Stop Driving Yourself to Distraction: Reclaiming Your Sanity

“We live in a moment of history where change is so speeded up that we begin to see the present only when it is already disappearing.”   ~ R.D Laing

The Scottish psychologist, R.D Laing wrote these prescient words in 1970.  In our work we see an alarming increase of the effects of overwork and overwhelm on our clients.  Many of the circumstances that are contributing to the pressure on workers today are simply beyond their control.  Constant change, uncertain economic and global conditions and evolving technologies are having a profound impact on the way we work. Given the often turbulent new normal, it’s become increasingly important to ask yourself this question:

“What Is In My Control – And What Is Not”?

That’s THE question.  Regardless of the problem or situation – think of this question as your guiding mantra. What is in your control – and what is not?
But for now, let’s apply this question to look at the ways that technology is impacting your work life – and beyond.

  • How much of the technology you use in your life is in your control?
  • How much of the technology you use is enhancing the quality of your life and the effectiveness of your work?
  • How much of the technology you use is contributing to increased distraction, lack of focused attention and increased impatience and frustration?

In a compelling article in New York Magazine, In Defense of Distraction, author Sam Anderson describes the hyperactive scenario that is becoming the norm for most working people – whether in corporate settings or at the outposts of the self-employed (that’s us). Between our multiple devices, emails, texts and social media,  there really are no real boundaries to our work days.  We can and do, work anywhere and at any time. Take a flight on any weekday and try to find someone simply reading a book! Laptops are out on tray tables, spreadsheets compete for space with the bad peanuts and people are working non-stop from San Diego to Houston.

Science is weighing in with more studies examining the effects of technology on how we think, feel and get things done.  In his book, iBrain, researcher Dr. Gary Small (UCLA) posits that, The current explosion of digital technology not only is changing the way we live and communicate but is rapidly and profoundly altering our brains. Daily exposure to technology stimulates brain cell alteration and neurotransmitter release, gradually strengthening new neural pathways in our brains while weakening old ones. Because of the current technological revolution, our brains are evolving right now – at a speed like never before.”

While it is true that research on the plasticity of the brain (its ability to change in response to stimuli) is well established, what’s less known, is how technology is re-shaping it.  While we know that adults now spend an average of 8.5 hours a day in front of digital screens of one type or another, we don’t know exactly how it is affecting us.  There is, however, ample anecdotal information on the ways that people report feeling more stressed, over stimulated, exhausted and scattered by the information, stimulus and demands on their time and on the use of their energy.

You Can Do Anything – But You Can’t Do Everything!  

Most people still believe that multi-tasking works.  Recent studies show that the brain cannot focus on one task while doing the other.
Because the brain processes different types of information from different channels, the switching required to multi-task, is simply inefficient.
Information and time are lost in the switching process. When subjected to MRI, researchers note that they can see the multi-tasking brain struggling, even though they still don’t know what is going on in the process.

Two key questions for those who still pledge their allegiance to multi-tasking –

 What is the quality of the attention you pay to any one task?

How do you feel in the process of doing 5 things at one time?

Productivity expert David Allen points out that “the real challenge is not managing your time but maintaining your focus: if you get too wrapped up in all the stuff coming at you, you lose your ability to respond appropriately and effectively. Remember, you’re the one who creates speed, because you’re the one who allows stuff to enter your life.”

“Life is the sum of what you focus on”
— Winifred Gallagher

In her book, Rapt, author Winifred Gallagher, discusses the relationship between attention and presence – the ability to be present in the moment. While all humans have the capacity to be attentive (consciously choosing what to focus on) few practice it with any consistency.  Gallagher cites the “magic” of focused attention as the elixir for all that ails our addled minds and depleted energies. Maybe she is right?!

While we’re interested in the role of e-technologies on how we work, we are more concerned with their impact on how we think, feel and consequently communicate.
Our mantra is that awareness is the cornerstone of effective and productive communication (interpersonally and internally).  Awareness, our conscious attention, drives everything we do, feel and say. Distraction diverts our awareness and puts our brain on auto-pilot. Most of us give surprisingly little attention to how our minds function. But mind training works. It can improve the quality of our thinking, change the way we focus our attention and significantly enhance our productivity. Consider it an important investment.
How we are doing things cannot be separated from what we are thinking. It may seem like a long thread between our cluttered in-boxes and our fragmented thinking processes, but the connection is there. Gallagher stresses that our attention is our responsibility. It is our choice.

The Brain Needs A Break – and How

Let’s go back to our core question at the beginning of this article – remember?

What is in your control and what is not?

To gain more clarity, focus your attention, feel and become more productive, it is important to be able to answer this important question.
Keeping the control question as a framework, consider the following:

  • Am I satisfied with the quality of my ability to focus my attention on the tasks I have prioritized (prioritizing can be a part of this problem but is not the focus of this discussion)?
  • How do I feel doing my work on any given workday? (Nearly everyone experiences frustration, impatience and irritation in the course of getting things done – but if these emotions are your norm – that’s a problem)
  • What is my relationship to my e-stuff? (smartphone, email, texts, social media, etc)
  • Can I get through my non-work time (assuming there is some) without e-stuff? (checking emails, texting for business, etc)
  • How has my increasing use of e-technologies affected my interpersonal communication? (you may want to check with an impartial “observer” to get an accurate read on this question)
  • Am I able to let my to-do list go? In other words, are you allowing enough time to let your mind – rest?

Depending on how you answer these questions you may want to begin to make some changes in your relationship to your e-stuff and the way you approach getting your work done.

4 Steps to Regaining Control over Your Tech Time

  1. First and foremost, take stock of how you talk to yourself about all this. Yes, your inner dialogue matters. If you begin the day bemoaning how little time you have and how much work you have to do – you will set the stage for disabling emotions (we’ve mentioned a few) to take hold.
  2. Get a handle on your e-stuff. Take good old-fashioned notes on what you use, how often and for what purpose. Can anything be eliminated? What’s being over or under used?
  3. Read the In Defense of Distraction article and note the ways in which you typically distract yourself. What changes (even tiny ones) can you make immediately to begin to regain your focus? Make the connection between the state of your desk, files (and this includes your e-files) and your thinking. Start small but do something to de-clutter and re-organize.
  4. Find some time every day to quiet your mind. Experts in this field routinely point to the power of some form of meditation or relaxation technique. Get outdoors – every day! Make decisions – and let go. This is very important and for some people – really hard to do. Practice with the teeny tiny things first. Slow down. We know this is a radical suggestion for some of you, but its importance cannot be overemphasized. We are talking about a mental and physical act here. If your thoughts are moving at lightening speed, your physiology will respond immediately. And most importantly, remember this is a process. Starting with smaller chunk sizes almost always works better than taking on big projects and goals to change. Taking on these changes in small, consistent and conscious ways will help you to re-train your ability to focus.

So – do I have your attention?
I hope so.  The reality is that we live in an over-wired world that is getting faster and more demanding.  Many of us are losing our connection to the kind of peace, silence and space most people took for granted years ago.  Most of us long for it in different ways – but we feel too caught up in the to-do list to make a break – even for a few minutes a day.
Unless, we step back and take a look at where we are in the process, we can get lost.  That’s why it’s important to realize that it’s your choice.

Thanks for reading!
Louise Altman, Intentional Communication Consultants
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