The onslaught of digital distractions is taking a big toll on businesses. A new survey from Udemy has found that it is a special challenge for millennials and Gen Z workers, 36% of who report spending two hours or more each workday “looking at their phones for personal activities”.

As they lose time to all the distractions around them, employees are “stressed, unmotivated and feeling bad about themselves, their jobs, and their careers”, the poll found. 

Three quarters of those who have learnt to reduce distractions said they’ve become more productive. It is the latest addition to a lot of research warning about this problem. Previous articles have explained that “digital overload may be the defining problem of today’s workplace” and that even simply having a phone nearby affects workers’ performance.

There’s no doubt that steps must be taken to reduce workplace distractions like the constant notifications popping up on screens. But in tackling this problem, businesses also face a Catch-22. The propensity to distraction can also be a good thing. It has been shown to help increase creativity. As Northwestern University summarised it in a headline, “Creative genius driven by distraction”.

A study found that “leaky attention may underlie both costs and benefits of creative cognition; noise and other environmental stimuli can serve as distractions for creative people, and lead them to make errors on some tasks. At the same time, leaky attention may help people integrate ideas that are outside the focus of attention into their current information processing, leading to creative thinking”. 
There is a way to maximise both focus and creativity, but it takes work.

A few years ago, I found myself in a professional crisis. I wasn’t making headway on any of my projects. My productivity and creativity had plummeted. I realised that I had become addicted to my distraction. I was online or on my phone virtually all the time, needlessly consuming content with no real bearing on my personal or work life.

The irony was not lost on me. I’ve spent my career as a digital analyst, so I am well aware that many apps and social media platforms are specifically designed to be addictive. There are two ways to readily influence behaviour: manipulate it or inspire it. Technology companies have chosen, for the most part, to manipulate it. Many have found the attention economy highly lucrative.
I didn’t realise that I’d be so susceptible. Then I set about finding a solution that could work for me and the businesses I advise.

Productive distraction

The key, I discovered, is to accept and even embrace the desire to check notifications, read various media or even watch videos, but to teach myself patience in doing so.
I began to build my workday with frequent breaks for “productive distraction”. I use these planned breaks to let those impulses run free. I also try to include something physical during breaks, like a moment of simple, brief meditation, which helps reset my mind and gives me fresh perspective when I resume work.

Being organised about this makes all the difference. Research has found that scheduling these pauses boosts creativity.
Because I know these breaks are coming up, I find it easier to stop myself from giving into every distraction. I can simply tell myself that I’ll have the opportunity to follow that impulse when the next break comes.

It took months, but I got my periods of continuous, intensely focused work up to about 22 minutes. As a result, just like the people surveyed by Udemy, I found myself not only more creative, but also happier. In the survey, three quarters of people who have learnt to reduce distractions also reported being more productive, while 56% said they were happier at work.

Taking control

For the millions of workers surrounded by an ever-evolving set of digital distractions, all this may sound easier said than done.
It takes intentionality. Every day, we each have the choice to commit to changing our behaviour. That includes unlearning bad habits, such as frequently checking social media platforms, which have “hijacked” our psychological propensity for social reciprocity. 

Much of it boils down to redefining FOMO, changing it from “fear of missing out” to “finally over missing out”.
A researcher at Copenhagen Business School, writing in MIT Sloan Management Review, defined productive distraction as a way of balancing curiosity and concentration, maximising the extent to which you both “actively seek diverse input” and focus on tasks at hand.
I’m proof that it can be done.

This article first appeared in The New York Times.

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