One of the most challenging parts of our lives today is being able to maintain our focus on a single task without being distracted by coworkers, telephones, email and other messaging services. Technology is great, our smartphones and tablets are amazing and how they allow us to communicate with our friends, coworkers and family is just mind blowing when you compare it to the state of technology just ten years ago.
But with all that advancement in our communications technology has come the always on, always connected mindset. Not only do our friends expect us to be always online, so do our colleagues and bosses. There does not appear to be any moment in our lives where we are not expected to be online and in communication with someone.
I remember a few years ago I was able to go watch my favourite rugby team (Leeds Rhinos) play on a Friday night. I had my phone with me, but it was in my pocket and it stayed in my pocket throughout the ninety minutes of the whole game. I was not searching through Twitter, I was not taking pictures to post to my Facebook feed. I certainly was not live streaming my appearance in the spectators gallery while the game was going on. It was me, my friends and twenty-six players on the pitch (I watch rugby league, not rugby union). I was totally absorbed in the game and it was wonderful. I was completely disconnected from the always on life we all lead today.
Today, when we need some time to focus on a single piece of work, we need to be able to switch off. To step away from the connected grid and focus all our attention on the work that must be done. A great example of this are these articles I write on Medium. I require about two hours to write the article. That is two hours of complete focussed work. To do that, I first deal with any messages or emails that need replies. Then I turn on flight mode on all my devices (phone, iPad etc.) and for the next two hours I sit down and write. I have been doing this all year and I have found that during those two hours, off the grid, the world has never ended. No world crisis has begun because I was not contactable and none of my clients have ended our working relationship because I did not reply to their ‘urgent’ message for a couple of hours.
What many people do not realise is that people understand you may be busy doing something else and cannot reply to their message immediately. It is our own fault if we allow ourselves to be distracted by every beep, alert or ping. If we did not react so quickly and so urgently, things would be fine. If you need one or two hours of complete focussed work to finish a project or task, then go ahead and do it. Turn off your devices and just get on with your work. The world is not going to end, you are not going to get fired and you are not going to lose your friend or be divorced just because you did not reply to a message within thirty seconds.
Distractions are not the problem. It is our reaction to those distractions that is the problem. Everybody is getting distracted. Some people cannot help themselves but read every message, email, tweet or Facebook comment they receive as soon as they receive it. Others, are able to turn off this constant stream of words and focus on what is important right now. It is that that you have to learn to do. You need to learn that not responding immediately is okay, and you need to focus on what you need to focus on in the moment.
Feeling you must respond immediately, is an addiction. It is not healthy for you and it can destroy the quality of the things that are important right now. These things could be your work, or it could be something more important like your young daughter who just wants to play with you, or your elderly dog who wants to have some quiet, quality time with you. All these instant messages and emails can wait. You do not need to respond immediately. I have found that giving myself twenty minutes every two or three hours to respond to messages and emails is enough to enable me to do focussed work without feeling guilty or worried about what I am missing, yet at the same time it allows me to stay in touch with the people that matter in my business and my personal life.
I love playing with my dog. I enjoy the forty-five minute walks we have together every day. My phone is with me, but I never look at it. I allow myself to be in the moment with my twelve year old dog, who’s highlight of the day is those little walks. We walk, we talk (yes, I admit I talk to my little boy) and we race (he loves racing between trees) and it is wonderful. When I get back home, my little boy is happy because he has had his highlight of the day. I can look at my phone, see if there are any messages that need responding to and respond appropriately. It is not difficult and is certainly much more healthy for you mentally
We hear a lot about all the damage this always on always distracted life many people lead today does, yet it is not the fault of technology or the people who are messaging you. It is your fault. It is your response to these distractions that is the problem. If you need to do focussed work, then you need to switch off for a while. You need to take responsibility for your own life and set some rules and guidelines for yourself. If your boss is always messaging you, then you need to have the courage to say to your boss that all these messages are preventing you from getting good quality work done. It is always your decision whether to look at a message or not the moment it comes in. If you cannot control yourself, then you have a problem and you need to re-educate yourself.
Stop blaming technology for your lack of focus. Acknowledge you have a problem, then do something about it.
Carl Pullein is the author of Your Digital Life: Everything you need to know to get your life organised and put technology to work for you, a book about how to get yourself organised in the twenty-first century