The Big Idea
Be mindful of how often you interrupt yourself.
Questions I Answer
- How can I be more focused?
- What habits will help me be more productive?
- What can I do to limit distractions?
- Do breaks increase my productivity?
Actions to Take
- Use these 5 habits to help increase your focus:
- Own your space. Change your behavior by not allowing items that could distract you nearby.
- Build your focus muscle. Push your attention limits gradually.
- Give distractions their own space. Write down your random thoughts – don’t always act on them as soon as they pop into your head.
- Put your brain on a break. Alternate between work and breaks. You can even start a meditation practice and become more mindful
- Read longer articles books slowly. Allow yourself to enjoy learning and being invested in a good book or article, which will increase your focus time.
Key Topics in the Show
Discover how ‘distractable’ you are – what do we do when nothing is occupying our attention?
How multitasking is hurting your productivity, and how to fix it with monotasking
Changing your brain and your behavior to diminish interruptions
5 good habits that will boost your attention span and increase focus
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Resources and Links
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Welcome to Productivity Paradox from inkWELL Press, a podcast focused on finding success and happiness through the power of productivity. Each season, Tanya focuses on specific strategies to help you discover your own priorities and purpose. Season six is all about turning your stumbling blocks into starting blocks. You can also join Tanya for more interaction and support in her free Facebook group at inkwellpress.com/group. And now, here’s your host, Tanya Dalton.
Hello, hello, everyone. Welcome to Productivity Paradox. I’m your host, Tanya Dalton, owner of inkWELL Press, and this is episode 71. Today’s episode is brought to you by Blue Apron, and in a little bit I’ll be sharing how you can get a discount on your first box. Let’s go ahead and get started talking about today’s topic.
As you know, season six is all about turning our stumbling blocks into our starting blocks. So I want you to ask yourself a question. Are you a self-interrupter? Do you know what I mean by this? Often, when talking to people about their obstacles, they tell me that they have a hard time getting real work done, or getting into that coveted productivity zone, because they have far too may distractions. And I agree, we have way too many distractions. People and things that disrupt our flow. But I’ve found that many times these distractions are somewhat self-imposed. They’re interruptions that we allow, and even sometimes invite into our day without even realizing it. And that’s our obstacle I wanna tackle today. Not distractions, but self interruptions. And let’s see if we can turn this stumbling block into a starting block, shall we?
So here’s the thing, our world is technology-rich with notifications and alarms and ringtones and vibrations, and all these things that steal our attention away. And they trap us in a positive reinforcement loop as we talk and text and comment and message anyone and everyone all at the same time, right? Have you heard the fun fact that a goldfish has a nine second attention span? But did you know that we humans just beat their record?
A study from Microsoft has shown that people now generally lose concentration after just eight seconds. And along with studying participants’ brain activity, Microsoft surveyed their habits, and they found that we seem to think we’re getting better at multitasking, and using multiple screens at once, despite the fact that we can’t focus on a single screen for more than 10 seconds at a time. We seem to think we should be able to multitask, but we don’t even seem capable of mono tasking.
And you might remember we talked about mono-tasking way back in episode 10 in season one. And we discussed how our brains are not designed to multitask. Another fun fact, the word multitasking is a word that’s only been around since 1966. You know why? Because that word was used to describe computers. Computers were designed to multitask, not people. And even that’s not accurate, because computers process one line of code at a time. They just work so quickly that they appear to
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multitask. We somehow assume, though, that we have this ability to multitask, even though our brains are not computers, and certainly are not designed for it.
But look around you. Look at people on their phones at restaurants, or walking down the street. It seems almost impossible in today’s world to stay idle and simply be alone with your thoughts. Doctor Larry D. Rosen’s lab has been studying our distractability for the past decade, and he has seen an increase across generations for how often people check their devices. The majority of young people check their smartphones every 15 minutes or less. And yes, by calling them young people I just dated myself as like an 80-year-old, right? But it’s true, the younger generation tend to check their smartphones pretty often.
Three out of four young adults sleep with their phones nearby with the ringer on or on vibrate so they don’t miss notifications. And in the Microsoft survey I just spoke about a few minutes ago, they asked participants if they agreed that, “When nothing is occupying my attention, the first thing I do is reach for my phone.” 77% of people aged 18 to 24 answered yes, compared to only 10% of those over the age of 65. But when asked if they agreed with the statement, “I often use other devices while watching TV,” 79% of people aged 18 to 24 answered yes, and 42% of people over the age of 65 also answered yes. That’s piling one distraction on top of the other, using multiple devices all at once.
