Read This Quick! It’s Distracting You From Work

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It’s Monday. I wake up early, get on my bike and arrive at the agency for half eight. I have my morning coffee, tweet about it, check-in, read my emails, update my status, put on my headphones, tweet again, open my notebook, chat to my colleagues, check my email, go back to my notebook, and begin to think.

Two minutes later a little envelope on the bottom right of my screen starts to jump up and down. I have enough willpower to ignore it at first.

The unread email counter is at 2…

Still my willpower persists…

Now it’s at 3…

Not only am I thinking about the unread emails, I’m also beginning to think about all the tweets I’m missing…

Now 4…

I’m struggling…

Now 5…

I crack!

Overwhelmed by the uncontrollable urge to empty my inbox and read my tweets, I drop my pen, pick up my mouse and click. 5 minutes later, and with a strange sense of satisfaction, I return to my notebook. But it’s not long before it happens again. And again. And again. Until finally, my working day is over and the brief remains uncracked.

Is the Internet changing how our brains work?

I noticed a while back that the more involved I became with digital media, the more distracted I became. The morning described above was every morning. My days were full of distraction and disorganisation, my brain craving to read tweets, emails and RSS feeds. In his book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains , Nichoclas Carr describes a similar feeling:

“I can feel it too,” he writes. “Over the last few years, I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory”

Amazingly, this feeling wasn’t just a sense, it was a reality. Carr goes on to describe how recent developments in neuroscience have proven that our brains are a lot more malleable than we think. The neocortex is amazingly plastic and can change and rewire itself depending on the type of information flowing into it. He posits that the Internet is literally changing our brains by shortening our attention span, allowing us to handle the chaotic flow of information that is modern media.

As an advertising creative this was a worrying thought. The formation of original ideas requires long periods of uninterrupted thought. The completion of large, integrated campaigns relies on prolonged periods of attention and discipline.
My brain is my number one asset, I’m paid to think, my career is defined by my ideas. If the Internet was indeed changing how my brain worked and reducing my essential ability to concentrate for long periods of time, surely I had to something about it?

How I am fighting the fight against distraction.

1. Turning off email
This was the hardest. With so many emails arriving daily, every second one marked as “urgent”, shutting down my email account for a few hours a day left me feeling a little bit nervous. I found myself wondering “what if I’m missing something?” or “what if something goes wrong and I don’t know about it?”. Unsurprisingly nothing went wrong and I didn’t miss out on anything. Instead I gained 2 or 3 valuable hours of uninterrupted thinking time, and if anyone needed me that badly they knew where my desk was.

Yes, there are times when having your email open is essential, and you should probably inform your colleagues of your intentions first just in case, but this, in my opinion, is the one of the biggest steps you can take towards fighting distraction. If the thought of shutting it down altogether is just to petrifying to imagine, Zen Habits offers some good advice on processing your emails more efficiently.

Diagram of the Action Method

2. A to-do list
Creatives aren’t naturally organised. The idea of a to-do list feels counter intuitive to most of us. But, it can act as a constant reminder of steps taken and steps to be taken, becoming a valuable asset in maintaining concentration, especially on large projects that take long periods of time.  In his book Making Ideas Happen, Scott Belsky introduces us to the action method, a specially designed to-do list for creatives. He describes it as:

“A radically different approach to productivity from Behance, designed to simplify project management and life. The Action Method is based on the premise that all projects have three key components: (1) Action Steps (2) Backburner Items (3) Reference Items.”

I’ve been recording action steps for 5 months now. Every morning, before I turn my computer on and engage in any form of digital media, I take out my analogue notebook and pen and dutifully record actions for the day ahead, transferring across any uncompleted actions from the day before. By making this the first thing I do every morning I start my day with purpose and concentration. And, if I do get distracted, the growing list of uncompleted tasks brings me firmly back to earth.

Realising how the Internet was effecting the way I thought has changed the way I work and the way I live. My days are more productive, I spend longer periods of time thinking and working without distraction, I’ve completed and made the ideas I’ve talked about making for years. I’ve recognised that where on one hand, the Internet is an amazing source of information and a platform for showcasing and creating inspiring ideas, it is also a cause of distraction that can ultimately hinder the creation of these ideas.

Have you found the internet to be a distraction in your working life? If so what have you done to remedy it? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Article Info
Posted by: Ciaran McCarthy
Thinking About: Advertising / Creativity / Digital / Technology
Location: Sydney
Twitter: @formeandu
  1. Steve Peck

    Nice article and certainly relevant. I find myself spending time just trying to keep up with the fast pace of tweets and shared links that everyone is passing around on a daily basis. Oftentimes I feel like I’m missing out if I don’t say in check with all the information. And of course, that feeling is completely misplaced since tomorrow it will be other tweets and other links.

    I’ve found in my own experience that being busy is the best deterrent from distraction. The more meetings and deadlines I have, the more time that requires my complete and undivided attention, the more productive I am. I simply don’t have time to check up on social networks and read blog posts. Lately I have been extremely busy at work, so I try to set aside specific times during the day to address all the stuff on the Internet – usually the first thing in the morning and then again after I get home from work. Thanks for the thoughtful post.

  2. martin wright

    Great article. For someone like myself who has spent the last 4 decades chasing ideas,answering briefs and providing creative solutions to business opportunities it takes a lot,quiet moments of contemplation, crushing fear that maybe this time I wont make it, time for another cuppa tea, maybe shoot some more baskets, complain to my partner, be quiet in front of my partner,
    get all the bad ideas out etc,etc. I dont need this new form of interuption, distraction. I need time to mope,dream even go walkabout at times.There are times now when I need to go lay down for a time,maybe even nap.Sometimes even go for a run. Anyway, I dont Twitter,Facebook,I do linkedin.I dont blog. I do analog, pencil and large sheets of newsprint, A2 I cant afford layout pads anymore. I love newsprint, Ive even presented on it a won new business. Its magical. So lets endorse constructive disruption, play baskets in the office,go for a run, go walkabout,nap but above all have fun. Great post Ciaran.

  3. Ciaran McCarthy

    Thanks for the comments.

    Steve, I know what you mean. Most of the time I’m just too busy with work to keep up with the hundreds of RSS feeds and tweets. Like you, I’ve set aside times during the day to go through all of them. I use a handy little tool called evernote to catalogue and keep track of relevant posts and tweets, you may have heard of it?:

    It’s a great way of keeping track of articles, especially because I can access it from anywhere on pretty much any device, and it can be used to store tweets I didn’t get the chance to read in full. I put time aside every Sunday to go through all my web clippings from the week, so I don’t get too distracted from personal projects and work.

    Martin, constructive disruption is a great way of putting it. Taking a break from the desk, turning off the computer, going for a walk or a run opens the mind to a wider world of possibilities that seem much smaller when you’re sitting at your desk.

  4. Susan O'Leary

    Interesting article Ciaran and so true it hurts. The funny thing is that when I started reading it I kept switching over to check my emails, then back to the article, then check a text, then back, then on Facebook, then back, then watch a few minutes of Corrie, then back. Terrible and totally unproductive.

    I’m taking note of your thoughts and will be switching off a few things and trying to focus more. The good news is that from what I’ve read, this changing of our brains in this way is only temporary so once we switch off from other things and focus properly it all goes back to normal.

    Now, off to Facebook/Twitter/Email/TV/Phone, etc :-)

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