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4 strategies to turn your brain from distraction to action

Life has become one constant distraction after another, threatening productivity of every one of us, but these non-traditional methods help rewire your brain.

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You are struggling to focus like the rest of us. How do I know? Because you are reading this article… which you probably found through Twitter, Facebook, and/or the AGBeat site directly. It’s okay. You aren’t alone, and in this particular case, you are making good use of your time (as opposed to the multiple entertaining minutes I spent looking at sleepy babies on BuzzFeed today).

As I started my own business, I was forced to research, study, and ask as many people as possible how they have successfully won the battle that wages for our attention. The reality is that most haven’t – our culture is drowning in a sea of distraction. Studies reveal that we are interrupted every three minutes during work and it takes us 23 minutes on average to get back to the original task. The real kicker is that more than half of the distractions were completely self-inflicted.

Four non-traditional strategies

To add onto what we’ve previously outlined, here are four non-traditional strategies to leverage the way your brain is wired to move distraction into action.

1. More trees. Less brick.
Hang with me here. This is about to get crazy.

You know when you are completely unable to concentrate due to mental fatigue? Psychologists studied people just like you at that very moment. Group A then took a short walk through a busy downtown. Group B walked through various natural environments (parks, etc). Guess what happened? Group A’s walk did not help them at all upon returning to work, but Group B received significantly better results in their ability to focus on key tasks.

Even reviewing photos of nature can have the same effect, according to the Attention Restoration Theory. If your mind is in a constant state of chaos, review photos of nature, or take a walk through the local park. Your work will benefit.

2. Start by prioritizing your priorities
Your pre-frontal cortex is in large part the area of your brain responsible for focus. It’s an amazing muscle, but it’s a muscle that tires easily. Every time you actively push away a distraction, you are sapping resources that will reduce your ability to effectively do it the next time.

The solution? Start your day by setting your priorities, from the most mentally draining to the least, rather than on the basis of who wants a response fastest. Put the most mentally draining work at the early part of the day (assuming you don’t have a hangover). 

Fight to keep the first two hours of work sacred. Ask for meetings to be later in the day so you don’t have your most precious mental resource robbed by a boss or colleague droning on about a subject that means nothing to you (probably using PowerPoint in a way that would make me want rip the projector’s power plug out of the wall).

3. Move the calendar front and center
Simon Reynolds, a friend and bestselling author of the book ‘Why People Fail’ offered this to me, and it’s been game changing.

While prioritized task lists are a huge step up from the ‘let my newest email tell me what’s important’ strategy, it’s not enough. Take your priorities and assign time chunks to cover each one. Your calendar, rather than your inbox or task list should now be the primary ‘screen’ on your computer.

As I use Google Calendars, I literally watch as the redline slides down my screen, reminding me that I am running out of time on this task before I must move to the next. For example, I have seven more minutes dedicated to finishing this article.

This causes my brain to release the right concoction of chemicals/neurotransmitters to work like I can’t procrastinate any more- I’m up against a tight deadline. Plus, I am leveraging what Jonah Berger calls game mechanics (or why I can’t quit you, Candy Crush!?).

4. Warm up the muscle
According to the last two rules, I should probably punt email and web surfing until I have completed the mentally exhausting tasks of my day. But what if something crazy has happened in the world?! Think of all the people who might have emailed or commented on my Facebook post? My social status and craving for stimulation is just too much to ignore after hours of being deprived due to my body’s ridiculous demand for sleep.

I have found that a short warm up lap is exactly what I need before I dive into a full day of mental Crossfit. I get my daily Texas Rangers updates, check out my inbox, take a shot of coffee, then get to the work of setting the day’s priorities. The key? I limit my time to a ten minute warm-up. The bell goes off and the sprints and metaphorical burpees begin.

The battle for attention

We are in a cultural  battle for attention with a built-in faulty set of brain wiring. I have found these strategies to be particularly valuable for me. If you’ve read this far, odds are high you are in the top one percent in your focus skills. If you don’t mind, take one more minute to offer your solutions in the comments below.

