Hi, I’m Ian McClean. I’m the founder of Flow Group and GreenLine Conversations. And this podcast has grown out of the chaos that’s been thrust upon us. During the podcast, I’m going to try and share with you the best of 25 years of helping corporate organizations deal and cope with change. So, as you’re out there, busy making sense of it all, trying to cope, and maybe, in some cases, trying to rebuild your organizations, I’m hoping that some of this can be of some assistance. We’ll keep it deliberately short because I know you’re busy. Let’s dive in.

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 distractions.

Staying too focused in the wrong situation could be fatal. Our biology’s reward for being alerted by the news 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 21st-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 marketers’ 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 we do when we wake up. We can’t stand in a coffee line without looking at our devices. We check our Inboxes 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, and 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 their 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 get distracted, 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 practised, 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 and 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 processes, 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.