Why you should focus on defeating distraction

Your attention span, both personal and profession is one of your most important assets. Spend it wisely.

Image: iStock/ Antonio_Diaz

Ask what business Facebook or Google is in, and the average person might mention advertising, social networking, or apps. The companies themselves take an even higher-minded approach, with Facebook extolling that its mission is nothing short of "[giving] people the power to share and make the world more open and connected." The truth of the matter is that these companies, along with the cadre of enterprise vendors you employ, are in the distraction business. And they're not the only threats to your focus.

Distraction and dollars

Social media is a fairly obvious example of the breadth and depth of the distraction industry. Left unchecked, a half dozen providers will flood our devices with hundreds of notifications every hour, each requesting just a tiny slice of our attention and focus. They attempt to capture a moment of our attention, asking everything from "Wouldn't you like to see that photo that your third grade crush posted?" to "Check out the latest data center uptime reports, now with 86 animated graphs that don't actually mean anything but look very impressive!"

Everyone has heard the old bromides about time being money, or that time is the only non-renewable resource, yet few of us jealously guard our attention, and hence our time, as jealously as we'd guard even minor sums in our bank accounts. We'd be appalled if an enterprise software vendor picked our pocket for five dollars while on-site, yet we'll happily grant them an hour to pitch an application we don't need, delivered by a salesperson who doesn't understand our company. Worse yet, we'll unthinkingly accept every conference call invitation that comes across our desk, and then spend an hour with someone droning on in one ear, while aimlessly browsing the web and throwing around our attention like tossing bills into the wind.

Become a miser with your attention

Just as most people make a quick economic calculation before spending money, do the same with your time. Before clicking accept to that 30-minute conference call, or clicking on a marketing email, determine whether you're willing to spend the time required for an activity that may provide no benefit. If the benefit is unclear, ask the requester to clearly state why you're needed and what benefits you or the company will accrue. You'd never say "yes" if someone asked you to purchase a product without explaining its benefits, so stop doing that with your attention.

Similarly, minimize the opportunities for small attention stealers to turn into large ones. Every six months turn off the useless notifications on your phone, and disable the various pop-ups that attempt to pick your attention pocket while you're trying to work. If work or pleasure brings you into the bosom of the distraction industry, do so on your own terms. Set aside time to troll social media and catch up once or twice a day, or shift to broadcast only mode during the business day and browse during a fixed time later in the day.

If you frequently find yourself responding to a small distraction and then suddenly lose an hour of valuable time, helpful tools abound. For the technologically inclined, I've used a site called Rescue Time that tracks where you spend your time when working on your desktop, but a simple time log in a notepad can be equally effective.

The magic of focus

Winning the battle for your attention does not mean you focus solely on work to the exclusion of all else; rather, that you apply 100% of your focus to the task you choose, not whatever the distraction industry is throwing in your direction. Putting aside a PowerPoint or hanging up from an irrelevant conference call can give you time to take a call from a loved one, or focus unashamedly on a hobby or personal activity. You'll be more engaged, and also in command of one of your only non-renewable resources: your attention.

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