Mindful Attention: 5 Ways to Create Focus & Manage Distractions
by Brian Lowell French, guest contributor
Leaders are consistently challenged by all of the distractions faced through the day, taking focus away from leading the team and managing the important work. These distractions cause leaders to become scattered, making it difficult to be mindful and intentional as they lead their teams.
When I wrote my recently published book, Harmonic Leadership – Leading with Inclusive, Mindful Caring, the intent was to provide leaders with practical and pragmatic tools to lead through the lens of mindfulness, being present and mindfully aware of the needs of each team member and finding ways to meet those needs. One of those tools is mindful attention, which helps to increase focus and reduce stress.
Being distracted is now such an expectation in our lives that we no longer recognize all of the distractions that surround us.
We experience the world through our five senses of seeing, hearing, touching, smelling and tasting, making these five sensory portals the whole of our experience. So, when we are not utilizing the five senses with focus, we are not fully experiencing the world around us. But we have a challenge, because most people have far too much sensory input hitting our five senses at all times throughout the day, and our brains cannot process all of it. This leads to a point where we intentionally attempt to tune out as much of the input as possible so we can try to concentrate on one thing at a time. But our brains are not wired to do this well, so we become numb to much of the human experience.
You can consider this the Squirrel-Effect, where a dog sees a squirrel and all attention is pulled towards the squirrel. This occurs in humans as well. Any distraction coming into any of our sensory input channels takes our thoughts to the new input, even if we’re trying hard to concentrate on something else. Much of the distraction comes through our various communication channels. Consider the number of e-mails, text messages, phone calls, collaboration tool messages, social-media pings, and other direct-messages that you receive in an average day. Also consider the amount of time it would take to fully process each and every message, by reading/listening, analyzing, deciding to reply, formulating a reply, receiving the follow-up and responding to it, and then filing, saving, or deleting the messages.
Analyze Time Spent in Processing Communications
_____ List the average number of messages from all channels that you receive in a day.
_____ List the average minutes it would take to fully process each message received.
_____ Multiply the two numbers to see how many minutes each day would be needed.
_____ Divide by 60 to determine the number of hours each day are needed to fully process.
Many working professionals report receiving around 300 hundred messages each day, and state that it takes approximately 5 minutes to fully process each one, on average. That adds up to 1500 minutes, which when divided by 60 means that it would take 25 hours to fully process every message received. Obviously, it’s a no-win situation. Besides the strain of trying to keep up with all of the messages also comes the guilt when we’re not able to reply to everyone.
All of this leads to a brain that’s overloaded with information. The term “Information Overload” was first used by social-scientist Dr. Bertram Gross in 1964. It was then popularized in the 1970 book, Future Shock, by futurist Alvin Toffler, which examined a future where people experienced too much technological and social change too quickly, causing a shock to the system. Sound familiar? We need to become more aware and develop coping mechanisms.
5 Strategies for Managing Distractions
There are strategies that can be used to help manage the amount of distractions you face.
1. Scheduling Focus-Time
Often called time-boxing, this simple technique is quite effective. Simply block time on your calendar that is set aside for various activities, with one of the activities being Focus-Time. This allows chunks of time (from hours to days) that you give yourself to turn off e-mail and chat, mute your devices and singly focus on the most important work. The key is to not allow any distractions during this time, deferring them to a time when you do not need to focus as intently. You could even intentionally schedule catch-up time on your calendar where you allow yourself to deal with the distractions that came up through the day during a set amount of time at the end of each workday.
2. Time / Energy Matching
A key to the time-boxing strategy is to schedule your most important focus-time work at the time of day that you are naturally the most energetic. Consider the day-part when you naturally have the most mental focus, and schedule your most important work (and meetings) during that time when you are the most alert. Then schedule less mentally taxing efforts during times when you are not as alert.
3. Minimizing Sight and Sound
The work location may induce a lot of distraction due to the various sights and sounds within the view and auditory reach. This is especially true in the world of an open office, which is currently the preferred office arrangement in most companies due to the ease for facilities and the feeling that it enhances collaboration. If you are suffering from distraction, ask to move to a less populated location, perhaps facing a wall and at a far edge of the office where the noise will be lessened. You can also place plants or paper holders on your desk to cut down the visual field of view. And you can wear earbuds to lessen the noise (even if you’re not listening to music, just having the earbuds in will help cut the noise, and also keep people from interrupting you as often). Do whatever’s needed to focus.
4. Turning Off Notifications
The notifications that pop up on our computer, phone, tablet, watch and other devices are one of the primary causes of distraction. Apps are designed to default to having all notifications turned on (which is the marketers way of making you come back into the app more often than you naturally would be inclined). When installing new apps, choose to turn off all of the notifications. For existing apps, go into the settings and turn off all of the notifications that you can. The goal is to only allow the notifications that you consider to be the most critical for your work and personal life to be displayed.
5. Putting Social Feeds on a Diet
The social and media apps that people use are designed to distract by continuously attracting you to keep scrolling and opening the new and shiny, the odd and different, the unique and quirky. Psychologists and social scientists recognize that this is causing a new form of addiction. Many people will pick up their device intending to spend only one minute checking messages, but end up spending an hour scrolling through their social network feeds and/or opening up media, and then more media from the suggestions, then even more media, etc. To help on this, consider putting your social feeds on a diet, where you will only “feed” them during scheduled times with forced time limits.
Taking these steps provides a sense of agency to proactively manage your time and energy to be able to focus on the most important things at the most important times. This starts the path to becoming a Harmonic Leader who displays mindful caring to all who are served.
What techniques have worked best for you in managing distractions and creating focus? Please write your thoughts in the comments to share with other readers.
Adapted from Harmonic Leadership: Leading with Inclusive, Mindful Caring by Brian Lowell French. Published by Harmonic Learning, LLC on March 17, 2022.
Brian Lowell French is a leadership creator, teacher, coach and founder of Harmonic Learning, LLC. He provides leadership programs, coaching, teaming and mindfulness programs for organizations and individuals.