Distraction is a symptom of your real problem

Pepijn Lochtenberg

Sandra lived her life on autopilot. Reacting to everything that came her way on a daily basis she had a stressful existence: everything was equally important and everything had to be responded to immediately:

A question from a colleague? Helping immediately and putting my own tasks aside.

An incoming email? Read it right away, but then mark it as unread because I'm not sure what to send back.

A message from my husband that his vacation days have been approved? Immediately check which vacation parks are still available that week.

Everything seemed important and urgent.'

At the end of the day she felt tired: it had been another chaotic and busy day. It frustrated her that again she did not get around to writing that important report. It had been a long time since she had felt the pride of accomplishing a truly challenging task....

Distration as a symptom of a lack of leadership

Who or what determines your focus of attention?

Does the beep of a whatsapp-message determine that your attention goes to your phone? Does the envelope in your screen determine whether you will check your mail? Does your colleague decide that you are going to talk about next week’s team meeting? Or, are you in control of your focus?

If you are very sensitive to distractions - for example by social media, news sites and stimuli around you - then there is a good chance that you are not in charge of your own focus of attention.

You don't have a clear understanding of what is truly important to you and where you want to focus your attention. In this case, frequent distractions are a symptom of a lack of control over your focus.

Of course, cleverly arranging your environment will help you focus better, as you can read in the blog 'Architect of your focus'. However, if the leadership of your focus is lacking, your brain will find a new distraction with ease. 

Why do you have this tendency?  

The path of least resistance

Our brains are sensitive to new stimuli and of course the tech companies are making use of this knowledge. Using the red dots, vibrations and sounds, they are triggering our evolutionarily old brain areas. 

However, a second factor should not be underestimated: planning your activities and sticking to them is much more difficult than letting your day be governed by incoming mail and questions from colleagues. You can keep yourself busy with short responses to a group email, quickly helping a colleague, and the occasional small task in between.

If you don’t have a problem with this, then of course there's no reason to take action. Chances are, however, that it is causing you dissatisfaction:

  • At the end of the day you regularly have an unsatisfied feeling, because you did not get around to doing the things you actually wanted to do.
  • You have the idea that you’re not getting the most out of yourself. 
  • It has been too long since you experienced the joy of development.
  • You experience a feeling of restlessness and work pressure, while you're actually not very productive if you look honestly at your own results.

If you recognize this dissatisfaction, then it is time for action.

A life led by distractions or a life led by your own choices?

I’m always impressed by the focus of elite athletes performing extremely boring tasks - strength training exercises, basic techniques in their sport - for years. The value of performance enhancement gives top athletes the drive to put this focus on day in and day out.

The same intense focus can also be seen in a father who is playing with his child with full attention, the manager at the big bank who values leading the meeting well, or the programmer who is in the middle of her creative process.

In these examples we see people who are paying full attention to something they really value. They are fully engaged and in charge of their attention. Their ability to focus is evidence that they are engaged.

The moment you are engaged in something that is really important to you, your ability to focus will improve. 

Taking charge of focus

How are you going to spend your time and energy?  In your work, but certainly also in your free time.  

Two steps are crucial to take charge of focus: determining values and creating task clarity.

Step 1: Values & value areas

Values are those things that deep down you really care about. Values function as a compass for behavior: you use them to guide your actions (Hayes, 1999). Within different areas in your life – value areas -, you can have different values. 

Value areas are the answer to the question, "Who and what is really important in your life? Answers might include your family, your job, relationships, self-care, and hobbies.

Within those areas, you can define your values: deciding what’s truly important to you. 

Below you will find two short reflection exercises that can help you determine your values in your work. Of course you can also ask the questions for the other value areas.

1. Farewell speech

If you ever stop working, how do you want your colleagues and supervisors to remember you? What description of your doings do you hope to hear in the farewell speech they give?

2. Inspiring example

Who is your role model in your field? What in his or her behavior inspires you?

Sandra chose the following values for herself in response to the values questions:

  • Accuracy and personal development in her work.
  • Being patient and loving in her family.
  • Relaxation in her self-care

Step 2: Task Clarity.

Consciously considering and deciding what truly matters to you (work & personal) is an important first step. A second indispensable step is to create task clarity.

What concrete action will be the first step towards your values?

Formulate the first step into a concrete physical action:

  • Calling Peter to get the customer's contact information.
  • Design the first five sheets of the presentation.
  • Read the first chapter of the book and write a 1 A4 summary.

Sandra had two larger, more challenging tasks that she had been putting off for a long time, and these tasks were the ideal opportunity for her to flesh out the values in her work: accuracy and personal development.

For both tasks, she determined the first step she could take. She now uses at least the first hour of each working day to work on these tasks.

More focus, more peace, more results

Good luck!

Determining your values and creating task clarity helps you take more charge of your focus.

Pepijn Lochtenberg is a sports and performance psychologist and one of the owners of Focus like a Pro. He works with professionals in business and sports on a daily basis to improve focus.