Micro Distractions: A Major Issue

I’m on the younger end of the millennial generation so I feel that I have a right to speak freely about my own people. There’s no denying that we are the generation of technology. From Windows ’95 and its eerie theme song of dial up to Google, an infinite encyclopedia at our fingertips to Apple’s release of the iPhone. With these society shifting innovations, we’re mere taps from anything we want within seconds forcing a belief that we can DO anything we want within seconds. Millennials quickly became self-proclaimed experts at multi-tasking. Unfortunately, I’ve only witnessed one singular output from it all – distraction.

The Rise of Multi-Tasking

The ability to multi-task is a fallacy. Still, some use it as a defining personality or a skill on a resume. Merriam-Webster’s definition is “The concurrent performance of several jobs by a computer.” Two things I find striking.

  1. Only it’s performance is concurrent. Not it’s accuracy, completion, or efficiency.
  2. By a computer. Yes, the original definition was used to describe the processing power of computers.

We took it from it’s technological roots and not only applied it to human behavior but praised individuals claiming mastery over it. You’ll find plenty of articles showing research that this simply is untrue. What we think of multi-tasking is really our brains rapidly switching between tasks. Computers can process dozens of signals at once, but it doesn’t work out so well for us. In fact, it takes close to twenty minutes for your brain to fully focus back on one task.

Leading With Progress Over Verbing

When I was in Boy Scouts, our patrol leader ended all his meetings with “Let’s verb.” It was a innocuous phrase that we could fill with endless possibilities. Today, if I heard a leader end their meeting with this, I’d raise not only an eyebrow but a red flag. Leaders are leaders because they give direction and purpose behind that direction. I wouldn’t find much confidence in a leader that tells their team to go do *insert work* here.

Walk the Talk…

I draw a parallel between this and the act of multi-tasking. Multi-tasking is telling someone to go off and try to complete three tasks in the time of one, doesn’t matter the tasks chosen. Both these phrases lack specificity. Simply completing tasks for the sake of completion or doing them concurrently is muddy. As a leader, instead of just “verbing” we need to stop multi-tasking, make teams aware of their goals, and get everyone walking in the same direction. Only then can progress start to be seen but before you can get a team to stop the madness, the leader has to show it’s possible. Be a reflection of what’s expected.

I’ve been present with a leader with this exact challenge. They spoke well, listened intently, and cared for people around them but flew at Mach 3. At first, it sounds impressive that one could handle so many moving parts and divert attention so quickly but over time, behind the curtain, the set was on fire. Requests made to direct reports weren’t followed up on and projects started with gusto yet never made it far. The team felt they were always in react mode and began betting which requests seriously needed action. “Why should I dedicate my time and effort when they’ll forget they even asked tomorrow?” The leader spent much of their day multi-tasking and ultimately the team felt like their leader was adhering to everyone else’s agenda but theirs. They chose to verb.

What’s the one project, the one goal, that hasn’t been accomplished that would make a lasting impact? Do that, then repeat the question. Walk a straight line.


Where’s Our Focus?

The output of our multi-tasking is distraction. In an organization it could be a blockade to progress but in smaller groups distractions take us away from the present. A present I see too much of it being lost by trying to capture it over experiencing it. While they certainly exist in organizations, it’s more prevalent in our social lives. I call them micro distractions. Posting your elegant dinner takes away from relishing in it’s craftmanship and exemplary service you’re receiving. Immediate discovery through Google erases the joy of curiosity, of just being ok with not knowing. Notifications pull more attention than conversations, taking stock of Facebook outranks taking stock of nature, and more e-mails are read than non-verbal cues.

Our brains crave habits because they’re easy. They’re mental shortcuts that take less processing as the pattern is recognized and those habits are formed from connections we make with our environment. The next time you’re in a restaurant, watch the waiting area. Count the number of people who check in then sit down to wait and almost immediately look towards a phone, likely without thinking twice. It’s no better at the table either. Take a look at this photo. How many devices can you see?

The problem with some habits is that it’s a potentially damaging connection. In this case of micro distractions when we connect to a device, we disconnect from reality. No one would argue that a connection to the unrealistic is disingenuous and inauthentic and yet where we have the option, we’ll choose it almost every time. In the long run, what’s more important? That Snapchat story or a friend needing to unload a tough week? These are opportunities to form deeper relationships and stronger bonds but the moment our focus is pulled elsewhere, we’re saying “I have somewhere else to be” or “this text is more important”. Side note: On the chance one of those is true, you should be asking yourself “What lead me to be here? Was I afraid of saying no to this commitment”?

We’re the Problem and Answer

Personally, I wonder for some if it’s avoidance. That these micro distractions are a form of get out of jail free card. Go back to the waiting area at a restaurant example. Silence can be awkward and not knowing how to engage is uncomfortable. Rather than stepping into it, we hunch our shoulders, look down, and try to be small, unnoticeable. As if we’re saying “I’m looking at something else and not responsible for this.” I’ve got news, the silence is still there. The awkwardness is unbearable and you’re the cause. The door to better relationships is open. You’re choosing to close it.

Show Up

We’ve got a put an end to these micro distractions starting with ending multi-tasking. Showing Up is about being present and when you’re multi-tasking you’re not 100% there. The first step is moving from the unconscious habits to awareness. If you’re struggling to do so on your own, enlist a close friend or co-worker to call you out when they observe you multi-tasking. Social accountability is a powerful weapon.

For more specific strategies, try closing e-mails when it’s not needed. Make a rule that phones stay hidden while in restaurants, waiting areas included. Silence doesn’t have to be awkward. They’re natural breaks in conversations. Breathe in your surroundings, then spark a new topic. If you can’t think of one, prompt open-ended questions. Show up by choosing progress instead of ambiguous verbs and leave the multi-tasking to the computers.

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