Resist Temptation – Minimise Distraction
The most valuable asset you have as a leader is time – because it is finite. It may be self-evident, but how you
ration and spend that time is critical, and your overall effectiveness as a leader has time as its source code.
This fact – that time is the only truly democratic resource – has been in my awareness ever since I can
remember. So much so, that it’s where I began my professional career – running Life & Time Management
programmes over 30 years ago. I really, deeply understood the principles and was very disciplined at applying
them in my own life.
Fast forward to the random present. Has this ever happened to you?: You need to look something up. You
reach for your mobile device (as we all do). You start opening the app/browser. You then get distracted. So
distracted, in fact, that you forget what you intended to look up in the first place. I ask the question because
this happens to me. It never used to, but it does now. And many others I know. The shock for me is I should –
and do – know better. Yet, still, I find myself succumbing to distraction (and that’s the topic for this episode).
The age we live in now is a Garden of Eden of relentlessly tempting distraction. Yuval Harari summed it up best
when he said “the most scarce resource in the world today is attention”. We live in an attention economy.
Today is the moment in history where our ancient human biology is beset by 21 st century technology. What is
the outcome when they clash? Let’s start with the biology… the human species is naturally wired to crave
information. As primates, gathering new information was once just as important as food, as staying alive
meant remaining alert to any distraction. Staying too focused, in the wrong situation, could be fatal. Our
biology’s reward for being alerted by the new was a short dopamine hit – which in truth is more a bug than a
feature – but nonetheless, the combination of survival coupled with a mood-boosting reward makes us
naturally ripe for distraction.
Now cue the Attention Economy and 21 st century technology, where dark forces are at work to steal our
attention away – no longer for the purposes of OUR survival, but for THEIR commercial benefit. The best and
brightest minds are preying on your biological Achilles heel, and are bent on seizing and sustaining your
attention. There are only two businesses I know that call their customers “Users” – drug dealing and
technology – and they are both in the addiction game. The increasing sophistication of digital marketing
(technology) is disturbing. 10 years ago there were approximately 150 tools or technologies at marketer’s
disposal to catch and keep our attention. Today that number has risen to 9,932. A simple example is the
invention of the infinite scroll. This elementary, now quotidian feature alone is estimated to keep you engaged
50% longer. Just that one simple hack. I remember clearly, not that many years ago, the Chief Product Officer
of one of the biggest global betting firms describing gleefully at the relaunch of their mobile app how their
whole strategy for the app was centred on just one thing – keeping the user engaged. Now, not only was their
gambling product addictive, but their app was too.
This is just one company in a world of 250 million businesses. 150 million have a website. 70 million advertise
online spending $629bn per year – all for your attention. And it’s working. We have suddenly become the most
interruptible society in history. We check our phones every 12 minutes (up to 150 times per day) – often it’s
the first thing when we wake up. We can’t stand in a coffee line without looking at our device. We check our
Inbox constantly. We don’t finish deep tasks without being taunted by our open Gmail tabs. My grandfather
used to bring me into the local town to do the weekly shop when I was a kid. He would drop me off at the
amusement arcade while he did the messages. I still remember vividly the thrill of the fruit machines as I
gambled my weekly pocket money. Today we live surrounded by fruit machines. And I’m not even going to get
started on AI.
This fragmentation of our concentration means that we live in a permanent state of (what Linda Stone coined
as) Continuous Partial Attention. The consequence of this for us is a decreased ability to focus, lower
productivity, increased stress levels, poorer relationships and (in one 2005 study at the London Institute of
Psychiatry) an actual reduction in our IQ. So how did we get here? The answer is – as Hemingway once said
about how a character went bankrupt – “gradually, then suddenly”. So much so that a 2010 Harvard study
determined we spend nearly half our working hours thinking about something other than what we are doing.
So, as a leader, against this back-drop of dungeons and dragons, how do you get the most from that most
precious commodity at your disposal – time? In a nutshell, being most effective with the time that you have
involves the ability to accomplish what Cal Newport describes as “deep work”- the ability to access a state of
flow to achieve optimal output. In the modern attention economy of perma-distraction, winning is less about
focus and more about what you ignore. Think about it, in a world where elongated time spent in flow is
increasingly difficult to obtain, the ability to access it suddenly becomes a competitive advantage.