We wanna say it’s an epidemic for the youth or millennials, but it’s not. People of all ages are allowing their phones to drag them from one distraction to the next, much like Pavlov’s dog. As a matter of fact, in another study a group of young adults and another group of older adults wore biometric belts with embedded eyeglass cameras during their leisure time. The younger adults switched from task to task 27 times per hour, so about once every two minutes, while the older adults weren’t that much better. They switched tasks 17 times per hour, or once every three to four minutes.
Everyone is trying to multitask in some way, shape or form, and it’s not surprising, because we are bombarded with so many opportunities. In web development, there’s this thing called the four second rule, and this rule shows that the average website user is likely to leave a site if it doesn’t load within four seconds. More recent work shows it may actually be closer to two seconds, which means we have this need for instant gratification, and when it’s not met we move along, whether it’s to our benefit or not.
Judy Wajcman, a sociology professor at the London School of Economics, wanted to see how technology interfered in a real workplace, and she conducted a study that shadowed employees of an Australian telecommunications company throughout their entire day. The employees in this study spent only about half their workday on actual work-related tasks. Most of these episodes lasted about 10 minutes or less, about three minutes on average. Interestingly, nearly two thirds of the interruptions to these episodes were self-generated, mostly involving digital communication or checking in on email or work chats, even without an external alert or notification.
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Another study that followed workers for two weeks found that they were interrupted over four times an hour by email. Even worse, 41% of the workers responded to their emails immediately. And on average, the workers were spending 10 minutes dealing with emails and messages, and then took another 10 to 15 minutes to get back on task. It’s been reported that even without an email alert, one in three people claim to check their email every 15 minutes. In reality, they check it about every five. This means we’re self-interrupting, and we’re not even aware of it.
You know what I’m talking about, we’ve all done it. We check our phone for email, see nothing in there, and then inexplicably, we check it again two minutes later, right? Did we expect something to change in that time? Or the bigger question is what do we expect to find in there? We have to stop checking email incessantly like we’re hunting for a prize at the bottom of the cereal box, when there’s really nothing more than cereal in there. I don’t know about your email inbox, but mine is more like Grape-Nuts than it is Froot Loops. Not a ton of fun and excitement going on in reality. So we have to stop checking incessantly, we have to stop interrupting ourselves without even realizing it.
We already know that switch-tasking like this is harmful to our productivity, so why do we do it all the time? Why are we often finding ourselves, without meaning to, interrupting our own time? Well, we can’t be too hard on technology for our shorter attention spans. It’s technically the fault of our brains because we’ve been programmed to always seek out new information.
From an evolutionary standpoint, our cave ancestors knew it was important to always be on the lookout for food, water, predators. And when we spotted these things, it wasn’t that important to get back to the original task. So our brain is primed to constantly be on the lookout for new information. And then it’s not so great at getting back to the old information it was previously looking at, and it just starts ignoring it. It’s similar to those noise-canceling headphones. Your brain uses energy to filter out distractions around you. But when we overload our brain and we don’t give it space, it’s like not charging those headphones. It simply stops filtering out the noise. And this makes it so much harder to work in a distracting, tempting or annoying environment. And it seems impossible to change.
It seems like everybody is doing this, right? It’s hard to change our technology habits, but I want you to think about this. How prevalent was smoking before we understood the dangers? With increased knowledge about the effects, we have the choice to reduce our stimulation and become more mindful of how we self-interrupt to ultimately change our habits. Let’s turn this obstacle around, shall we? I’ve got five habits to cultivate to increase your focus, but first I wanna take a minute for our sponsor.
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All right, let’s talk habits. Good, healthy habits that we can cultivate to increase our focus so we can stop interrupting our own tasks. And the first habit is own your space. Part of changing your behavior is making sure that anything that could distract you isn’t sitting nearby.
Professor Bill Thornton recently conducted a study at the University of Southern Maine, and he demonstrated that when performing complex tasks that require our full attention, just having a phone in the room led to a distraction and worse performance. And here’s what’s really interesting. It wasn’t the participant’s phone in the room. It was the researcher’s phone. So even if it isn’t our own phone, it’s still a distraction. And in that same study, a student having their phone on silent in a classroom had an equally negative impact on their attention. So if you wanna focus better, try not bringing your phone with you at all.
If you’re going to an important meeting, try leaving your phone in the car, or at work, try leaving your phone in your purse, or in your bag in another room. Make it much harder to reach for your phone and be distracted by it. Own that space that you’re in.
