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Distraction Kills: 5 Ways to Keep Your Focus

Brian Cullinan lost his dream job this week because he became distracted. You might not recognize Cullinan’s name, but you have heard why he lost one of the most prestigious assignments in the world.
 
Cullinan was one of two people responsible for keeping the precious secret of Hollywood’s Oscar winners. He is the person who handed the wrong envelope to the stars announcing the Best Picture award at the end of the evening.
 
Cullinan, a partner with the PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) accounting firm, was reportedly distracted on Twitter when he gave away the wrong envelope. Though he didn’t lose his job with PwC, Cullinan has been banned from future participation in the Oscars.
 
Distraction can kill our work.
 
Distraction can kill our relationships.
 
Distraction can even kill us.
 
In fact, the Wall Street Journal last week reported that auto insurance companies are raising rates after a huge spike in deaths and injuries caused by cell-phone-distracted driving: people texting, reading, watching videos, and more, while driving.
 
Most ominous are the reports of many more deadly crashes with “no skid marks”!
 
This is in addition to the social media tragedies such as people falling from cliffs while taking selfies.

Smartphone Total Domination
We see the more common examples around us every day – the total domination of the smartphone in every aspect of our lives. 24/7 information overload.
 
We’ve seen the group of friends at dinner, all looking at their phones.
 
We’ve seen the people walking down the street running into people and objects. No joke.
 
We’ve even seen a small child at lunch competing with a phone for a parent’s attention.

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder
In fact, social psychologists term our smartphone focus not just an addiction but, for many people, an actual obsessive-compulsive disorder.
 
Last year, one study found we touch our phones on average 2,617 times per day. For the top 10 percent of heavy users that number rises to 5,427 times a day.

And our reliance on technology to turn on our lights or order diapers on command heightens the distraction of our environments. “Alexa, where am I?”
 
I’m not being self-righteous here. I struggle as much as the next person. I’m a work in progress. I enjoy having Siri place my phone calls with the smart British accent I programmed, “Calling Dream Client…MO…bile.”
 
Control in a Digital World
I’m also not arguing against smartphones or easy access to information. I’m just hoping we can all develop some awareness of the problem so we can maintain some sense of control in a digital world.
 
Here are a few of the strategies and tactics I’ve been using to help with digital distraction and information overload that you might consider:

  • Be in the moment. Practice mindfulness with whatever you’re doing. So much of our lives we are in one place, thinking of another — really not experiencing the moment we are living. If I’m eating alone, I particularly focus on my food. I’ve found that if I read or look at a screen, a delicious meal will be missing from my plate and I didn’t taste a bite.
  • Give people your full attention. The most important gift we can give people is our attention. Too often we are there but not there, even if we don’t have our phones in hand. I’ve had younger leaders with small children tell me they fear they are missing special moments by not being fully present with their kids. Some have committed to putting the phone in a drawer for designated hours with the family.
  • Stop “multitasking.” There is no such thing. We are really switching from one activity to the other. The transition time between tasks is much longer than you think. It takes significant time for our minds to refocus. In the friction between we lose energy and productivity. One thing at a time.
  • Set a time to focus on priorities. I set three major priorities for the day. I focus on each one with a set block of time, even just 20 minutes to move it forward. This may be in a hotel room, airplane, or coffee shop, but it gives me a sense of momentum for the day.
  • Designate times for email. Depending on your occupation, you might be inundated by email. Some work cultures expect an immediate answer but in most cases email can wait. We may develop our own compulsion to check every few minutes, which psychologists relate to our social FOMO (Fear of Missing Out). Try this: Avoid answering email in the morning until you’ve worked on a major priority, then set designated times and time limits for clearing your inbox. 

All of these are simple actions to wrestle back control of our time and attention. It all starts with awareness of our total immersion in the warm glow of technology. Like fish in water, we sometimes don’t realize we’re wet.
 
Leave a comment with your stories or how you handle distraction.