Flow is not a binary on/off state. Getting into flow is a four-phase cycle. The first is the Struggle phase when
our brain is adjusting itself to the task at hand. Neurochemically the effort creates discomfort and the
discomfort brings with it a powerful natural urge to distract ourselves with a short dopamine hit in the early
minutes of starting the task. As it’s a reflex action, most knowledge workers succumb to the urge and – as
Users – reach for the hit. Check my messages; scroll my newsfeed; visit my favourite sites. After the
momentary fix they return to the task. Rinse and repeat. However, each time they are resetting to the start of
the Struggle phase, which induces more stress and makes it even harder to resist the urge to self-distract.
Most people spend entire careers dipping in and out of the Struggle phase and never persist long enough to
break through into flow. They give into the temptation of one marshmallow, instead of holding on long
enough for the reward of two. The most sinister aspect of this habitual self-defeating cycle is that every time
you distract it takes up to 23 minutes to get back to the main course. If time is truly your most valuable
resource as a leader, can you really afford this consistent malpractice in your life?
So how do you manage to persist through the Struggle so you can be rewarded with the ease and productivity
of flow? From amongst the forest of obvious useful hacks you will get from any search engine (leave smart
devices outside the room; turn off notifications and alerts etc; manage your physical environment; have a plan
etc) there are two things that will make the most fundamental shift towards helping you ignore distractions.
The first is what I describe as “Return to the Mantra”. Let me explain. Many years ago I was taught a
(transcendental) meditation practice. To quieten the mind, I was given a mantra to silently repeat. As sure as
breath itself, every time I practiced, my thoughts began to wander from the mantra. At first this induced
anxiety, for no matter how hard I tried I could not stop my mind from wandering. This anxiety triggered a
spiral of worry that I would never master the technique – ironic, given I started the practice to reduce anxiety,
not increase it. It was then my very wise teacher Judy intervened. “Accept that your thoughts deviate from the
mantra : this is natural and normal. Instead of resisting, simply observe it is happening. And don’t judge.
Observe. Don’t judge. Then, simply return to the mantra.”
It is precisely the same rhythm and advice for deep work and distraction. First, accept and welcome the urge in
the Struggle phase. Know that it is natural. Simply observe it is happening – and realise that it’s ok. Once,
you’ve acknowledged the urge, then make the choice to “Return to the Mantra” – or, in this case, the task. The
power here lies in the fact you are making the choice. You are observing the temptation and choosing to resist
it. By consistently observing the temptation, then returning to the task two things happen – firstly you more
quickly break-through into the flow state and supercharge your productivity, but also you strengthen the
mental muscle that makes it easier to resist temptation the next time, and the time after that – until this
response becomes your habit, and not perpetual distraction. As Jim Rohn describes it “Success is simple
disciplines repeated on a regular basis. Failure is simple disciplines neglected on a regular basis.”
The second fundamental for allowing deep work to flourish and avoiding distraction is Mono-Tasking (or what
Brian Tracy calls “single handling”). In meditation you have one mantra, not two or five. It is seductive to think
we can multi-task – which offers the illusion of being more productive and getting more done in the time.
Many people believe they can multi-task – even brag about it – but it is a perceptual glitch. Oliver Burkeman
describes it “What better way to try to resist the truth of having limited time than pursuing a huge number of
tasks and projects at once?” The plain fact is that the human brain cannot parallel process, and what we are
actually doing is switching attention from one task to another in rapid succession. This only serves to reduce
speed and accuracy, increase errors and diminish work quality. We regularly host a live simulation in our
workshops that proves this conclusively – to the grave disappointment of our proud Multi-Taskers! Shifting
attention from one task to another is just another form of self-distraction and guarantees you never reach the
flow state of optimal performance.
So, in summary, choose your most important task and begin to focus. As the urge to self-distract rises, observe
and acknowledge it but don’t judge it or yourself. Instead choose to return to the task at hand. Persist with this
and you’ll soon find yourself in the flow state. Stay with it until the task is complete. Then repeat the cycle with
the next task.
Finally, while time is the most democratic (and precious) resource available to a leader, the value leaders get
from it is not equal. May the force be with you in combating the evil forces of distraction and keeping you
away from the Dark Side.