Driven to distraction

December 27, 2011

It’s Christmastide, which means one thing–travel. During our annual ten-plus hour drive to the Gulf Coast of Alabama we stopped in a remarkable gas station north of Atlanta. As I moved around the car to take the gas pump in hand, I was confronted with a smallish flat panel television mounted immediately above the price display. It was showing NFL highlights complete with sound. High above me muzak wafted out from speakers in the awning and together with the tunes clearly audible from a neighboring car (despite closed windows) it formed a perfect trifecta of noise-pollution.

Random moments of quiet are quickly shrinking from our lives. Every nook and cranny of our waking hours is filled with some form of stimulation designed to propel us toward the consumption of some goods or services. Go to a restaurant, even a relatively expensive one, and you’ll find at least one television. Find yourself in your doctors office waiting for an appointment and there will be some form of visual and auditory stimulation offering you information about some disease or condition sponsored by a purveyor of one drug or another. Noise is ubiquitous. 

It’s amazing how comfortable we have become with noise and other forms of stimulation. The instant the power goes off during a winter storm or an electronic device fails many of us start getting really anxious–stir crazy. We need something to do. That’s because distraction is addictive. I forget where I read it but scientists have found that the “ping” of a new email releases a small amount of dopamine into our brain–we keep going back to email, Facebook, Twitter, because we get a biochemical reward for it.

The key to focus is learning to steward technology and distraction so as to control it rather than be controlled by it. It’s unlikely that you’ll ever be able to get away with not having email–we have become too accustomed to this technology to be able to move past it yet.

Some ideas for keeping your focus:

  1. Turn off new mail notifications.
  2. Schedule time to process email. Try 30 minutes twice or three times a day (10am, 1pm, 5pm).
  3. Get noise-cancelling headphones.
  4. Automate and schedule your social media interactions. Try an app like Buffer <www.bufferapp.com>

How do you maintain optimal focus at home and work?