For most American professionals, distractions are a normal part of life. You’ll get an email notification in the middle of a project, or a text during a meeting, or you’ll notice an interesting article on social media when you’re trying to focus on a solo task.
Then you’ll dive down that rabbit hole to learn more about it.
On a surface level, distractions range from the pleasant and barely noticeable to the mildly annoying, but they may be affecting you more than you realize.
Building and getting back your focus
For some people, passing distractions never seem to cost much time. They’ll take 30 seconds or a minute to look at their phone, or even two minutes to scroll through their Facebook news feed; then they’ll return to work. But, if this doesn’t sound like you, you may be in the extreme minority, considering that 90 percent of employees self-report using social media during work hours.
Unfortunately, those minutes-long expenditures are only the tip of the iceberg. The time you spend on the distraction itself is trivial in most cases, but you also have to incorporate, in that “lost” time, the minutes it takes your brain to regain its focus on your initial task. And according to a study from the University of California-Irvine, that return to your original focus, following a distraction, takes, on average, a full 23 minutes and 15 seconds.
In other words, if you’re distracted at least once every 23 minutes, there’s a good chance you’ll never ramp up to your fully focused potential.
The dangers of multitasking
As if that weren’t bad enough, getting distracted also forces your brain to multitask; you won’t bring a project neatly to a close, so you’ll keep working on it to some degree while you attempt to shift your attention to another task competing for your attention.
This is bad for several reasons. According to Stanford neuroscientist Russ Poldrack, if you learn new information while multitasking, that information can get sent to the wrong part of the brain. You may feel that you’re paying attention in a meeting and reading up about a new creative brief at the same time, but chances are you won’t retain information from either source.
On top of that, the brain isn’t designed for multitasking; there are steeper metabolic costs to shifting your attention, which means the brain consumes far more oxygenated glucose during the changeover. If you switch back and forth between tasks often enough, you could feel disoriented, or even exhausted.
In addition, your brain will produce more cortisol, a stress hormone that often leads to irritability, aggression and impulsive behavior.
The gateway distraction
It’s also important to consider the fact that most of our modern distractions have the potential to occupy far more than just a few minutes of our time. Most social media apps, for example, are designed to be addictive; they give you just enough of a reward to keep you using them; they provide no sense of completeness because of their infinite-scrolling potential and they constantly give you notifications so you can see what’s new.
If you aren’t careful, a quick look at your newsfeed can turn into a 30-minute long dive into the digital world.
When distractions are good
All that being said, there is a case for arguing that distractions can be beneficial. For example, there’s evidence to suggest that mental distractions can aid in pain relief, especially for sufferers of chronic pain. They may also provide short-term relief for anxiety and distress.
In addition, pulling yourself away from a task can give your brain some much-needed time to decompress and refocus. There’s a reason we tend to come up with our best ideas when we’re bored or otherwise unoccupied; the brain has more freedom and leisure to wander to new places and tinker with problems that exist in the background.
If you’re specifically using a distraction to help your brain refocus (and possibly de-stress for a moment), you can actually get some value from your distractions.
Despite some potential benefits (when your distractions are fully under your control), though, for the most part, distractions are damaging your productivity — and in multiple ways.
If you want to improve your overall output and de-stress in the meantime, your best option is to limit your distractions by turning off notifications, scheduling your breaks, staying more disciplined with sites and apps likely to steal your attention and communicating to your coworkers about your need to focus throughout the day.
For more content like this, be sure to check out my podcast, The Entrepreneur Cast!