Distractions can sneak up on us in two forms, external, and internal - our thoughts and emotions. There is so much in today’s society competing for our attention, we’ve adopted an “always-on” behavior that has left us in a constant state of alertness without ever really giving our full attention to anything - ex-Apple consultant Linda Stone has described this as continuous partial attention.
In this post we explore:
How distractions can effect our senses
Distractions can even interfere with our sense of smell. Recently, scientists discovered that when we are distracted, we experience "inattentional anosmia", also known as smell blindness. Being distracted by something "fills up" what is theorized to be our perceptual load, which according to this 2018 study leaves no space for any attention to strong scents. The same applies to the phenomenon "inattentional blindness," in which people involved in an engaging task often fail to notice strange and unexpected events. Researcher Buetti summarized this when researching what causes distraction, "focus on complex mental tasks reduces a person's sensitivity to events in the world that are not related to those tasks". Interestingly, Buetti theorized that people are more easily distracted when the mental effort required to complete a task increased, but instead the study showed the opposite is true, the easier a task is the more likely we are to be distracted.
How distracted are we?
Forty-seven per cent of the time people are thinking about something other than what they’re currently doing which, according to research, isn’t just an issue for productivity, but also happiness.
Findings from Matt Killingsworth’s PhD research showed that people are substantially less happy when their minds are wandering than when they’re not, even during unpleasant activities where mental escape would be an assumed preference, like the daily commute.In fact, people reported being happier when they were focused on their commute, in the present moment. Wanders of the mind can so often be associated with pleasant daydreams, and although the research didn’t record the exact thoughts of the 15,000 people who contributed to the report, it could suggest that people were less happy when their mind was wondering because the thoughts were anxiety-inducing.
Of course, it’s not just internal distractions that can affect us negatively. In August 2018, research from the UK’s telecoms regulator, Ofcom, reported that people check their smartphones on average every 12 minutes during their waking hours, with 71% saying they never turn their phone off and 40% saying they check them within five minutes of waking up.
5 practical tips to avoid distractions
1. Lock away your phone
Out of sight out of mind is the trick here. We’ve blogged before about how phone notifications can trigger the fight or flight response. Many of us never change the default notification tone on our phones, and so every bleep, vibration or ping triggers a neural guessing game, and the brain floods the body with hormones. Is it a message from a friend, in which case the brain, might product dopamine, the happy hormone, or an alert about an email from your boss which might produce cortisol, the stress hormone?
A notification rarely passes without some sort of physical reaction, and studies have shown that having a smartphone within reach can reduce available cognitive capacity, so why not try to keep your phone in another room or locked away in a box. Our CEO Dr Fotini Markopolou swears by this tip for keeping her evenings stress-free, and it’s super useful for limiting distractions. Read the full article, in Thrive Global, on How our CEO manages stress
“Going offline is a struggle, I am as addicted to my phone as everyone else, but I do what it takes to put it away. Currently, I lock it away in a box every evening! It goes in its box at 9 pm and doesn’t come out until 7 am." Dr. Fotini Markopoulou, Co-Founder and CEO at doppel
2. Work in a quiet space
This may sound like an obvious suggestion, but studies have shown that people greatly underestimate how much background noise actually distracts them. Whilst most can agree, loud conversations and blaring sounds are not an ideal environment to get work done, the small cafe with quiet music and soft conversations in the background can also be a culprit for decreasing productivity.
Results in a recent study that recorded participants’ eye movements as they read texts showed reading required greater effort when participants simultaneously listened to irrelevant background speech, often needing to re-examine words previously read on the page. This distraction occurred because readers were inadvertently trying to listen to the irrelevant speech and process its meaning, despite it’s insignificance to what they were reading.
3. Listen to instrumental music
62% of students listen to music whilst studying but, despite this popular choice, this can jeopardize our comprehension just as much as overhearing background speech does, according to a recent study summary. However, this does not apply to instrumental music with little or no lyrics. So the next time you want to work in a cafe, consider noise-cancelling headphones to drown out the background chatter and play lo-fi beats to keep focused and work distraction-free.
4. Mindfulness meditation
Just ten-minutes of meditation a day can help the brain become more efficient, and require fewer brain resources to complete difficult tasks, improving our concentration and the ability to keep information active in the mind. In a recent study where participants were required to complete a challenging multiple object tracking task, to test the benefits of meditation, the trial group who meditated four times a week over an eight-week period performed significantly better than the group who did not. The accuracy of following the targets in the tracking task rose by 9%, showing that their concentration and working memory had improved, whilst participants in the control group did not show any improvement at all.
Put the difficulty of the test to task yourself byt following along with this demo video.
5. Get in to a state of calm
Before you start a task, that requires your full attention, check-in with how you feel. Study of the human brain has shown that activation of the amygdala by negative emotions interferes with the brain’s ability to solve problems or do other cognitive work. The amygdala is the part of our brain that processes how we feel and, as reported in the Harvard Business Review, positive emotions create the opposite effect on this part of our brain, enhancing our creative skills and strategic thinking.
So, the next time you need to concentrate, try taking deep relaxing breaths or writing down a list of things you’re grateful for, to get you in a good mood. If you don’t have time in the day to carve out for these mindful moments, using a doppel wristband is another great way to get you in a calm and relaxed state, within moments.