Defend Against Disruption and Distraction

squawk bird

Many professionals today struggle to handle interruptions that can pull you away from focused work. Interruptions come in lots of different forms, such as notifications of email or text messages, phone calls, someone knocking on your office door, or your own stream of thoughts.

In a recent episode of the Productivityist podcast, Mike Vardy talks about the distinction he makes between disruptions and distractions:

Disruptions are things that:

  • actually do demand your attention or response
  • are often unpredictable
  • are outside your control

Examples of disruptions might be a fire alarm going off in the building, your child getting injured, or your department Chair stopping by your office while you’re working.

Distractions, on the other hand, are things that:

  • pull at your attention but are not immediately urgent
  • can sometimes be predicted
  • are within your control

Examples of distractions include the urge to check email every 10 minutes, thoughts about past or future events, or responding to every social media notification.

And then there are distractions that are themselves outside your control, like squawking birds or the neighbor’s lawnmower, but are not true disruptions: your urgent response isn’t needed.  You can’t control when someone else mows their lawn, but you can adjust your response to it: you could fume and let your thoughts distract you for half an hour, or do you could just change tasks until the noise abates.

Many people are actually unaware of how many times they get interrupted or interrupt themselves during a period of work. I frequently ask my coaching clients to keep a log of distractions and disruptions for a few days as a way of both increasing awareness about these interruptions and to collect some information that can reveal patterns in the workday.

For example, you might find that when you work in your campus office, you are more likely to experience the occasional disruption of drop-in visitors, but that when you work at home, you are prey to the distractions of the Internet. Once you observe your patterns, then you can begin to change those things that are under your control.

Some approaches that can be helpful in taming distraction or recovering your focus after a disruption include:

Becoming aware of the difference between disruptions, which have to be handled and are outside your control, and distractions, which you can mitigate if not prevent entirely, is a great strategy for enhancing your personal productivity.

The second part of the Productivityist podcast mentioned above includes an interview with Tim Metz, the co-founder of Saent (pronounced “saint”), a productivity tool currently open for crowdsourced funding until August 5. The Saent device will combine timer and distraction-limiting functions with social incentives, all in an app combined with a physical device that serves as a reminder and habit cue. It looks like an interesting approach. I’ve signed up for one, so look for a ProfHacker review sometime at the end of the year.

What are your most common distractions while working? Let us know in the comments!

[Creative Commons licensed image by flickr user Kurt Bauschardt]

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