Ep. 27 – Productivity: Cost Per Distraction

I’ve been traveling a lot in the last month and have had the chance to talk to groups, large and small, about the attention economy and how understanding the way our brains are wired can help us adapt in times when our own attention has limited supply. 

For many of us, this is a daily struggle and we’re constantly balancing the demands of daily life with the desires to sometimes escape from that same day. 

In the middle of all these activities are distractions that are pinging on the window of our mind. Some distractions are not in our control and others are ones we happily invite in. 

The Bottom Line on Top of this episode is that each distraction carries a cost – some that we willingly pay and others than cost more than we initially realize. 

Time is the one finite commodity that we all are given equally. As we set out on how to spend the day, we face thousands of decisions on where to spend this time. How we respond to distractions is a decision + a skill set + an investment. 

There are numerous ways we can be distracted in our external environment. Sights and sounds are active interrupters as we wander through the world. And then there are the digital devices that zing and ping to draw us into our screens.  

Between these different factors, the average person gets interrupted during daytime hours approximately every 6 minutes. Some of you are thinking: Six minutes? I wish I had that long. 

There are steps that we can take to minimize this, such as adjusting notifications, putting on noise canceling headphones, or adapting your environment in ways that help you concentrate. 

Yet even with extra measures, often our mind will often wander in to distract itself. You can be in the middle of concentrating on something or be in the middle of entertainment and all of a sudden you have an urge to go look up the actor in the movie you’re watching or remember that you need to buy more dog food or any other combination of thoughts on that mental trampoline. 

The cost per distraction (which I call the CPD) can be measured in one of two ways. The first way is in quantity. 

A study from the University of California, Irvine showed that it can take up to 23 minutes (actually 23 minutes and 15 seconds, to be exact) for your brain to return to its previous level of attention on the task you were doing before you were interrupted. 

Now that study was done almost a decade ago and, in it, a team of researchers went into tech and finance companies and they observed the workers for three and a half days. They logged activities down to the second. During the course of the day, they found that people were switching activities on average of every three minutes. And more than half of the switching was self-inflicted. 

The quick math shows that we can’t possibly retrace the height of our concentration levels for 23 minutes when we’re switching that many times in that same period. Plus, our brain and devices have become even more adept at distracting us in the last few years since that study was done. 

Distraction is also one way we chase dopamine – that feel-good hormone that can help us escape boredom, avoid the to-do list, and bounce between the mental trampolines.

This search for constant stimulation from our digital devices has led to what is called “popcorn brain” – meaning a diminished ability to stay focused and satisfied in our slower, offline life. 

The cost here isn’t just one of time being scattered about; we’re also sacrificing the opportunity to do some of our best thinking or our best doing, including doing nothing. Next time you find yourself in an elevator or a line, resist the urge to spend time on a screen and allow that space to be filled with your thoughts. 

In addition to the cost of quantity from distractions, the other cost per distraction is quality. When and if we do return to the original task, we are twice as likely to make errors in what we were doing. 

I saw a meme recently that said: I do my best proofreading after I hit ‘send.’ Many of us can relate to that. Or we forget to include an attachment, we didn’t add a specific person, or we find something still sitting in our shopping cart or Draft folder hours later. 

It can often take us twice as long to finish what we were doing as well. This isn’t as much of an issue if we’re doing something like unloading the dishwasher. But the half-started activities have a mental cost to them. Our brain gets dopamine from the satisfaction of completion. Yes, even emptying the dishwasher fully gives our brain a happy little buzz. 

Previous episodes have highlighted the concept of mental momentum; that’s how we can kickstart our brain to launch and focus on tasks by stacking them together on smaller, related tasks. One begets the other. 

This is an important reminder because as much as distractions can be a cost, our brain can also make investments. Micro focus is a great tool to help return our attention to where we started and make progress on, or even actually finish, what’s in front of us. Progress doesn’t have to be all or nothing. Part of micro focus is: did we complete the next step to something?

Being aware of how and how often our attention gets pulled is part of a skill set we can build and use to turn that wheel of attention back in the direction we want it to go. 

Distractions are part of the human experience. And it’s fun sometimes to give your brain a mental recess. As you understand the cost of the distractions you pursue, you can enjoy the investment you are making in those moment when you lean into the distraction. 

And while you are investing in you, be sure to take good care. 

I’ll see you next time. 

Your brain is hungry. Give it some intellectual snacks in the
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I'm Kristin

I left my corporate work and dove further into how to navigate this noisy, digital, exhausted world. The result is a methodology centered on communications, productivity, and culture that blends theory with practice and helps people better enjoy the life they worked so hard to get.