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Do you get distracted? – How to tame the beast

I was reading James Clear’s excellent blog this week where he talks about Clyde Beatty, the great lion tamer, and what his act can teach us about not being constantly distracted. Go on admit it, even whilst you are reading this blog, I bet your brain is thinking, ”where can I go next….”

Stay with me.

So, Clyde Beatty ran away from home to become a lion tamer in the 1920’s. He was famous because he survived and lived to a grand old age. Most of them didn’t!

How did he survive? Beattie was the first to use a whip and a chair to tame the lions. The whip, it turns out, is largely for show, but the chair is vital. Beattie said that holding a chair in front of the lion’s face meant they tried to focus on all four legs of the chair at the same time. With their focus divided, they become confused. Too many options (sound familiar?) so the lion’s limbic brain chose to freeze and wait instead of attacking.

How often do you find yourself in the same position as the lion? So many meetings, emails, restructures, your actual job….unable to cut to the chase? We also then tend to freeze. Perhaps then preferring to spend our time looking at emails or doing the work that is easy (like going to meetings!!).
I know this is true with many of my clients who work hard but leave work exhausted and feeling they’ve achieved very little.

Distraction is a serious problem in the modern world.
We are all lions. The average person in front of their computer is distracted or interrupted every 40 seconds. Mostly it’s all by ourselves. And it can take more than 20 minutes to refocus. This is all related to having our “flow state”. Flow is the mental state when you are so immersed in a feeling of energised focus and involvement in your task, that you lose your sense of space and time. It’s vital for achieving our best work.

The trouble is that our brains don’t help. They are hardwired for distraction, programmed to respond to anything that’s pleasurable, threatening or novel. Nowadays this neural network pulls our attention from what’s productive and meaningful into Trump faux pas, cats on social media, and gossip masquerading as news.

Personally, I’m quite worried about my declining ability to focus.
I used to be an avid reader but I read far less these days. I started work in 1986 when I could work for hours without distraction. I can’t now. Emails, calls, texts, WhatsApp, Everton blogs, Twitter, Facebook, BBC news, FreeCell, LinkedIn, all calling like sirens.

So how do you tame the beast of distraction?
We are all busy, all overstretched, all distracted, but understand first that being busy is often a form of laziness. Yes, I did say that. Often we create a vortex of busyness to avoid doing the one thing that really matters.  In the science of effectiveness, the No.1 question you should ask yourself is “do I actually need to do this?” So be more ruthless and discriminate.

I have become obsessed with habits and ritual over the past few years. Habit maketh man and woman. We put a lot of our attention on outcomes, when we should think more about our habits. Outcomes won’t always get you there. The habit of not checking your emails every 5 minutes will.

Distraction stops our flow state.
Focus is a muscle we can develop with training and here’s what I’ve found to work best:

  1. Create a distraction-free ritual.
    These are known as “timelocks”. An ideal environment in which to hunker down and focus on your most important, complex tasks. Book a meeting with yourself, use headphones, turn off email. Work for 45 minutess and give yourself a treat. For me, it’s a place I go that I know I will work.
  2. Create a “will do” list and not a “to do list.”
    Set three daily intentions. When you work with greater intent, you focus on what’s actually important. What three things will I want to accomplish by day’s end?
  3. Practice saying ‘no’.
    Time thieves are robbing your life. I ask myself “if I say yes to this person, I will have less time for my kids.” (Be careful if you answer yes and then do it!!)
  4. Set a time limit to each task and set an artificial project deadline.
  5. Stop procrastinating.
    Stop the task becoming too enormous. Start it even before you feel ready. Open a new file or folder. Write an outline or a strategy. Most of the time, getting started is the only thing you need to do to focus better. Most people don’t have trouble with focusing. They have trouble with deciding.
  6. Buy a cheap ‘calls only’ phone.
    One of the best ways I stopped myself being distracted on holiday was to buy a cheap Nokia phone, that only does calls and texts and nothing else.
  7. Evaluate what you get from social media and television.
    If you use Twitter, unfollow half of the feeds you get and delete your Facebook app so you have to go online to read updates. Think about the endless box sets you watch. I recently watched Lost In Space. I felt afterwards I’d learnt nothing new. So, I watch less TV now and pursue other interests.  I’ve become obsessed with Russian authors, podcasts.. Guess what? Reading helps you focus for longer! See this chart for how many books you can read before you die!
    https://www.bookbub.com/blog/2017/03/22/news-study-how-many-books-we-read-in-a-lifetime
  1. I love the “Inspire Now” Journal.
    My favourite way of organising my time.
  2. Surf the wave.
    When you get that feeling to stop or be distracted, build awareness of what it wants and the sensations in your body. Ride the wave and then re-focus.
  3. Finally, it’s all about purpose.
    Are you in the right role and the right firm? Where would you rather be?

So if you want to get more focus, stop staring at the chair. Eat the lion-tamer. Now get on with your work!