Distraction in the workplace is costly. According to a 2006 survey, lost productivity costs companies $544 billion a year, as employees waste almost two hours a day.
There is no shortage of tips to reduce stress and reclaim productivity, but distraction isn't an occasional problem. Instead, it's like a virus that infects us, according to Dr. Edward Hallowell, a leading researcher in attention and author of the new book Driven to Distraction at Work.
Hallowell is an expert in ADD and ADHD, but he also describes a separate problem called attention deficit trait, or ADT. If you feel that you're always in a rush, bouncing from one project to another and multitasking, and trying to get ahead but seeming to always fall behind, his may be a book for you.
ADT isn't genetic, but a reaction to the stress and demands of modern life. It happens in particular places and times, often in the office. Many businesses have downsized over time while expecting more from the people who are left, making it harder for them to focus on one thing at a time. Here are six distractions that grab our attention and leave us less able to manage our days (if any of this rings true, read the book, as this short post can't do it justice):
1. Screen sucking
If you think personal electronics draw you in, you're not alone. You might have a problem if you waste time without realizing it, feel naked without your phone, secretly go online at home or work, or rely on the virtual world to relieve the stress of the real one. This can literally turn into an addiction, in which case the answer is to turn off the electronics and replace them with real human connections. Start with tracking how much time you actually spend on computers and other devices and then see where you could cut back. Try reserving some time at the start and end of the day for devices, and otherwise turn them off. Have a list of productive things you can do when bored, so you don't have to reach for the electron fix and avoid the websites or games that are habit-forming for you.
When it comes to multitasking, people too often assume that they actually do multiple things at once. They don't. Instead, they hop back and forth among tasks. Computers do the same thing, only at a much faster rate. Doing a lot can mean being productive, enjoying life, realizing ambition, and wanting to be involved. Taken to an extreme, though, it's debilitating and can leave you too responsive to what everyone else expects. Learn to say no nicely when you can't give the task the attention it requires. Delegate more and realize that there are times you can multitask, when what you are doing requires no concentration, and times you can't.
3. Idea hopping
Dr. Hallowell uses this term to describe when people--and many entrepreneurs fall into this category--perceive infinite possibilities but have difficulty seeing things through. Creativity can devolve into pure impulse. It can be a type of self-sabotage, but there are ways around it. Write down ideas (in interesting, nontraditional ways) to see what speaks most to you. Develop structure to help you choose and implement what you will do. Get the necessary help, including a coach, if needed. Recognize the emotional reactions, like fear of success, which could hinder you. Embrace a growth mindset that, no matter what, you can find and pull together the resources that will help you achieve what you want.
Constant worry, like the sense that if you don't keep going, things will fall apart, is painful. Being hard working, focused, competitive, and protective can make you unable to relax, obsessive, in need of high pressure, and paranoid. Among other things, Hallowell suggests sharing your emotional burdens with others so you're not isolated, researching the facts about real potential outcomes, bringing in experts, meditating, and getting regular exercise.
5. Playing the hero
How grand to be the person who saves the day. You want to take care of people and help them avoid harm. But in the process, you neglect what you need. Altruism is a wonderful trait, so long as you have what you need to be of help. Consider the warning you always get on airplanes that, should the cabin decompress, you should put on your own mask before helping others. If you pass out from lack of oxygen, you won't be of much help. Schedule time in your day for what you need. Take time to weigh someone's request before saying yes to it. Determine whether you're the best person to help and ask for aid when you need it.
The major solution? Train your attention
Hallowell writes that you can eliminate focus problems with a five-part approach: energy, emotion, engagement, structure, and control. You need all of them to succeed. A good third of the book covers how to achieve this over time. Following it can help you turn off the electronics, begin to trust your own ways of achieving things, take breaks when necessary, use challenging goals, ask for help, and guard your time so you can regain focus and improve your work and your life.