We live in a noisy world. We carry around distractions in our pockets and purses everywhere we go. Distractions cause us to lose focus, which stresses us out, which makes our focus worse. Today I’m talking about how to break the distraction/stress cycle.
If you didn’t already know I am on Pinterest a lot. All of my blog posts have pins and I track them to see what’s trending. Right now my article on 5 Ways to Improve Your Focus has been getting a LOT of new pins.
This is crazy to me because that article is well over a year old and it had dropped off the map for awhile. This is a never ending struggle, though. With all of the distractions that we have going on around us, it’s no wonder that people have no idea how to focus on anything – let alone the things that are important to them.
The problem with not being able to focus is that it’s linked to stress. You could be having trouble focusing because you are stressed OR you could be getting stressed because you can’t focus. Either way it happens, it ends up in a downward spiral of overwhelm and frustration that gets us nowhere good.
Distractions leave us mentally exhausted and paralyze us. We feel so inundated by our phones, computers, coworkers, family, and friends that we lose our ability to decide what’s important and what we should ignore. By the end of the day we are stressed out, used up, and unable to make progress.
While anyone could have a day like that even if it didn’t involve all the digital distractions, the technologically tuned in lifestyle that we lead makes it more likely for this to happen – and on a daily basis.
While we can’t necessarily control what is coming at us, there’s no reason for us to make it worse by setting ourselves up for failure.
THE DISTRACTION/STRESS CONNECTION
Unless you’re an ER doctor or work on the floor of the New York Stock exchange, you probably don’t go from zero to overwhelmed in the blink of an eye. If that does happen to you, then it’s pretty easy to spot what’s causing the stress and figure out how to deal with it.
What’s more likely to happen is that over the day, in small, unnoticeable increments you are getting more and more stressed. Until the moment comes when you realize you’re completely overwhelmed and exhausted.
By this point you couldn’t focus, even if you had the energy to work on what you needed to accomplish.
And you probably got to this place because you were constantly being inundated with distractions.
Every time a notification comes up on your computer or phone, or your phone rings, or a coworker stops by, or you kid comes into your office for the millionth time this hour – you have to make the decision whether to change your focus or not.
These micro decisions add up and eventually you start to run out of decision power. When we make a lot of decisions it tires our brain out – and we don’t get those good quality decision making abilities back without a break (and usually some food).
With every notification that comes up on your phone, you have to make the decision whether that notification is more important than what you’re working on. Oftentimes it’s something trivial and isn’t worth your time, but you still needed to make that decision.
Every time you get distracted you’re cutting into the power that your brain has from now until you can take a good quality break. This cuts into the quality of decisions you make. Because of this you start succumbing to the notifications.
Before you know it, you’ve used up your time, you’re mentally exhausted from all your micro decisions, and now you’re stressed because you haven’t gotten your work done. You decide to double down and focus.
By this time it’s too late. The stress that you feel from losing your focus is now going to impede your ability to focus, which will stress you out even more. And the cycle continues until you can walk away and refill your brain power.
BREAKING THE DISTRACTION/STRESS CYCLE
In order to interrupt this distraction/stress cycle, you need to cultivate some self awareness. When I coach clients through problems like this we start with talking about how it feels when they are in the moment.
The next time you find yourself in that place of distraction, stress, and overwhelm take stock.
- What are you thinking about?
- What do you feel in your body?
- What is your emotional state?
Once you get a firm grip on this and become aware of it, then you will know the next time you start to feel like this that you need to take a break – not double down.
Take this exercise a step further now, and think about how did you feel before you got to this place?
- Did you notice that a half hour before your breakdown that you were getting antsy?
- Had you just gotten sucked into social media and didn’t realize how long it had been?
- Have you been hungry/thirsty/needed to go to the bathroom for the last hour but have been trying (unsuccessfully) to ignore it?
These become your warning signs that you’re losing your focus and that if you don’t get control of the ship, you’re headed for overwhelm.
If you’re able to, try to pinpoint the very first thing that you noticed in the distraction/stress cycle so that you can be on the lookout for that warning sign in the future. And notice what was causing you to get those warning signs to begin with – then do what you can to prevent those distractions from ever happening.
No one thing is usually to blame when it comes to getting overwhelmed. You could go to a noisy bar and have a drink and be totally fine. But if you went to a noisy bar on a romantic date where you also had to do a complicated algebra problem in order to pay your tab – and you’d probably be pretty overwhelmed.
This is true for every day life. Yes, notifications on your phone are a huge problem in the digital age. Turning off as many of those as possible (like everything but phone calls and texts) will go a long way in helping you in preventing the distraction/stress cycle from ever starting.
