Many of us are aware of the external distractions continually bombarding us. From the dings, pings, and beeps of our electronic devices to the interruptions by others at work and home. External disrupters of our attention are everywhere. But so are the more insidious internal ones. This type causes us to lose focus and gravitate toward that preferred social media feed. These are the two types of distractions that most of us are aware of. However, there is a third type that many of us are not aware of – our mental blind spots (i.e. cognitive biases). The following represent a few of the more common biases we have that prevent us from getting meaningful work done, thereby becoming more aware of what distractions are holding us back.
How often have you been guilty of writing a completed task just so you can cross it off a list (guilty as charged)? Have you ever gone through a day prioritizing and completing smaller, mundane tasks at the expense of making progress on longer, more meaningful tasks? If you answered yes to either of these questions, you are likely suffering from the effects of confirmation bias. It is psychologically rewarding to complete more items in a day or cross off an already completed item you just added to your to-do list.
Atul Gawande, in his best-selling book, The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right, makes a compelling argument for the checklist, which serves as a very useful tool when improving the efficiency and success of complex tasks or tasks done in high-pressure situations. In his book, he illustrates how incorporating checklists you can improve everything from airline safety to heart surgery survival rates. However, when they are used to provide you with a sense of accomplishment for a task already completed or a measuring stick of completed short and urgent tasks, then this tool’s efficacy is minimized.
One potential solution is to not use a checklist for your to-do list of all of your tasks. Instead, reserve this tool for those complex, meaningful tasks that would benefit from being broken down and checked off a list.
Another bias to be aware of is the urgency effect. This is where you prioritize the urgent at the expense of the important since the former places a stronger demand on your attention. I used to think that if I could just clear up the urgent tasks today, then tomorrow I would have time to devote to those important tasks. Unfortunately, the next day always brought a new list of urgent tasks that once again demanded my attention.
A great tool to use in helping overcome this bias is the Eisenhower matrix, which categorizes tasks into four categories: urgent & important, not urgent & important, urgent & not important, and not urgent & not important. This framework assists you in differentiating and prioritizing tasks based on their category. The first step is to outsource or batch those items in the not urgent & not important category.
Have you ever had the experience of spending hours on a task and project, expecting to make a certain amount of progress, only to find that in the end your progress was lacking? It is frustrating to feel you have created the optimal conditions for being productive, but only to realize less than optimal results. We can trace this feeling to the planning fallacy, which causes us to underestimate the time to complete something.
Many of us are familiar with Parkinson’s law, which states that work expands to fill the time needed for its completion. But how many of you are aware of Hofstadter’s law? This law states that any task will always take longer than you expect.
One solution to combat this bias is to always overestimate tasks when scheduling them. I usually add 20% buffer time, and even more with unfamiliar or new tasks. Granted, it still may not be enough time, but this practice will help to minimize this bias.
Another approach would be to conduct a premortem. Before you calculate your time for completion, ask yourself the following question. Imagine that you missed the deadline. What went wrong? When you force yourself to realize what could go wrong, you are more likely to take the necessary steps to ensure things go right, which includes scheduling enough time for its completion.
ATTENTION MANAGEMENT AND ACHIEVING A FLOW STATE
IMS educator Maura Thomas, in her book Attention Management: How to Create Success and Gain Productivity ― Every Day, recommends that being less distracted is all about attention management. She identifies four quadrants of attention, based on how attentive you are being and how much control you are exerting. These quadrants are reactive and distracted, flow, daydreaming, and focused and mindful.
She encourages us to spend more time in a flow state and less time in a reactive and distracted state. In his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi states that flow is a state of heightened focus and immersion in an experience where concentration is effortless, and performance is maximized. Unfortunately, you can’t enter this state at will because it is a brain state and not a behavior.
We can all take certain steps to make it easier to reach a flow state. First, you must eliminate all external distractions that will interrupt you. Disable alerts and notifications, and place a ‘do not disturb’ sign on your door. Second, you need to minimize internal distractions. Focusing exercises like journaling and meditation will help you with mind wandering. Also, don’t forget to account for your mental blind spots as well.
The more mindful you are of these distractions, the better positioned you will be to guard against them. Distractions are everywhere. Managing distractions rather than allowing them to manage you, will lead to a more fulfilling life by helping you to identify, and solve for, what distractions are holding you back.
Check out this week’s podcast episode with Maura Thomas for a deeper dive into eliminating those distractions that are holding you back.
You can also check out the article, 4 PRODUCTIVITY THINKING TRAPS THAT MAY BE HOLDING YOU BACK, in our June 19, 2022 blog.
ABOUT CHARLES GOOD
Charles Good is the president of The Institute for Management Studies, which provides transformational learning experiences that drive behavioral change and develop exceptional leaders. Charles is an innovative and resourceful leader who specializes in bringing people together to develop creative organizational and talent strategies that enable business results. His areas of expertise include assessing organizational skill gaps and leading the design, creation and delivery of high impact, innovative learning solutions that achieve business goals.