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Driven to Distractions

January 10, 2017


The expression “driven to distraction” is an interesting one. (Recently used as the title of a compelling book Driven to Distraction at Work by ADD and ADHD expert Dr. Edward Hallowell) For the longest time I always assumed it meant someone or something else was doing the driving, not so.


There is convincing evidence that we are indeed the ones doing the driving and putting ourselves, willingly and unwillingly, in a distracted state for any number of reasons. Coming out of a busy holiday season, one could argue the distractions will be fewer however they are lurking at every turn.

Our motivations are complex and our attraction to distraction may have something to do with our brain’s pleasure center as we do get a rush every time we get a digital nudge, text ping or email notification. Consciously programming our devices to distract us also has its roots in an unspoken desire to procrastinate or at the very least temporarily avoid what we should be doing. 

Bestselling author, musician and McGill University Neuroscientist Daniel Levitin in his book The Organized Mind defines distractibility “as a combination of our need for immediate gratification, our level of impulsivity, and our ability to exercise self-control.” He goes on to say that “to successfully ignore distractions, we have trick ourselves, or create systems that will encourage us to stick with the work at hand.” 

The evidence is mounting that we do our best work during periods of uninterrupted focus and we are engaged in a fierce battle with FOMO (fear of missing out) and other internal (read wandering mind) and external distractions. 

Not surprisingly behaviorists would convince us that dealing with digital technology is as easy, and as difficult as curtailing and batching screen time or resisting the pleasurable but unproductive, inefficient and ineffective multitasking urge. Technology wizards on the other hand would have us “fight fire with fire” as Vancouver based tech researcher strategist and Harvard Business writer Alexandra Samuel suggests that automation tools such as email filters, newsreaders and social media post schedulers like Hootsuite can help us minimize distraction and become more productive.
A recent productivity webinar I attended (it promised to turn me into a productivity Ninja) clearly established that the age old advice about to do lists, better time management and urging yourself to be better organized alone is not going to cut it. A blend of behaviour modification and smart tech tools to tame our devices seem to be the prevailing wisdom…as long as you are not being distracted by the weather and by life itself.

Recent research has established what bosses have known for some time. Employees are more distracted and less productive when the sun shines and productivity goes up when it is cloudy or raining. Supervisors take note, you may benefit by taking weather into account when deciding which tasks to assign when. 

And yes our personal lives can be a distraction especially during the years where significant events happen such as romance (and divorce), child and elder care as well as building that new house. Yet another piece of research out of Northwestern University concludes that some of us are more inclined to distraction and the creatives among us are both more prone to it and use it as part of a creative process of incorporating unrelated ideas together to innovate.

If you have tamed the distracting potential of your technology or if you haven’t, the real test is identifying what in your environment poses a distraction (could be the lure of the laundry basket if you are a home based worker) and taking it on. Every job has its distractions and there are many who through effort, focus and sheer determination get their distractions under control and get stuff done!

Sounds like the way forward is a combination of good old fashioned resisting the urge to get the rush of notifications and the ability to get our devices to actually help us use them in a smarter way. And you might want to take down that poster from your Hawaiian vacation. Now, where’s my smartphone, it’s been 20 minutes and I am due for a jolt.

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