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Distractions and Your Brain

Our philosophy at Rx Creative Lab is that less isn’t more, less is better. Our calling is to simplify complex communications — making heavy, scientific data light and easy to read, thus helping people make better sense out of information in order to do their job better. It makes sense, then, that we are always searching for ways to be the most productive, streamlining our processes and optimizing our time. Beating distractions can be a tough thing to do, and recently I read a book, Your Brain at Work by David Rock, that delves into brain activity, why it can be so hard to focus, and how to better manage distractions.

With our always-on technologies, distractions are everywhere. David cites a study that found distractions eat up to an average of two hours a day, and another found that employees spend an average of 11 minutes on a project before being distracted (and this was in 2005!). Distractions use up glucose in the brain and can be completely exhausting.

Combating external distractions is easy: switch off all communication devices during all thinking work. Give others a signal you cannot be disturbed by closing your office door, or as one of my previous bosses did, put a red flag up on your desk. Internal distractions, though, are another story. David mentions we all have “ambient neural activity.” The neurosystem is constantly processing, reconfiguring, and reconnecting trillions of connections in your brain each moment. We have hundreds of thoughts each minute. Most never get attention and fade away, but many make their way through. Being distracted, David says, is a “knee-jerk” reflex, and when we focus it takes effort. Focusing on one thing inhibits the other things from coming into focus.

So what can we do? David says the awareness of our veto power makes all the difference. Instead of going straight from brain signal to movement, recognizing that we have the power to veto that signal makes it easier. He suggests we try the following:

  • When you need to focus, remove all external distractions completely.
  • Reduce the likelihood of internal distractions by clearing your mind before embarking on difficult tasks.
  • Improve your mental braking system by practicing any type of breaking, including physical acts.
  • Inhibit distractions early before they take on momentum.

Remember, less is better. Focus, and make progress.

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