We live in the most distracting time in history. When else did people have access to so much information with so little effort?
It’s a phenomenon that can be both beautiful and terrible. You can easily stumble on to a new favorite song, or a link to a book that changes your life. You can take personalized Portuguese lessons with a native speaker without leaving your house. Or…
Cats. So many cats. One click on a Facebook link can send you down the rabbit hole of lost time and missed productivity. Who knows how many hours and dollars you’re costing yourself in the long run.
Even worse, we’re most susceptible to these kind of distractions at work, where our attention and energy is at its most vulnerable.
Not only is it taking away your time. And taking away your money. It’s taking away the most valuable, important thing you can be doing at work.
It’s taking away your flow.
Gloria Mark, at the University of California, Irvine, has done some of the most in-depth studies on digital distraction and how it impacts people at work.
We’ve written before on how Mark’s research shows it takes average of about 25 minutes (23 minutes and 15 seconds, to be exact) to return to the original task after an interruption.
That’s a lot of lost time.
It gets even worse.
“I argue that when people are switching contexts every 10 and half minutes they can’t possibly be thinking deeply. Mark has said. “There’s no way people can achieve flow.”
What is flow and why it makes us the best we can be
Or take this description from Steven Kotler, Director of Research for the Flow Genome Project and author of “The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance.”
“In flow, concentration becomes so laser-focused that everything else falls away. Action and awareness merge. Our sense of self and our sense of self consciousness completely disappear. Time dilates—meaning it slows down (like the freeze frame of a car crash) or speeds up (and five hours pass by in five minutes). And throughout, all aspects of performance are incredibly heightened—and that includes creative performance.”
Researchers are finally starting to understand this state of consciousness that has provided humans with huge advantages for millennia.
Kobe Bryant once described it perfectly:
“When you get in that zone, it’s just a supreme confidence that you know it’s going in. Things just slow down, everything just slows down and you just have supreme confidence … Everything becomes one noise, you don’t hear this or that. Everything is just one thing.”
The benefits of flow are well documented:
- In an Australian study, for example, 40 subjects were presented with a complicated brain teaser and not one was able to solve the puzzle. But after having a flow state artificially induced, 23 of the subjects solved the puzzle in record time.
- Harvard researcher Teresa Amiable has found that the flow state improves brain function even the day after achieving it.
- A 10 year McKinsey and Co. study showed that executives were 500 percent more productive in a flow state.
And among the discovered benefits:
- Increased pleasure sensations
- Heightened focus
- Increased information-gathering abilities, thus higher likelihood of seeing new possibilities
- Increased pattern-recognition abilities
Why distractions are the enemy of flow
Research has outlined the three conditions that must be met to achieve a flow state:
- One must be involved in an activity, with a clear set of goals and progress, which adds direction and structure to the task.
- The task must have clear and immediate feedback, so that the individual can negotiate the changing demands from the circumstances and allows them to adjust their performance to the flow state.
- One must have a good balance between the perceived challenges of the task at hand and their own perceived skills, and must have confidence to complete the task.
Here is how distractions play in; flow involves a lot of feedback that is conditional upon your brain being in a certain state. If you’re pulled out of that state — to, say, answer an email — you won’t be able to respond to the feedback in the same way.
If you’re solving an engineering problem in a flow state, for example, your brain has a heightened sense of all the available information that can solve the problem, and all of the “noise” information is pushed away. Think of it like wiping a chalk board clear of all information except the problem at hand and potential solutions. Once you leave the chalk board and come back, you bring with you tons of irrelevant information. You start picking up a lot less signal and a lot more noise.
And you get a lot less of the important things done.
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