The Habit: Week-17 (Eliminate Distractions to Reclaim your Focus & Productivity)

“We are creating and encouraging a culture of distraction where we are increasingly disconnected from the people and events around us, and increasingly unable to engage in long-form thinking. People now feel anxious when their brains are unstimulated.” Joe Kraus

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Distraction is a real problem in our society. Most of us could do more, but we are mired in distractions. Our lives are made up of time, and distractions can rob us of some of our best hours. Social media is the biggest distractor. I predict that an obsession with social media will be recognized by the medical community as a new form of addiction. Do you think my use of the word addiction is hyperbole? Perhaps you should try deleting all your social media apps for a week. Did a shiver go up your spine? This week’s challenge is a difficult one, but well worth it. This week’s challenge is to eliminate distractions so you can reclaim your focus, creativity, and productivity.

Our smartphones were created to be as addictive as a slot machine. Like a slot machine, our smart phones work on the principle of variable rewards. Every time we receive a reward, it gives us a hit of dopamine. Each time we check our social feed, it is like pulling the lever. Because the reward isn’t a certainty, it creates the excitement of anticipation.When we receive a reward, in this case, a like or comment, our dopamine system is activated. We receive a feeling of accomplishment, like when we complete a tough workout or finish an important project. Checking an item off of our to-do list gives us a shot of dopamine. When we check items off our to-do list, it makes us feel great about ourselves, but we must remember that being productive, means we are producing. We shouldn’t mistake being busy with being productive, and we shouldn’t mistake comments and likes for meaningful accomplishment. Unfortunately, our rewards system cannot make the distinction.

The founders of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, SnapChat, and Whatsapp all understood gaming theory and used that knowledge to make their products as addictive as possible. Like hackers, they exploited a vulnerability in our rewards system. These apps dial right into our rewards system to make us feel good. They understood that to be successful, they had to capture our attention and hold it as long as possible so they could sell that attention to advertisers.

We live in the era of the “attention economy.” As information has become more abundant, attention has become scarcer. To be successful, the creators of popular apps had to make their products as seductive as possible. A prime example of the use of variable rewards is the notification feature on each app, which I recommend you turn off.

The notification feature lets you know that something is waiting for you. It beacons you to click, pull the lever, and see if you have won anything. Like email, you hope the notification is a good one. It creates a feedback loop that – exploits our desire for a hit of dopamine. Unfortunately, the reward is not an accomplishment. I don’t derive any real satisfaction from spending time on social media. Social media produces that same guilty feeling I feel after eating too much dessert. It is an unsatisfying temporary escape. If you are prone to social comparison, it could cause you to become depressed. If your life doesn’t compare favorably to the the lives of your friends, it can make you feel bad about yourself. Likes and comments on social media might activate our dopamine system, but we haven’t done anything meaningful. It is a negative addiction, not a positive one like beginning each day tackling your most impactful task.

The creators of these apps wanted to make them as addictive as possible. Consumption wasn’t enough, like food manufactures and big tobacco the product had to be addictive. The more of our time they can consume; the more money they can charge advertisers. Food manufactures know that processed carbohydrates do not produce a feeling of fullness and encourage people to overeat. Food manufacturers exploit this to increase revenue. They know that if they lace food with sugar, we will eat more and eat more often.  It is criminal in my opinion given the obesity rates in the United States, but of course, it is not illegal. A study, published in The American Society for Clinical Nutrition, concluded that “Increasing intakes of refined carbohydrate (corn syrup) concomitant with decreasing intakes of fiber paralleled the upward trend in the prevalence of type 2 diabetes observed in the United States during the 20th century.”[i]

Food manufactures are no better than the cigarette manufacturers who add chemicals to their products to make them more addictive. Some add ammonia, which increases the speed which nicotine is delivered to the brain, and sugars, to increase the addictive effects of nicotine and make it easier to inhale tobacco smoke.  Of course, we cannot lay all the blame for the rise in obesity rates on the food manufactures. We are responsible for our food choices, and they would not be able to sell their products if there were not a demand for them. The same is true of social media. We cannot place all the blame on the creators of these apps that rob us of our lives one click at a time.

Time is our most valuable resource. Time is the substance of our lives. Time lost can never be found. Most things in life can be replaced. You can lose money, your house, your car, and they can all be replaced, but not lost time. Social media is designed to rob us of our time and attention; resources we need to build a better life. Our smart phone is a powerful tool. We should use it, and never allow it to use us. We need to monitor our use of it and recognize that overuse is a problem.

Steve Jobs understood the disruptive nature of technology, that is why he didn’t allow his children to have an iPad.[ii] He considered his ability to focus his greatest strength. He would eliminate all distractions when he was tackling a difficult problem. He brought focus to Apple’s product line. When he was brought back to Apple they were developing 25 products, he quickly reduced that number to five.