The second habit to cultivate is build your focus muscle. Your mind is basically a muscle, and similarly, you can build up muscle memory in your brain through a habitual thought process. Just like a physical muscle, your attention muscle has a limited amount of strength, and can either atrophy from not being used, or get stronger from purposeful exercises. Just like strength training, we need to push our attention limits in an effort to have a longer attention span. And you can increase your focus strength gradually.
We’ve talked about time blocking before, and while I typically recommend 30 minute focus blocks, if you’re having a hard time focusing, it’s time to go back to the basics. Set a timer for just five minutes, and work to complete a task. And when those five minutes are done, take a break, reward yourself for the few minutes, and then go back in for another five minutes. When you find that you can easily focus for five minutes after a day or so, try adding another five minutes to your focus time. Make it 10 minutes, and then add a couple of minutes to your reward in your break time. Over time, this’ll build a longer block where you’re able to actually get into that productivity zone. Exercising your brain is just like exercising your body. So let’s be sure to build up that muscle of focus.
The third habit I would love for you to cultivate is give your distractions their own space. Too often we have these random squirrel moments, right, where something pops in your head and you think, “Ooh, I have to find out right away. I wonder what the weather will be like tomorrow.” Or, “What movies are playing this weekend? Do we still have coffee in the coffee pot?” So often we self-interrupt because we think of these things and we think, “This’ll only take a minute,” and we stop and we do it right away.
Instead, what I would encourage you to do is I would encourage you to give yourself a little space to write down these distractions. Create a random thoughts list and that will really help you, because the problem is when you get off task, it takes far too long to get back on task, and that drains our mental energy to check on these
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“just a minute” thoughts. Instead, whenever something random or short pops in your head, write it down on your notepad, and then check it when your break time has arrived, or check it at the end of the day.
When we think about being productive, we think it means being busy. But to truly be productive, we need to give our brains a little space to play and explore, some unstructured time, and this is where your distractions can live. Just make sure to give that unstructured time a container. Give it a set amount of time so you don’t fall into the rabbit hole.
The fourth habit is to put your brain on a break, Ross and Rachel style, you know, they get back together, they break up, they get together. It’s the same for your brain. Work for a while, then take a break. Work for a while, then take a break. Something good you can really do for yourself is start a meditation practice and become more mindful.
We talked last season in episode 64 how mindfulness can positively impact your productivity, and it can also improve your attention span. Research shows that just 10 minutes of meditation a day will boost your attention, and you’ll even start to see improvement after just four days. Also try a practice of mindfulness during your day by simply focusing completely on what you’re doing, slowing down, observing all the physical and emotional sensations you’re experiencing at a moment.
Practice this attentive style of living. Being able to be fully present with loved ones builds your rapport, it builds your trust, and it builds your intimacy with them. Making the effort to fully focus on them strengthens your concentration at the same time. So next time you’re talking with someone, put away the phone and listen as attentively as possible.
And the fifth habit I want you to cultivate is savor what you enjoy. Read longer articles and books slowly, intentionally enjoying them. While some studies indicate that reading digital content has gone up nearly 40%, Slate partnered with a website analytics company, and they found that only 5% of readers who start an online article actually finish it. And 38% of readers never actually scroll beyond the first few paragraphs. Another recent study showed that 25% of Americans didn’t read a single book in the last year.
There’s definitely a time and a place for skimming articles or books, but there’s also so much to learning and enjoyment that’s to be had out of longer books and articles. Getting lost in a book is a great way to build a longer period of focus. I wanna challenge you to start paying attention to how you’re spending your time. Do you allow yourself to have moments of quiet in your brain? Or are you constantly checking in on your phone, checking in with the media, checking in with what’s going on everywhere else?
I want to encourage you to stop self-interrupting and allow yourself the focus time that you need. I think it will be easy for you to turn this stumbling block into a starting block. And we’ll be continuing this theme next week when I have Laura Vanderkam joining me again.
You may remember Laura joined me couple of seasons ago. She has a brand new book coming out. I’m so excited to talk to you about it and share a little bit about that. So look for that episode next week. And the weekender episode this week, we’re gonna be continuing talking about self-interrupting and giving you some ideas for how you can self-interrupt a little bit less.
In the meantime, if you’re enjoying the podcast, and I hope you are, I’d love for you to leave me a five star rating on iTunes. It’s really easy to do and it takes about five seconds. And if you have two extra minutes, I would love for you to leave me a review. It helps other people find my podcast and understand what we’re all about. It really does mean a lot to me. All right, until next time, have a beautiful and productive week.
Thanks for listening to Productivity Paradox from inkWELL Press. To join Tanya’s free group, simply go to inkwellpress.com/group.