Comfortably Numb

Are distractions keeping your from your best work?
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This is not a lecture on how to properly employ discipline in your life. There are great books I can recommend that point out how discipline and leadership go hand in hand. My discussion here focuses on the creative mind and how to deal with distractions. Which can easily lead to the B-WORD.

The Dreaded B-Word.

There’s another big piece of working culture that might have you welcoming distraction in for a conversation. That’s burnout. The B-word. The often ignored reality is that we weren’t built for the work we do today. We haven’t evolved to be there yet. We are not naturally equipped to handle long periods of deep thought necessary related to the application of creativity to non-essential tasks.

For me, there are two different types of distractions: unwelcome and welcome. Unwelcome is pretty self-explanatory. You can try to ignore these. I’m quite good at it. But sometimes they’re unavoidable, and they should be dealt with right away. If you feel like unwelcome distractions control your life, here are a few ideas I’ve used to lighten the load.

Note: I should point out that there are people that don’t always have this privilege. Maybe you’re caring for a loved one and waiting to speak to a nurse, or there’s a weather event heading into your area, or myriad other reasons you need to be ON. I get it. We can’t all be shut off all the time. These tips are for the moments when you feel it’s safe to be intentional about manufacturing long stretches of focus.

Unwelcome Distractions

Notifications are everywhere. In my office, I have my iPad Pro, my iPhone, and my MacBook all in front of me on any given day. When I need to focus, I make sure I turn the notifications on all these devices off. It’s okay to shut them off. Along with the FOMO. Nothing bad will happen. You control the technology around you, not the other way around.

This same methodology applies to collaboration software like Basecamp, Asana, and Slack. Yes, you have to be responsive to your team, but if someone asks you a question on one of these platforms, chances are they don’t need an immediate answer. If they did, they’d text or call. Having these software programs open all the time, mindlessly trolling the “Activity” page, anxiously awaiting responses, these habits can kill your focus. They’re an invitation to be interrupted by anyone and everyone, which leads me to my next point.

Interrupters, yah they’re a thing. When it’s focus time, shut your ringer off. Put your phone/computer in “Do Not Disturb” mode. If it helps, let your top three interrupters know that you’re doing it. It’s essential to keep these people on your side, be a good communicator. They may not have a desk job that requires intense bouts of focus, but they will still understand

Detox from technology. It’s helpful when you want to be present with your thoughts for an extended period. Have a point person to contact you. Someone who lives with you or is near you who can say, “so-and-so is trying to reach you.” If you’re taking off for a few days, leave the phone number of the place you’re staying along with detailed instructions on how to reach you in case of an emergency.

Welcome Distractions.

Then there’s the welcome distraction. Chicken soup for the creative soul? More like an addictive substance for the procrastinator. Be careful with these. If you welcome distraction and interruption, you cannot focus on the task at hand. It’s just not humanly possible.

I tend to invite in distractions when I need some time to process an idea. Other times, if I’m being real, I do it out of avoidance. Because I simply don’t want to do the task I need to. If this sounds like something you do, ask yourself, will the idea I’m stewing over/avoiding benefit if I let it go for a while? Or am I procrastinating because I don’t want to tackle this today? If it’s the former, move on to the next thing, let that idea rest and rise. If it’s the latter…hey, I’ve been there too.

Here are a few ideas I’ve employed in the past:

      1. Walk don’t run. Slowly step away from your situation. Not because you’re quitting, but to gain clarity. Try reading something related to your challenge, or completely unrelated, if that’s what you need. Lie down, close your eyes, and breathe deeply. Cold or hot showers work too. Transform your physical state and your mental state will have no choice but to follow. Most important, apply no intention to this process.

      2. Plan your day. Evaluate your energy when you’re ready to get started in the morning. Sometimes I take a lot of calls and meetings in the morning because I’m welcoming the distraction of conversations. Other times I start the deeper work in the morning and take meetings and calls in the afternoon after a good productive creative session.

      3. Self-care. When it comes to self-care, focus on the activities that allow you to be fully present. I don’t lift weights, but I imagine that’s a great way to focus on the present. I like long stretches of time to read, walk, listen to music, be with my family. Sometimes I just give myself permission to exist.

When it comes to distractions of all kinds, the most important thing to remember is that by doing less, you’ll do more. 

Focus on the right distractions, listen to your body, and remember to take good care of yourself.

Matt Maguy is co-founder at James & Matthew, an advertising agency located in Massachusetts.