A Life Distracted

A few years ago, I made the leap from a typical, set-it-and-forget-it investor with a 401k and a couple mutual funds to my own idea of a "real" investor, with a few stocks that traded daily on Wall Street. And you know what? It wreaked havoc on my life.

I found myself checking my stock app at stop lights, sneaking peeks on my laptop in meetings, stealing glances at my phone during dinner, and sitting up late in bed, amateurishly analyzing market movements instead of getting some much-needed rest. I justified it by telling myself I was keeping an eye on my family's financial well-being. In truth, I was addicted to the information: the tiny thrills and emotional spills produced by the green and red trend arrows were, in reality, more important to me than the actual dollars and cents gained and lost. They stole my concentration during my workday and robbed my family of our quality time spent together.

We're All Addicted

If you're at all like I was, you're addicted to information, and you haven't given much thought to how it impacts your life. You're not alone: in an age defined by constant information flow, most digitally savvy people feel the effect one way or another. Yet most of us aren't fighting it, certainly not the same way we are cigarettes or prescription painkillers. It certainly isn't getting the same kind of press.

It may sound dramatic, but you can't argue with the science. Addictive behavior--that is, a compulsion to seek rewarding stimulus despite negative consequences--accurately describes our urge to check in, update and touch base, while we ignore the harmful effects of constant stimulation. The information river flows from many tributaries--emails, status meetings, social media updates, chats, texts, likes, market shifts--but they all feed us data, and in doing so they reward our brain's pleasure-seeking center with a shot of dopamine. That reward keeps us coming back for more, and every distraction impacts our concentration and productivity.

The Struggle Is Real

That impact hits harder than you might think. According to McKinsey, the average office worker spends 28 percent of their day on email, and another 20 percent seeking information. Tasks like these have some justification, but what about those--Facebook, for instance--that aren't work-related? The Harvard Business Review cites a University of California-Irvine study showing a twenty-minute recovery time from interruptions to subjects' workflow. If that's the price we're paying for every Instagram post, tweet, status update, and chat session--not to mention idle browsing on the Internet--well ... you can see how things start to stack up.

Can We Recover?

How can we halt the inevitable march toward infini-tasking? First, let's be clear: not all distractions are trivial, and not all non-work-related distractions are bad. As much as we need to focus on work, we also need time to refresh, socialize and take breaks from our desks. To believe otherwise is to ignore the research; to enforce hard and fast rules against distraction is draconian and, honestly, futile; people will find a way to play Pokemon Go. Emails and meetings are necessary evils; what we need to do is examine how and when distractions impact our routine, filter out the ones that don't matter, and take control over the ones that do.

Taking Baby Steps Back

First, take an honest look at yourself and decide whether or not this is important to you. If everyone is doing it, nobody is going to police you; you have to do it yourself, and you have to want it. This is the first step in an addiction recovery program, and acceptance is the key to successful treatment.

The second step is to tag and bag the distractions in your day. Make a list, categorize, and then prioritize: critical (requiring instant attention); necessary (but not time-critical); low-priority; unnecessary. Weekly status update with stakeholders from various departments? Probably important. Watching Weekend Update on YouTube because you fell asleep early Saturday night? Maybe less so.

The third step is to set necessary distractions into a schedule, and crush the worthless distractions out of your day. Give yourself defined periods of uninterrupted focus, specific windows to handle daily tasks and communicate with colleagues, and short breaks to recharge your creative energy. Whether you use a schedule-blocker (a plugin that limits Internet access and silences notifications to help you concentrate), retreat behind headphones, or relocate to an empty office or meeting space, the important thing is to stick to the schedule, knowing you've made time for distractions. While many come from your devices, some of the most engaging sidebars likely come from coworkers; being upfront about your new process will help cut out interruptions without alienating your crew. If you use workflow management techniques like Kanban for large projects, think about it the same way: by integrating distractions as known elements, you gain control over their impact on productivity.

In the end, what this allows you to do is execute with greater efficiency. You may have heard we follow a pretty strict forty-hour work week at BambooHR, as part of our belief in a balanced life. That schedule has a mantra built in: Choose, Focus, Finish, Repeat. We choose to focus on work for those forty hours, putting distractions on hold as best we can. In the remaining hours, we focus on family and fun, and we don't let work interfere. Finish one project, move to the next one and make it happen. It sounds absurdly simple on the face of it, but when everyone follows a simple plan together, great things become possible.

Published on: Aug 30, 2016
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.