we don’t even know that we’ve surrendered our attention.

Here are some common scenarios I observe both with myself and with people at work:

  • When you’re conversing with the other person and trying to work out a problem together, that person is either on his mobile device or on his laptop. In some cases, he may have been in the middle of something when you interrupted him, in which case, you were the distracting force. Either way, you’re sometimes unsure whether or not he heard and understood what you said and have to repeat yourself.
  • You are in a meeting with a group and you notice some people are barely paying attention, busy tapping on their devices or doodling illustrations on their notepads. These people typically don’t ask any questions, or if they do, it’s to ask about something that has already been covered. As with the first scenario, if they are directly asked a question, they may ask you to repeat because they weren’t paying attention.
  • When you’re working on an assignment that requires some deep thinking or a bit of analytical and organizational effort, you find yourself taking text message breaks, peeks into your email inbox, or quick glances at social media or news. When you walk around the office, you notice this is a pretty normal thing and everybody is in some state of distraction.

Why don’t people give something or someone their full attention? When you sit down to talk with someone and notice that this person is checking their phone every 5 minutes, what does it mean? Or, if you meet one-on-one with someone and need to figure something out together and this person continues to respond to emails for an unrelated project or responds to Slack messages with an unrelated group, what is he signaling? I’ve been able to think of a few reasons, but one of them isn’t disrespect. As much as I’ve been peeved to be at the receiving end of such interactions, I’ve also been on the giving end, and I know that there was never any malicious intent. I think these reasons are more likely:

  • The person sincerely believes that he can multitask and is giving it a heroic effort (and failing). At its worst, this behavior looks as if the person has something more important and urgent to take care of than whatever task or interaction is at hand. But when made aware, the person will most likely apologize and give you undivided attention.
  • The person is bored and proactively seeking distraction to fill the boredom. The feeling of being bored may come from the topic not being relevant, not being clear enough, and/or requiring too much thinking to bother.
  • The person, mostly unaware, gravitates towards the behavior that feels the best, and being in a state of distraction–taking the mind from the task/interaction at hand and switching to something else–provides that good feeling.

Once you break it down this way, it’s less about email and social media and more about the ways we let our minds do what feels good. And oftentimes, feeling good means taking the road that requires a lighter cognitive load. This might mean that instead of completely switching from working on a long email to give your colleague your undivided attention, you continue to work on the email while hoping you can half absorb whatever your colleague is talking about, no disrespect intended, of course. Or, if you’re being exposed to a subject that feels foreign and has a steep learning curve, you soothe your mind by checking on the latest sports scores or stock prices. You can see where a behavior like procrastination creeps in. It’s the same reason you don’t want to rush into doing your last set of heavy squats or that 5-miler in the freezing rain–you want to delay the pain as much as possible and cocooning yourself in a state of distraction is a way to protect your mind from doing any deep thinking.

I’ve been consciously thinking about distraction and the ability to focus. Reading Cal Newport’s Deep Work was an inspiration. If reading isn’t your thing, check out this podcast interview with Ezra Klein. I’m also reminded every morning when I meditate how distracted my mind can get and what it takes to focus for a few moments. At work, I’m always amazed by how quickly I fall into a default mode of distraction. To get even a single hour of focused, deep thinking is an achievement. Most of my deep work happens on Sunday nights, when external distractions are at a minimum. The rest of the time, I seem to operate in a sort of reactive, troubleshooting mode.

I think the big challenge for myself personally is building the stamina and patience to see through more complex and non-urgent endeavors. I admire people who can put aside a couple hours a day to write stories or songs or to learn new skills like coding or a foreign language. This is a trait, a habit really, that I’m very eager to develop, but I also understand that it’ll will be harder than any of the other positive habits I’ve been able to gain so far.


One person who’s done a great job of containing distraction (literally, he contains it in a bag that prevents his mobile device from working!) is my buddy Welton Chang. He recently revised and I helped him release an updated e-book called Mastering Productivity: 20 Principles to Help You Achieve More Through Proven Systems & Lasting Habits. It’s full of actionable tips and insights, and it’s free to read online or as a downloadable PDF.


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