“People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully. I’m actually as proud of the things we haven’t done the things we have done. Innovation is saying no to 1,000 things.” Steve Jobs

Did you know the mere presence of our smart phones has been proven to make us less intelligent? A study by the Journal of the Association for Consumer Research examined the effect a turned-off smart phone would have on a persons ability to think. The study concluded it reduces individuals’ working memory and problem-solving skills. [iii] Technology is a tool, we should use it, not let it use us. If we want to reclaim our time, attention, and focus; we need to stop feeding distraction. We need to rain it in. The more we feed the beast, the stronger it will grow until it consumes a large chunk of our life. It produces stress in our lives by making us busier at accomplishing nothing. It leaves us less and less time to do what is meaningful and important. It is like running in place instead of moving forward. If life is a journey, these distractions are off-ramps to nowhere. We need to starve distraction and feed our focus. “An addiction to distraction is the end of your creative production.” Robin S. Sharma

The most effective way to eliminate distractions is by removing them from your environment. No temptation, no willpower required. It is much easier to shape our environment than to exert control over it. If we are committed to being more productive, we will shape our environment. Close your email and charge your phone out of sight. Commit.

Take back your mornings. We have the most willpower, energy and focus in the morning. Don’t squander your best hours watching cute cat videos. Create bubbles of focus; times when you will eliminate distractions and tackle your most meaningful work with single-minded focus. “Until my ONE thing is done, everything else is a distraction.” Gary W. Keller

I recommend deploying Robin Sharma’s 90/90/1 Rule, if you want to be more productive. For the next 90-days, spend your first 90-minutes, on your one (1) most important project. It’s simple, but it requires discipline and commitment.  The first step is to create a bubble of focus; an environment with no distractions. Unclutter your work area. Close your email. Charge your phone out of sight. Close your door. Let people know that you don’t want to be disturbed during this window of time. These steps might seem extreme, but the payoffs are well worth it.

You will discover that you are able to get more done in those 90-minutes of a focused effort than you do in a typical day. That is because interruptions are devastating to our productivity. Studies have demonstrated that after an interruption it takes our mind more than 20-minutes to refocus on our original task. Gloria Mark, Professor in the Department of Informatics at the University of California, Irvine concluded it takes an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds to get back to a task following an interruption.”[iv]

Brian Tracy, author of the highly successful book, Eat That Frog, recommends you get in the habit of doing your most difficult task first thing in the morning without delay. The book’s title alludes to a famous Mark Twain quote, “Eat a live frog first thing in the morning, and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day.” His three-step process, “The Three D’s of a New Habit Formation,” decision, discipline, and determination.

Decision is the first and most important step. You must decide what task will have the greatest impact on your success. He subscribes to the Pareto Principle that 80% of our results come from 20% of our actions. Do not confuse activity with productivity. Being busy is not the same thing as being productive. Your activities must be impactful. Discipline, the second step, is necessary to overcome our tendency to procrastinate. Determination is the third and last step in the process. Determination is required to stay focused on a task long enough to complete it without distraction.

Challenge yourself to eat that frog! View it as a personal challenge. This one habit will transform your career and life. He recommends you do not stare at that frog too long. When it is time to begin, do not delay. Discipline yourself to begin immediately and stay on task until it is complete.

It does not pay to think about it too much because it leads to procrastination. It is much easier to continue a task than to begin one, so get to it. You might not have everything you need to finish, but that is no reason you should not start with what you have, and do what you can.

Throw yourself into the task and let momentum take over. Do not think about it, be about it. Do not wait until you feel like doing it. That moment will never come. That is why discipline is so important to developing productive habits. Some tasks can be so daunting that they cause us to hesitate; that hesitation causes our mind to begin rationalizing why it would be better to do it later. Hesitation leads to procrastination. Procrastination is a lapse in discipline. We are putting off what we can do, what we should do, what we must do.

I hope you will accept this week’s challenge to take back your best hours by eliminating distractions. Social media can be very addictive. Even email can be a huge distraction that disrupts our productivity. I recommend you monitor how much time you spend on each and set-up designated times for checking them. The most effective approach to becoming more productive is to create bubbles of focus in which you shape your environment by removing all distractions. You will be more productive and less stressed. Best of luck!

Key Points:

1)   Distraction is a real problem in our society.

2)   Your smartphone is as addictive as a slot machine. The creators of social media apps wanted to make them as addictive as possible. They used gaming theory to grab your attention so they could sell it to advertisers.

3)   Your smartphone makes you stupid. The mere presence of our smartphones decreases our working memory and problem-solving skills.

4)    Distractions have a devastating impact on our productivity.  It takes an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds to get back to a task following an interruption.

5)   Create bubbles of focus. After eliminating all distractions, spend the first 90-minutes of each day working on your most impactful project. Shut down your email, turnoff all notifications, and charge your phone out of sight to eliminate disruptions. Take back your most productive hours and do what will create a real sense of accomplishment.

Learn more, The Habit of Success – Eat That Frog!

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Until next week, good luck!

Develop the habit of eliminating distractions & creating bubbles of focus. Change your habits, change your life!

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Best wishes and Best Health!

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[i] Lee S Gross, Li Li, Earl S Ford, and Simin Liu, “Increased consumption of refined carbohydrates and the epidemic of type 2 diabetes in the United States: an ecologic assessment,” American Society for Clinical Nutrition 2004.
[ii] NICK BILTON, Steve Jobs Was a Low-Tech Parent, The New York Times, Fashion & Style, Septber 10, 2014.
[iii] ROBINSON MEYER, Your Smartphone Reduces Your Brainpower, Even If It’s Just Sitting There, The Atlantic, AUG 2, 2017.
[iv] BY KERMIT PATTISON, Worker, Interrupted: The Cost of Task Switching, Fast Company, 07/28/2008


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