Curt Steinhorst loves attention. More specifically, he loves understanding attention. How it works. Why it matters. How to get it. As someone who personally deals with ADD, he overcame the unique distractions that today’s technology creates to start a Communications Consultancy, The Promentum Group, and Speakers Bureau, Promentum Speakers, both of which he runs today. Curt’s expertise and communication style has led to more than 75 speaking engagements in the last year to organizations such as GM, Raytheon, Naval Academy, Cadillac, and World Presidents’ Organization.

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4 Comments

4 Comments

  1. Sacha Joubert

    July 17, 2013 at 5:59 pm

    Great advice! I love the idea of seeing the red line moving, counting down the time. Now that’s very motivating!

  2. Michael Bray

    July 19, 2013 at 11:45 am

    Do you realize how ridcuosly difficult it was to actually read straight through tbis wonderful article without clicking on all of the enticing links!? I am proud to say “I Did It” thanks to ….this wonderful article. When I went back through I only ended up clicking one link. Less loss of focus, but more rehab is still indicated! Sorry, gotta go…

  3. doodlebug2222

    August 4, 2013 at 3:17 am

    I arrive to work early so I can review things from the day before to ensure I closed them out properly. I use Outlook to mark and categorize mail that comes in, I teach persons that send me incoming mail to ensure they have a “request for action” less I will consider it a FYI instead.

    I also insist on email requests and refuse to take them over the phone, and I do not allow “parking” in my office or “question and answer time” w/o a 30 minute-1 hour meeting > which is also never counter as “request time”. They still need to make a formal request via email for the purpose of being tracked.
    I have a shared calendar (SharePoint) and I echo my availability for meetings as well as times I block out and have no meetings – no disturbances.

    I listen to music, close my office door almost all of the way shut and when persons do come into try to park or unofficially meet, I am kind and indicate I have a hard deadline I am trying to meet and can they send me a meeting invite so we can discuss it at length and I can then give them my undivided attention and I had them a request form so they can jot down if this is an official request.

    Yes I insisist on all requests being on paper.. and I ensure it follows a specific format so all necessary information is there. This is to be sure what they are requesting is captured, completed and tracked.

    My days go smoother – less distractions and everyone understands I can pull out old requests they made months ago if they need it… so.. they begin to see verbal requests are… a bit more shakey to work with and recall later. Fact is – I keep control and in this, I control my time and of course distractions.

  4. Pingback: Procrastination expert shares advice on overcoming procrastination - The American Genius

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Business News

Missing office culture while working remotely? This tool tries to recreate it

(BUSINESS NEWS) This startup just released new software to help you reproduce the best parts of in-person office interactions while you work from home.

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Loop Team product page, trying to create an office culture experience remotely.

Are you over working from home? Feeling disconnected from your co-workers? Well look no further: The startup Loop Team just released a tool that reproduces the office culture experience virtually.

“We’ve looked at a lot of the interactions that happen when you’re physically in an office — the visual communication, the background conversations, the hallway chatter,” said Loop Team’s founder and CEO Raj Singh in an interview with TechCrunch. “[W]e built an experience that effectively is a virtual office. And so it tries to represent the best parts of what a physical office experience might be like, but in a virtual form.”

Singh’s company, founded pre-COVID, is posed as a solution to feeling “out of the loop” while working remotely. During the pandemic, where virtually all of us are working from home, this technology is needed more than ever.

How it works is by essentially recreating an office experience on a virtual platform. Somewhere between Zoom and Slack with some added features, Loop Team lets you know who’s free to chat, who’s in meetings, and allows you to have private discussions using audio, video, and screen share. It’s ideal for working on projects together.

Loop’s layout is unique in the sense that it is designed to show you conversations in a clear, direct way – exposing relevant items and hiding the rest. Also, employees who miss meetings have the ability to review what they missed, making it perfect for companies that hire across time zones.

The platform was made available December 1st free of charge, but Singh is hoping to introduce a paid version next year. Pricing will likely reflect team size and should remain free for teams of 10 or less.

I’m a big fan of software that allows you to feel closer and more connected to your co-workers. Do I think anything will ever compare to a true, in-person office experience? Definitely not. That being said, I value this kind of progress, especially since I don’t think office culture en mass will make a return any time soon, regardless of vaccinations.

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Business News

MIT report reveals serious flaws in US unemployment system

(BUSINESS NEWS) In the wake of COVID-19, the US unemployment system is floundering to cover all who need the aid but it comes with serious flaws.

