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The Distraction Reaction

Does your little mind wander, Wanda? Having trouble staying focused, Fred? If you find yourself so distracted that you can’t do your work without taking a break every twenty seconds to check email, LinkedIn or view pictures of Ashton Kutcher, you may have a serious problem. And just as soon as I check to see how low my portfolio can go; increase my eBay bid on a slightly used parakeet; and send a very important tweet to Ashton, I’ll tell you what it is.

If it’s any consolation, you’re not alone in your ADD work style. The ballooning population of attention-challenged individuals in the business world has motivated Eilene Zimmerman to devote an entire Career Couch column in “The New York Times” to exploring the problem.

“Distracted? It’s Time to Hit the Reset Button” is the title of Zimmerman’s opus. While it took me quite a while to finish the column, what with my urgent need to check last night’s curling scores and add my comments on a controversial red velvet cupcake recipe posted on my Yahoo bakery group, I’ll be happy to share my review. Just give me a moment to Google my gastroenterologist.

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“People often lose their concentration when they are bored, of course, but also when they are engaged in challenging work,” is the opinion of Peter Bregman, an author and management consultant quoted by Zimmerman. “We have a momentary feeling of wanting to escape what is difficult or boring so we want to jump out.”

This is certainly true, though I do question whether the sensation is “momentary.” For years that “too difficult or boring” feeling has made you want to jump out of the work and then, jump out of the window.

Scientific confirmation of Bregman’s theory comes from Srini Pillay, an author and assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard, who opines, “The part of the brain devoted to attention is connected to the brain’s emotional center. Any strong emotion — frustration with a colleague, problems at home — can disrupt your attention.”

Even though your brain’s emotional center is devoted to thoughts of the free jelly donuts in the coffee room, this is a viable explanation for your inability to concentrate. After all, you are frustrated with your colleagues, who snatch the jelly donuts before you can get to them, and you do have serious problems at home, mostly centered around your spouse never remembering to re-stock the stash of jelly donuts you keep under the sink.

The answer to your dilemma is to refocus. Dr. Pillay suggests that you try “visualizing a reset device in your brain and saying, ‘I need to press the reset button, and get back on track.'” Fortunately, you don’t have to visualize the reset button. Management had a real button installed while you were napping, which is why you get severe headaches every time you start dissing the boss.

If you don’t have a button, you’ll have to reset yourself the old fashioned way. Robert Epstein, a psychologist from San Diego, suggests the following, “Stop and listen to music for a few minutes, go for a short walk, or take a cleansing breath.” My favorite idea is the walk, though I think it will be most effective if you keep walking and go back to work.

Another helpful suggestion is to start every day with a to-do list. The psychiatrist, Dr. Pillay, cautions you to not give yourself so many to-do’s that you end up drowning in anxiety. “Look at what is realistically possible and be specific with yourself about what you can and cannot do that day,” suggests columnist Zimmerman.

I agree. Since you probably can’t focus long enough to make your list, here are some to-do’s to go:

  • Doze peacefully until lunchtime.
  • Don’t push any little old ladies out of the way in your rush to the lunchtime buffet at the SmorgyBob.
  • Schedule a restorative nap between 1 PM and 4:45 PM.
  • Leave at 5 PM sharp.

If you’re thinking that this to-do list is too demanding, the Harvard shrink says, “The brain benefits significantly from breaks. You may even come back and feel more creative if you take your mind off its primary focus for a little while.”

In other words, you may not get a lot done between 9 and 4:45, but between 4:45 and 5, you’ll be a dynamo with a laser focus. Except, of course, for the time you absolutely must spend on Facebook.

Bob Goldman was an advertising executive at a Fortune 500 company, but he finally wised up and opened Bob Goldman Financial Planning in Sausalito, California. He offers a virtual shoulder to cry on at bob@funnybusiness.com.

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