I suffered from distraction yesterday. I hadn’t slept very well the night before, my anxiety was driving my crazy and I hit my coffee threshold at about 10am, meaning my brain was buzzing at high velocity. Instead of calmly working my way through my to-do list, I sat watching old Youtube videos, scrolling through Instagram, re-folding my t-shirt collection and painting my nails.
My head just couldn’t focus on the work at hand, and no matter how much I tried to drown out everything else, I successfully distracted myself for about 5 solid hours. Of course, I then felt guilty for the following three hours – which didn’t lead to much work either.
So how do you stop feeling distracted at work?
Well, there’s no magic fix or concentration tablet you can take that will stop distractions forever – but there are a couple of habits to adopt which might help.
Firstly, I firmly believe that there are two types of distraction: positive distraction and negative distraction – both based on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.
A positive distraction is anything that falls within that Hierarchy of Needs. For example, food. Food falls under the base level of Physiological Needs, and should definitely be a priority when working. If you spend twenty minutes making and eating some lunch, grabbing a glass of water or munching on a snack – this is a positive distraction. It helps you to stay healthy, happy and keeps your brain functioning well.
Another example of a positive distraction is social interaction. This one is a little more complex to unpack, but in general, taking a break to speak to someone you love and care about is a positive distraction. Spending 3 hours on WhatsApp discussing last night’s Love Island re-coupling…not a positive distraction. But having a general feeling of belongingness and social security is vital to feeling relaxed, settled and inspired to work.
A negative distraction, however, is anything that falls outside of the Hierarchy of Needs. If scrolling through Instagram isn’t contributing to your physiological, safety, belongingness, esteem or self-actualisation needs – it isn’t a good distraction. In fact, Instagram tends to demolish our individual sense of self-actualisation on a daily basis so definitely avoid it when you’re in a work flow.
Negative distractions can also come in the form of anything that detracts from the hierarchy or even pushes you further down it. For example, if you’re happy feeling creative, self-actualised and accomplished, and you decide to suddenly stalk an ex, flick back through your old cringey Facebook photos or connect with an old toxic friend – that is a very negative distraction. If the distraction makes you feel worse than doing the work did, it’s not worth following up on.
But how do you cope with the distracting urges?
For many of us, distracting urges are often a bigger problem than the distraction itself. Once the idea of ‘we could be scrolling through Instagram right now’ plants itself in your head, it’s a difficult thought to get rid of. One of the tricks I’m teaching myself to do is when urges strike is to keep a notebook next my laptop or computer and to write down whatever urge pops into my head. Whether it’s ‘go on Twitter’, ‘watch a Youtube video’, ‘paint my nails’ or ‘pluck my eyebrows’, if I get the urge to do it, it goes on the list.
Yes, sometime this means I have a list the length of my arm of activities that pop into my head throughout my period of work, but so what? If I’m not actually doing them, they don’t count as distractions. Whilst this method might not actually scratch the itch, per say, it might help soothe it enough to help you stay focused.
Another way to beat the distraction is to block off certain sections of time for yourself – including your distractions. Work out how many hours you have in total and feed in random 20 minute distraction breaks. Set an alarm that just says ‘distraction’ and see what you feel inspired to do during those times.
Sometimes your urges will kick in and you’ll get stuck into a good juicy Twitter thread, other times you’ll simply switch the alarm off and carry on working. Either way, you’re removing that harmful element of guilt from your distractions, and allowing them to simply happen on your schedule.
It can also be helpful to view your distractions as an addiction, a bad habit that you would like to break. Many of the addiction-breaking tools can work for your distraction addiction too, such as snapping an elastic band on your wrist, a cold turkey distraction break or replacing a negative distraction with a positive one.
Next time you get the urge to do something unproductive, do something quick and productive instead. A quick stroll around the room, touch your toes, stretch, grab some fruit, make a coffee or even do some mindfulness whenever you feel distracted.
Everyone has a different relationship with their distraction demons, and on some days they’ll be tougher to beat than others. But a focussed, productive and motivated work flow is achievable every day, no matter how itchy your distractions get.