However, they’re not the only cause. Below are some key ways that you can reduce your chance of ever getting sucked into the spiral in the first place.
Boy does this come up in so many of the articles I write. Getting the hell away from our devices and computers – and just about anything that has a plug – for even a half hour a day has huge benefits.
I know that some of you will have a panic attack if I ask you to separate yourself from your phone or computer for more than a few moments – let alone a whole day. You don’t have to go cold turkey here.
But Melissa Hartwig Urban (of Whole30) has said about food that thing that you’re most resistant to giving up is the first thing you need to step away from for awhile. If you’re terror reaches a fever pitch when you’ve been away from your phone for more than 5 minutes – you need to detox.
In order to do this, you can build up to it. Start with somewhere between 15-30 minutes and move up from there. Don’t just put it down and leave the notifications on so that you can hear it buzzing and beeping as you slowly lose you’re mind wondering what you’re missing.
TURN IT OFF. As in slide to power off and then take a deep breath. Embrace the amount of mental real estate that comes from not having to worry about what you’re missing. Who knows, you might enjoy it so much that you forget to turn it back on.
Reduce Your Decisions
Considering that your phone isn’t the only thing that could be causing you distractions, you need to craft a plan of attack that helps you early in the game. If you can start your day ahead, it will be easier to not fall into the distraction/stress cycle.
One of the steps you can do is to reduce the number of decisions you need to make. You’re at your best early in the day when you’re rested and you’ve eaten (and if you’re me, when your coffee kicks in). Don’t waste this precious brain power on meaningless decisions like what you’re packing for lunch and which shoes goes with this outfit.
Do that kind of stuff the night before. You might be tired at the end of the day, but you can still make decisions about easy stuff, like what to wear, what to eat, and anything you need to bring for the following day. This will make your morning easier, and reduce the amount of brainpower you use before you even really get your day started.
Get Your ZZZZs
The problem with the distraction/stress cycle is that it can start with one or the other. You might do everything you can to reduce distractions and decisions, but if you’re stressed – that can start the whole thing off anyway.
Nothing contributes to stress quite like being tired does. And there’s only so much that caffeine can help you if you’re chronically sleep deprived.
Being tired is the double whammy when it comes to the distraction/stress cycle because it hits you on both sides. Lack of sleep makes it difficult to focus, and makes you more stressed. And to top it all off, because you’re tired you’re not able to deal with your emotions as well as you would be if you were well rested.
Get you’re 7-9 hours of sleep a night and watch your productivity (and focus) soar.
Mindfulness in general is great as a stress reliever. It can help make you aware of what’s going on in your body and mind so that you notice stress earlier. It can also help relieve a lot of the anxiety that comes with stress because we are so focused on what we need to do in the future – so much so that we aren’t focusing on the here and now.
If you catch yourself in any of your warning signs, using some mindfulness to help get control of the situation can help. Even you seem to miss your warning signs, then just set an alarm for every hour to hour and a half to just stop and take a moment.
The easiest way to practice mindfulness is to just stop and look around. Notice something about all of your senses. We rely so heavily on sight that we often don’t think about smell or taste – unless we’re eating.
Take a deep breath and go through all of your senses one by one and notice something specific about each. This helps bring your focus back into yourself and away from the myriad of distractions that you have at your finger tips.
If you need more guidance there are plenty of mindfulness and meditation apps available – try a few out and see what works for you.
Shift Your Focus
One of the ways that the distraction/stress gets such a foothold is that it draws us into ourselves. We start thinking about all the things we have to do and getting overwhelmed, which makes the allure of the distraction even stronger.
Our brains want us to do anything to get away from the stress we feel from our to do lists – and the next distraction that comes along becomes a welcome sight.
One way to combat this is to shift your focus to someone else. Helping others is a two fold remedy to help break the cycle.
By helping someone else you are getting a useful distraction from your work. Remember that when we try to double down when we’re caught in the cycle it’s likely to backfire and make it worse.
Walking away from your desk and doing something from someone else can interrupt the spiral.
Its also helpful because it makes the other person feel better which makes us feel better. In fact, the boost that we get from helping others is often bigger than the boost we get when someone helps us.
In the even that you work alone, or no one else needs help, stop working and think of some things (or people) that you’re grateful for. Gratitude changes your thought patterns, relieves stress, and over time you can rewire your brain towards happiness.
Take gratitude a step further by writing a person a thank you note. This gives you the same effect as helping someone else, and you’ll be improving someone else’s day as well.
If you’re trapped in stress, burnout, and overwhelm, click here. Coaching with me can help you get control of all the things that are stressing you out so that you can get back to what’s most important to you.