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Stressed couple discussing options during unemployment in dimly lit room.

Last week alone, nearly 1 million Americans filed for unemployment benefits. Now that it’s urgently needed, this safety net is full of holes, leaving many Americans in freefall.

A newspaper from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has highlighted several of the critical weaknesses in our country’s unemployment social safety net.

The report outlines how benefits fall short in three major ways: Duration, eligibility, and payment amounts.

The historical purpose of the benefits system was to replace half of lost wages for 6 months while they looked for another job. (The MIT paper even suggests that a more appropriate “replacement rate” would be higher than that.)

As of 2018, unemployment payments only cover Americans for one-third of their lost wages on average.

The income caps for these benefits have stayed fixed while wages have increased over time. That’s bad enough without considering that wages haven’t nearly kept up with worker productivity in the US, meaning those caps haven’t kept up with the real worth of those workers at all.

Compared to other developed nations, the US has lagged behind in public benefits since well before the pandemic.

In 2014, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development compared the duration of unemployment payments around the world. Out of 34 developed countries, the US ranked 33rd— offering less than every country on the list but Hungary.

To quote the research brief for the paper: “Even aside from changes driven by technology and trade, employers’ increasing reliance on contract workers and on-demand scheduling rather than on permanent employees who work predictable schedules has added to the precariousness of many workers’ jobs.”

And those economically vulnerable groups who need the support most are more likely to have jobs that aren’t covered under federal unemployment eligibility.

This includes gig workers (thanks to prop 22), part time workers, and the self employed: People often work these jobs due to constraints like parenthood or disability.

The CARES Act, which passed in April, temporarily allowed certain groups who would usually be ineligible, like the self employed (who are poised to grow in numbers as the job shortage persists) to collect unemployment benefits.

But CARES and HEROES are going to end in December, taking the extensions to unemployment, the eviction moratorium and the COVID sick leave requirements with them.

And instead of extending them, Congress may soon be looking to cannibalize those programs and their unused funds for another round of corporate stimulus spending.

But if the coronavirus relief acts are allowed to expire, nearly 14 million Americans will lose the aid that they provide.

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Business News

Tis the season for employment scams – here’s what to look out for

(BUSINESS NEWS) Fueled even further by COVID unemployment numbers, seasonal employment scams are back on the menu. Here’s how you can avoid them.

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A serious man considers a clipboard in potential employment scams.

With the sheer amount of desperation people are feeling these days, it’s only fitting that employment scams would see a resurgence this holiday season. Thanks to the Better Business Bureau, there are some clear warning signs that can help you spot and avoid seasonal scams this year.

The typical crux of any employment scam revolves around a prospective employee’s willingness to pay for something upfront, be it training or some other kind of quasi-justifiable item (e.g., a uniform). However, other iterations of the scam actually involve an “employer” overpaying for something at the onset—albeit with a fake check—and then asking the recipient to wire “back” the extra money.

Either way, these scams can leave you jobless and with less money than you initially had, so here are some things for which you should watch out.

Firstly, employers shouldn’t ever charge you before hiring you. Some industries do require employees to make small purchases on their own dime (i.e., the aforementioned uniform), but payroll will usually deduct the cost of these materials from the employee’s first paycheck—not require payment upfront.

As a general rule, it’s probably best to avoid companies that charge you at all. Aramark, for example, is known for requiring employees to buy company clothes—and they’re no peach to work with. But desperate times may warrant an exception in this regard.

It’s also to your benefit to avoid postings that boast an “interview-free” experience. Put simply, no one is hiring sans an interview unless it’s nepotism or a scam. If you aren’t related to the poster, that doesn’t leave much up for interpretation. Similarly, advertising a large sum of money for disproportionately low amounts of work is a pretty big warning sign–again, in this economy, people aren’t shelling out for packing or wrapping jobs.

Finally, watch out for jobs that ask for a work sample before hiring. While this is common for internships, most entry-level positions aren’t going to require you to complete a project for free before determining whether or not you’re good for the job. At best, this is a tactic to get free work from you; at worst, your application information can be stolen.

It’s sad to think that people would stoop to the level of scamming others amidst the dumpster fire of a year it’s been, but if you avoid these red flags, you should be able to keep yourself safe during this holiday season.

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