Distractions have always been a hindrance when it comes to concentration and work. But with technology and remote work becoming more normalized, they seem to be only getting stronger. We break down what makes us distracted and why, and how to work as a team to channel distraction better.
Sometimes it feels like the whole world is conspiring to make us as distracted as possible. We’ve surrounded ourselves with flashy technological tools and apps. We’ve built a supercomputer/instant communication toy that fits in our pocket. And recently, we’ve even collapsed the separation between work and homespace, so that now many remote workers are surrounded by even more distractions.
This month the focus of our blog posts is on focus and attention as a team. Now that we’ve discussed what focus is and how focus relates to teams– particularly when it comes to the importance of having a process and enjoying it–we can shift our attention to the elephant in the room: distractions.
States of distraction
So much of the writing around productivity, focus, and time management, has to do with limiting our distractions. In this view, distractions are “wastes of time” that take away from our productivity. They are like little gnats that keep us from concentrating. All we have to do then, according to this perspective, is to become “distraction ascetics”, monklike workers who have to remove everything from sight and follow strict schedules in order to truly focus and achieve success.
This, of course, is bonkers. As we mentioned before, our world is stuffed with distractions, and many of those distractions are now connected to our work. Furthermore, with so much money, human resources and research being poured by so many companies into making us more distracted, it’s unlikely that we can fight against those temptations completely on our own, with our own willpower.
It’s also not even necessarily true that we want to limit our distractions completely. In the same way that dieting culture changes our relationship to a fundamental part of human life that gives us pleasure and sustenance, distractions are also part of the fabric of our lives too.
At their most basic level, distractions simply let us relax and escape into a different mental space, which is a good thing in and of itself. But more than that, distractions can also lead us down interesting intellectual paths, and help us discover new and creative ideas.
So in this blog post we will talk about distractions, with a focus on distractions on teams and what should and should not be done about them. We’ll also look at when distractions can be good for teams, and how to create environments that
What are distractions?
When we complain about distractions, what we’re really objecting to is things that take our focus away from what we should be doing with our time. In the case of work, obviously this means anything that draws our attention away from work.
But thinking about this more, it’s not so clear that all distractions are bad, or at least, not all distractions are only. Think about a conversation with your coworker during work. You might say that this is a distraction, but there could be benefits from this conversation. You could end up brainstorming a new idea as a result of your conversation. You could also say that you are building a better relationship with them, which will create a better working environment. There might also be mental health benefits to–talking with others helps us feel better and less stressed–that can help us be more productive when we return to work.
So it’s safe to say that we can make a distinction between distractions that are primarily disruptive, and those that have the potential to be productive. Let’s call the latter types of distractions “creative distractions”.
Creative distractions and taking control
Creative distractions are distractions that help refresh our minds, give us new perspectives, and leave us inspired to focus on our work. Contrary to what many people now believe, distractions are not always bad, even though there is a stigma attached to the word itself. However, we have to realize that distractions are part of our nature. We are always curious and always trying to explore, which means that naturally our attention will skip around and wander.
So we should let it. Instead of fighting against this aspect of ourselves, we should instead try to funnel our “destractive” impulses into places where it can actually be useful and creative, rather than into places where it will bop around without direction before fizzing out (think of a sugar high).
People in creative fields, such as writers and artists, have for a long time understood the importance of creative distractions, and the need to take breaks from thinking about a creative problem. A lot of times doing menial tasks, like the dishes, or taking long walks, can help break a creative deadlock.
This is known as “mindful mindlessness“. When we let our brains roam away from the problem that we’re stuck on by concentrating (lightly) on another activity, we can often counterintuitively find out the answer more quickly. The key is finding the right activity that balances some mental stimulation without draining you of mental or physical energy.
Creative distractions might be different for each person, too. For some it could mean taking a brisk walk, for others it could mean writing in a journal or drawing. It could even be, as we mentioned earlier, housekeeping tasks like cooking, cleaning or doing the dishes (a good idea for anyone working from home).
Here’s some questions to ask yourself when trying to finding creative distractions:
- Does this activity leave me refreshed or drained?
- Does this activity give me positive emotions?
- Does this activity usually inspire me afterwards?
- Is this an activity that I can easily break away from–an activity with a final goal, or something that can be ended in the middle (unlike watching a TV show or movie, or even scrolling through Twitter)?
- Does this activity lead me to think in different ways?
- Does this activity have a specific positive benefit for me?
Not every creative distraction will have a “yes” answer to all of these questions. And it’s also important to note that some creative distractions can become disruptive if you end up focusing only on them and not your work (in which case, it might be time to find a new job). But the biggest way to tell if a distraction is creative or not is whether it leaves you feeling uplifted and energized afterwards. If you feel bad or guilty, then it’s probably disruptive.
The other way to control distractions: your team
So far all this has been focused mainly on individuals, but what about how to deal with distractions as a team?
The good news is that many people, including members of your own team, probably feel the same sense of frustration with distractions. And that is the place to start from. Your team (or family or community) working together is the best way to control distractions and funnel them into creative distractions that will make team members feel positive and inspired.
This can be done by being more open to team members taking short breaks to creatively distract themselves, like taking walks or writing poems, or even just doodling for a bit. This involves a lot of trust among team members, who need to know that their fellow members aren’t just slacking out. But creating this type of environment can be a great way towards understanding each other more, and acknowledging and respecting each other as human beings.
This can actually lead to greater focus among team members. When you create an environment that allows people the freedom to have more creative distractions, they will be able to work more productively and creatively. It may also prevent team members from finding more isolative or disruptive distractions, like spending more time on their phones.
Another way that working with your team will control distractions is by finding creative distractions that you can do together. In this way, the power of creativity that is unleashed from creative distractions gets combined with a sense of team unity and interconnectedness, which allows for greater teamworking skills.
These team-based creative distractions can be easily built into your team’s regular schedule, too. For example, in Sweden there is a tradition at work called fika. This is basically a team-wide coffee break. Except that all team members are required to join at the same time. This might sound like it would interrupt a lot of people’s work, but it actually functions as a team-wide creative distraction. Everyone gets some time to chat, eat some snacks, and distract themselves together.
Thus, the power of working as a team can also help to control distractions, by creating work environments that encourage individual creative distractions, and by planning team-wide creative distractions that bring everyone together while allowing team members to refresh and re-energize.
Conclusion: Team building activities as creative distractions
Speaking of feeling refreshed and re-energized, puzzles are a great creative distraction that, when combined with team building activities, make for the perfect team-wide creative distraction as well. These are the types of activities that we are known for at Invite Japan.
We’ve talked before about how puzzles are beneficial at unlocking creativity. This is because they essentially function as creative distractions, allowing the brain to focus on another, but still stimulating, task. Team building activities that use puzzles can therefore help unlock a team’s creativity by taking it out of the routine and “distracting” it in a fun and enjoyable way that also allows for the creative juices to flow.
We hope by now that you’ve understood how distractions aren’t necessarily the boogeymen that we’ve made them out to be (partly out of our own anxieties from dealing with new technologies and the cultures they’ve created). The key is to take control by turning our attention towards distractions that can uplift us, make us feel inspired, and give us the creative boost we need.