Before starting eno, I spent two years researching the psychology of productivity. My goal was to better understand habits and tricks used by highly productive people to defang various distractions at work– this led me to research and experiments about distractions that were eventually compiled in a book on how to apply these principles to studying at university.
During my research, I ran a small experiment to investigate how well we understand our own internal distractions. I sent out a survey asking people to list their most pressing distractions in the workplace – the types of interruptions that hindered their ability to get their most important work done. At the top of the list were the expected culprits: emails, cellphones, coworkers, meetings, and social media.
There was a second type of distraction, however, that caught my eye. Responses like “my own mind,” “wandering thoughts,” and “uncertainty” were surprisingly common. Instead of pointing to their environment, these people were inherently blaming themselves – they felt that the source of distraction wasn’t external, it was in their own mind.
If we want to understand focus, we first need to understand distraction. This dichotomy is the best place to start.
We live in an age of distraction where attention is a rare commodity. Psychologists discretize attention in two distinct categories: bottom-up and top-down.
Bottom-up attention – more formally defined as exogenous orienting – describes shifting your attention towards an external stimulus. When you hear a loud noise behind you and immediately glance in that direction, this is your bottom-up attention subconsciously orienting you towards the sound. This is a common cause of distraction while studying as many of you would have experienced.
To contrast, top-down attention – endogenous orienting – describes shifting your attention to internally generated thoughts. When you suddenly remember that you forgot to lock your front door at home before leaving, this is your top-down attention orienting you towards an important memory. Top-down attention is also used to characterize the way we focus on our internal monologue while we work.
In your brain, these processes originate from different regions: bottom-up attention primarily in the parietal lobe, and top-down attention in the prefrontal cortex. Together, they are constantly competing to steal the focus of your conscious mind. We feel focused when our conscious mind only orients towards stimuli relevant to our task; we feel distracted at work when our mind orients towards stimuli outside of our task.
In order to characterize types of distraction, we can use the same dichotomy: external type of distractions in life come from the outside world – top-down – and internal distractions come from internal thoughts – bottom-up. In order to reduce our workplace distraction, we need to attenuate both types.
When we think about distractions, external causes of distractions are frequently what comes to mind. Given that external distractions such as digital media are more perceptible, this isn’t surprising.
In most cases, an external trigger is immediately followed by a strong habit impulse. When you see a notification (the trigger), your impulse is to check your email (the habit). For many of us, these habits have been strongly reinforced over decades – even if you don’t give in to the urge, the habit will continue to compete very strongly for your attention, making it more difficult to retrieve the deep state of focus that you had previously.
In other words: external distractions kill your focus.
A lot can be done to weaken the link between a trigger and a habit, to attenuate this effect. We’ll talk more about this in Part 5 of this blog series. The easier way to prevent external distractions, however, is simply to avoid the trigger in the first place.
· Prepare your environment before starting. Use the washroom, set your chair height, and have your coffee, water, or tea available. This attenuates discomfort, which will often become distracting. Keeping your desk clean also helps avoid distracting visual stimuli.
· Place your phone out of arm’s reach. Unfortunately, turning your phone on silent is not enough – a “ghost vibration” is your brain’s way of creating an external distraction even when there isn’t any. If you can see, hear, or feel your phone, it will eventually steal your attention. Just put it away.
· Use noise cancelling headphones and focus music. Humans are very susceptible to auditory distractions – in particular, frequencies near the range of human voice. Noise cancelling headphones and music designed specifically for focus help eliminate auditory distractions, and are shown to improve focus over time. eno is a great example of both of these.
· Mute your notifications. For most of us, notifications are very strongly tied to habits. Functions like “do not disturb” on MacOS and “focus assist” on Windows allow you to temporarily mute notifications, so these don’t interfere with your priority. eno allows you to turn these features on automatically when you put on your headphones.
· Tell your coworkers that you’re trying to focus. This is a more extreme measure, but an effective one to avoid distractions at work – placing a sign on your desk can indicate to colleagues that you’re in deep work, and don’t want to be disturbed. Wearing headphones also does this naturally, and can appear less passive-aggressive.
Together, these strategies dramatically reduce the majority of external distractions at work. The key is to develop habits around these actions, so that they become instinctual – we’ll discuss this in Part 5.
In Contrast to external stimuli like internet distractions at work, internal causes are a little more complicated.
Internal distractions follow the same framework as their external counterpart: a trigger catches your attention, and either gets ignored or (more often) is followed by a habit. The difference is in the nature of the trigger: internal distractions are triggered by emotions.
Emotional triggers differ from person to person. When you’re bored, you may get distracted by going on Facebook. When you’re anxious, you may check your calendar to help get organized. These emotional habits become reinforced over time as the behavior distracts us from the emotion, rewarding and encouraging the habit in the future.
Memories often trigger strong emotions, which in turn triggers habits. When you remember an email you forgot to send, you may feel nervous, and habitually open your email client to take care of it. When you remember a difficult conversation you had earlier, you may feel frustrated, and ruminate about it for several minutes. Each behavior is again reinforced each time we give in to the habit, making it more likely that we’ll experience the trigger in the future.
Since internal triggers are tied to very strong emotions, their pull on our attention is often very strong. In practice, internal distractions cause us to deviate from our priority more often than external distractions do. These actions lead us to switch tasks midway, ruining our focus and preventing us from getting our work done.
In short, removing external triggers that cause modern day distractions, is the easy first step. Solving our internal distractions is the real challenge.
When dealing with internal triggers, there’s good news and bad news. The bad news is that since internal triggers are top-down, they’re by definition invisible. These thoughts and emotions occur subconsciously and without prompt – unlike external triggers, it’s nearly impossible to know how to stop getting distracted by thoughts.
The good news is that despite the internal habits being very powerful, internal triggers are less likely to orient our attention. Your brain produces millions of thoughts and connections every second, and only a small fraction steal your attention – our brain is very effective at filtering out unimportant thoughts. Over time, it’s possible to train your attention to prioritize a single task, and ignore the distracting thoughts before they occur.
The key to this is deep work, which we’ll discuss in the next blog post.