What Is So Wrong About Distraction?

about distractionAs a former air traffic controller and current private pilot, we learned about distraction –  to recognize, mitigate and, avoid it in my work environment was a core part of training.
In the air traffic world, side conversations and noise not related to the work at hand was watched for meticulously.
Why?  Everyone knew distraction was the enemy of focus, and as air traffic controller, focus is crucial.
On the flight deck a “sterile cockpit’ is maintained when taxing and in flight below 10,000 feet.  The latter because landing and taking off, is the most critical phase of flight and, potentially, the most congested.  The former is to avoid inadvertently encroaching onto a runway unauthorized and interfering with the take-off or landing of another aircraft.  In the pilot world, eliminating distraction is a key element of crew resource management.
Beyond Aviation
These days the issue of distraction is everywhere.  It pops up in discussion in the context of external dangers such as distracted:
  • driving or other vehicle operations
  • Walking heads down looking at a cell phone, with ear buds and/or reading
  • students in the school room
  • employees in meetings
…and so forth.  The cell phone and other devices are often the focus of blame, and no doubt distraction is an unintended consequence of these little marvels.
But as one who has had her distraction antenna up for over 40 years, the spread of the distraction factor has been around for a while.  How about when the Walkman or similar devices arrived?
While we retreated into our personal world of music behind our headsets,  suddenly, bicyclists, skateboarders and roller skaters on Venice Beach were running over each other!  Distraction!  Before that, staring out the window from a schoolroom or just “going to one’s happy place” while in a meeting were just as damaging to the intended business at hand.
Distraction From Within
Distraction is not just an external threat, stimulated by the bells and whistles of our current world, it can be a product from within as well.  Thinking, worrying, obsessing over stuff such as:
  • The budget
  • A health issue
  • Family, especially children
  • Work issues
  • Conflicts arising from all manner of life
…clutter the mind  disrupts our inner life.  The culprit? Distraction.
Oh, and while I am mentioning clutter, one’s physical environment, when cluttered and out-of-order, is a source of distraction.  Reminds of the wisdom of spring cleaning, but I digress…..

So What IS Wrong About Distraction?
First, studies have shown that a distracted life actually causes brain damage.  It leads to what is called “milkshake multi-tasking” thinking.  Jumping from one thought to another disrupts brain thought patterns and short circuits healthy brain function.
Second, the loss of time in transitioning back and forth between thought zones.  Another study measured the time it takes to get back into a focused thought process when. interrupted:  as much as 25 minutes!  That means when you are focused, as I am right now in writing this BLOG post, and are interrupted, as I just was by my husband to deal with paying a worker on site, you loose 25 minutes getting back into the project.
Third,  this leads to fatigue, both mental and physical.  Think about it:  ever get irritated when interrupted while focused on a thing?  There may be more than a “that’s really rude” aspect to this reaction.  Your brain is feeling like it just got slapped, because it was!  Do that time and time again and one can turn into a real grump!
Fourth, living distracted impacts relationships.  When our thinking is impaired, the way we relate to others is as well.  When irritated, tired, unsatisfied and frustrated, our interaction with others may be less than optimum.  This in turn impacts our children, training them by example how to respond to life,  Children grow up and guess, what?  Your tired brain moments influence how they relate to their world.
Fifth, distraction impacts sleep.  Whole books, classes and multitudes of studies have been done on why humans need restorative sleep.  Living a distracted life interrupts the ability to achieve  that.  Oh you may sleep (or not) but getting 7-8 hours of the restoration we need is another animal.
Escaping The Damage
Going back into the aviation world, I can attest to all of the above.  In spite of the guardedness of my work environment and due to my hyper-awareness of the effects of distraction, the reality is, distraction lurks.
Once outside the workplace, reviewing the events of the day distracted from my personal life.  That in combination with the crazy 24/7 work and/or travel schedule messed with sleep patterns.  What to do?
First, I had to realize this is an issue.  I then looked for ways to counteract these realities. Here are some of what I did (and still do) to deal with the effect of distraction:
  1.  Limit screen time, of all kinds.  When not watching or using, I turn them off, mute or put them in sleep mode.  My iPhone has bedtime settings, reminders to wind down and just stop!.  I switch to reading maybe with some background instrumental music in the background.
  2. Block time for deep thought.  This includes bedtime reading, but also time for writing and just thinking.  Many times the latter involves some activity like exercise, housecleaning, gardening or while re-purposing some object for resale.  Road trips, flying, even running errands, does the same thing.  Allowing deep thought brings out the creativity and has a restorative effect.
  3. Start everyday with quiet time.  I read, journal, pray and think.  This time is much extended now that my time is more flexible.  While working, many times, it was 15 minutes after I was dressed to stop, breathe, read, reflect with a last cup of coffee before hitting the work commute.
  4. I batch tasks into “power hours”.  Those loose end emails or other correspondence, phone calls, etc.  that when sprinkled throughout the day are just a bother, get wiped out all at once.

Adding Focus Where Distraction Was

Recognizing distraction is more than half the battle, however, life does not like a void. Thus, habits that foster distraction must be replaced with those that foster focus and deep thought.  These four suggestions are just that, ideas that have worked for me.  Even in my “power hour” mode when I AM jumping from one unrelated thing to another feels like focus since it is both intentional and has time boundaries.

What one thing will you do to replace distraction with focus this week?  Please share below and don’t forget to subscribe!

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