17 Jan The Art of Avoiding Distraction
Firstly, let me apologise if you have opened this blog post on the assumption that I am focused, undistracted, and giving my full attention to everything I do. I’m afraid I do not have all the answers to leading a distraction-free life but I, like many others, am on the hunt for them.
As a small business owner there are so many things on my mental ‘To do’ list that need achieving. I spend the vast majority of my day focusing on ‘getting stuff done’, whether it be ticking things off of the ‘To do’ list, replying to emails, or managing queries. I get a great deal of satisfaction from reaching the end of the day with the ‘To do’ list ticked off, however, I also know that it’s not always the best way to spend my time.
Constantly working through a ‘To do’ list, getting interruptions from phone calls, emails, and text messages, means that I often find myself jumping between tasks and breaking my concentration on things, never giving anything in front of me more than ten minutes of my time before something else jumps into my head or onto my screen. For some tasks that’s okay. Multitasking is, after all, one of the defining skills of the administrator and PA, and we pride ourselves on juggling lots of actions and staying in control. However, some tasks need more than that. Some tasks need my undivided, fully concentrated, attention, in a way that it’s not easy to give.
I’ve previously mentioned Cal Newport’s ‘Deep Work’, a book that talks about applying rules to how you approach work so as to allow you to be more focused (and therefore more productive). My mind returns to the practices Cal recommends whenever I find myself dipping in and out of a project on which I really need to focus.
A document I need to read and add comments to, a spreadsheet with complex calculations, or an online webinar on industry hot topics, all deserve my full attention and silent contemplation. The more time I spend on these things, the more I allow my mind to really get into them, the more ideas I come up with, and the better my thoughts about ways of doing things become. My mind doesn’t have time to reach those thoughts and ideas when it’s only looking at this work in short, interrupted, spurts. My brain needs a chance to get warmed up!
The problem is that I’ve grouped this work in with everything else on my to do list, when what I really need to do is separate it out from what Cal refers to as the ‘Shallow Work’ (checking emails, returning a call, scanning a document) and treat it differently.
As one of the book reviews puts it, shallow work describes, “the tasks that feel SO NICE to get out of the way, but at the end of the day, mean little. You essentially shuffled some papers instead of laying bricks to build a house”. Deep work, though, is a fundamentally important job; it requires more focus and, as such, it needs to be treated differently to ‘Shallow Work’.
If you want to manage your attention span and avoid distraction when you are working on important or complex tasks, then it’s important to recognise the difference between them and your shallow tasks. Instead of grouping everything together in one long ‘To do’ list, identify the deep work tasks and book out specific time for them in your diary. Treat the time booked out for these tasks the same as you would if you were in a meeting. Switch off your emails, put your phone on silent, and close your door. Whatever it takes to keep your mind on the task in hand.
Sadly, with all the technology that surrounds us, many of us have lost the ability to engage in sustained periods of ‘deep work’ as we spend our days in a “frantic blur of e-mail and social media, not even realizing there’s a better way”. I don’t have the tools yet to completely avoid distraction in my day, but identifying when distraction is least useful to me and blocking it out for specific times or projects is my first step towards a distraction-free life, and really does make a difference!