How to keep focus when surrounded by technology distractions

Concentration is defined as giving all of your attention to a subject or–hey wait, I just got a text message.

Okay, I’m back. What was I saying?

Oh right…something about concentration–a subject that any modern-day technology user knows is in very short supply now.

The flipside of concentration is distraction. And in our always-on environment, we have more of that than ever. E-mail, text messaging, push updates, and chat sessions may make us more productive than we’ve ever been–in fact, they may be vital in helping us do our jobs–but for many of us they come at a significant price: a reduced ability to focus on a single task for more than a few minutes at a time.

Distraction exists because we allow it to. It’s human nature to wonder what we’re missing and to want to be the first to receive an update from a loved one or a piece of gossip from a well-placed source. The reason people leave those childish “FIRST!” comments on message boards is to express the undeniable delight anyone would feel at beating everyone else to the front of the line.

And so, over the past decade, programmers have baked distraction into tech products, giving those products an instantaneous response mechanism–a way to counteract our perennial fear that the world may be passing us by.

But that doesn’t mean it’s good. Refocusing after even a brief distraction may take anywhere from a few seconds to several minutes; and the more complicated the task was that you left behind, the harder it is to re-immerse yourself in it. Among the bad potential results of this pattern are a longer (or even unending) workday, a succession of unfinished tasks, and a seemingly haphazard final product.

The good news is that you don’t have to live with distraction. Here we’ll look at the worst offenders among workplace distractions, and consider some tools and strategies for dealing with the onslaught of interruptions.

The Worst Offenders

The phone: They may be reviled by Generation Y and beyond, but some people still make voice calls–and they have a nasty habit of calling right when you’re in the middle of doing something that requires sustained focus. The telephone rates as the most audibly intrusive disrupter of work continuity, its insistent, Klaxon-like ring demanding your immediate attention.

Today’s smartphones do far more to distract us than just ring when someone wants to talk. Many smartphones invite you to link social networking and mail programs to the phone’s operating system so that the phone buzzes or chimes or dings whenever a new voicemail or e-mail message arrives, or even when someone adds a new comment under your status on Facebook. The continual updates can be terribly distracting, and because the system is mobile, the distraction follows you wherever you go.

E-mail: If you have the self-discipline to check your e-mail only a few times a day–or even every hour–you’re a rarity. The rest of us click ‘Check Mail’ the way a gerbil returns to the sugar water tap, hoping that something new is coming in. And people burdened with a desktop client like Outlook have it even worse, as it can fetch e-mail almost constantly, breaking into your workspace with pop-up alerts and cluttering the bottom right corner of your screen with a digested version of each newly arrived message.

Text messages: These often-vapid mini-missives consume an increasingly large portion of the average person’s day, rarely conveying any substantive information but nevertheless commanding an immediate, Pavlovian response (no, not salivation). It’s virtually impossible to ignore an incoming text message, even if it turns out to consist of nothing more than “sup?”–and in most cases the effort required to tap out a reply on a cell phone screen or keyboard far exceeds the value of the intelligence exchanged.

Instant messages: IMs aren’t quite the same species as text messages, but they’re just as intrusive and they arrive at seemingly random intervals. The added challenge of an instant message is that the sending party knows that you’re working at a typing-friendly computer keyboard instead of on a cramped cell phone number pad, and thus they expect you to reply more promptly and in greater detail. Even worse, many businesses use IM at a corporate level, meaning that you’re expected to spell things properly.

Social networks: Friend requests, comments on your latest updates, and of course the endless Facebook news feed… They all beckon, and if you have a critical mass of social networking connections, they never stop. If anything, the level of distraction attributable to social networking continues to get worse. Consider the “check in” systems maintained by Foursquare and Yelp, which can push these largely pointless updates to your cell phone. There’s nothing like being immersed in work on a challenging project, only to be buzzed by your phone, which ultimately reveals that “Michael B. has checked in at Sizzler.”

Twitter: An especially disruptive form of social network, Twitter combines the twitchiness of text messaging, the pointlessness of message-board comments, and the timeliness of an RSS feed to form a waterfall of commentary, much of which means nothing to anyone except the person who writes it. It can also consume your entire day if you allow yourself to lapse into follower mode.

Everything else: The Web is a cruel and seductive mistress. YouTube. Perez Hilton. Your horoscope. Lolcats. The Onion. Funny or Die. The Smoking Gun. Reddit. Digg. Strongbad. Your options are shockingly numerous and growing and (worst of all) entertaining; on the Web there’s always something new on.

How to Fix It

Focusing on work instead of diversions is ultimately a matter of personal, mental dedication. But the very technology responsible for these distractions also offers a few solutions.

Here’s how to defang the tech toys that are wrecking your concentration.

The phone: Start by turning off the ringer while you’re working. For a more aggressive tactic to take the sting out of the ring, turn off your voicemail service–or let it get full, so that it can’t accept additional messages. Soon your religious devotion to checking your voicemail will lapse because there will never be anything new to hear.

To prevent your smartphone from trumpeting every mundane event remotely related to your life (OMG! A new e-mail alert from Netflix!), you’ll have to go under the hood for a bit, but the operation isn’t difficult. Consult your phone’s manual or online help to locate the phone’s Settings options. Then turn off audible alerts for new mail, Facebook alerts, and anything else that doesn’t require your immediate attention.

E-mail: First, decrease the frequency with which your program fetches e-mail messages. To do this in Microsoft Outlook, for example, go to Send/Receive Groups and change the time listed in the Schedule an automatic send/receive every X minutes field. An interval of 10 to 15 minutes is long enough to minimize the distraction while keeping you connected to your colleagues.

You can also disable or minimize the Desktop Alert in the bottom right corner of your screen. To disable the ‘Display a Desktop Alert’ feature, uncheck the relevant box–or use this same feature to decrease the length of time your screen displays it (but beware: if it stays visible for too short a time, it may prove to be an even greater distraction).

On your smartphone, set the mail app to check for new messages on a schedule that you specify; or better yet, set it to retrieve new messages only when you manually check for them.

Text messages: Text messages breed more text messages, because psychologically no one seems to be able to resist responding to such a message. The best way to avert text message abuse is to respond to texts on your own timetable and via a different medium, moving the conversation to the ground of your choosing.

For heavier-duty blockage, you can stop texts completely by calling your carrier and arranging to turn SMS service off. Alternatively, you can selectively block some messages, depending on your carrier, based on how they are sent (via e-mail, for example) or by associated keyword. Check with your phone company for instructions on how to do this.

Instant messages: Aside from simply logging out of your IM client (you can always claim that you forgot to open the app), the “Away” status setting is your friend here. Some users leave the ‘BRB’ setting on all day so that no one gets offended when they don’t respond to IMs promptly.

Social networks: Facebook and the like will always be a distraction, but when social networks work in tandem with other distractions (specifically, e-mail), the effect can be really debilitating. Step one is to turn off e-mail alerts so that you won’t be interrupted every time someone makes a vapid comment in connection with a picture you once “liked.” In Facebook, these options are located under Account, Account Settings, Notifications. Uncheck the boxes in the ‘Email’ column to disable the notices (there are many).

You might also consider disabling chat requests so you avoid being doubly distracted when you visit a social network. Click the chat tab in the bottom right part of the screen and click Go Offline whenever you don’t want to be bothered.


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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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