Distractions: Understanding the Biggest Productivity Killer

When it comes to productivity, distractions can be a big problem. With so many different distractions in today’s world, staying focused on the task at hand can be difficult. When we switch between tasks, we lose up to 40% of our productive time because our brains have to adjust and refocus.[1] On average, distractions result in daily time losses of 2.1 hours.

Some distractions are obvious, while others are subtler and more difficult to detect and manage. For instance, the majority of you are aware that our phones’ or computers’ notifications are a constant source of distraction, but are you also aware of how your stress or anxious thoughts affect your ability to concentrate?

This article will teach you everything you need to know about distractions so that you can overcome them and increase your productivity.

What Are Distractions in a Nutshell?

In a nutshell, anything that diverts our attention from the task we are currently working on is a distraction.

As defined in Merriam Webster Dictionary, “distraction” is:[2]

Something that distracts : an object that directs one’s attention away from something else

Distractions can take many different forms. Among the most common distractions are:

  • Electronic device notifications: Constantly receiving alerts from computers, smartphones, and other devices can be very distracting.
  • Social media: Using social media incessantly can be a major source of distraction.
  • Email: Reading and responding to emails, especially if you do so frequently throughout the day, can be a significant source of distraction.

It’s important to recognise that distractions are a natural part of life, and eliminating them completely isn’t always possible or desirable. Managing distractions and finding ways to stay focused, on the other hand, can help you improve your productivity and reach your goals.

Why Do We Get Distracted So Easily?

There are several reasons why we may become easily distracted:

1. Our Brains Are Hardwired to Be Distracted

In order to learn and adapt to our environment, our brains are made to actively seek out new information and stimuli. This is a critical component of human cognition.

According to the Neuro research on humans and macaque monkeys,[3] rather than functioning continuously, our capacity for concentration is built to function in short bursts. We are distracted in between those bursts of attention. The brain pauses and scans the environment during those periods of distraction to see if there is anything outside the main focus of attention that might be more significant. If not, it will refocus on what you were doing.

This human instinct, however, can cause us to become easily distracted. For instance, when we are engaged in a task and hear a loud noise or see something intriguing, our brains may automatically switch our attention to the new stimulus. This can be especially difficult in today’s world, where so many sources of information and entertainment compete for our attention.

2. We Live in a World Full of Distractions

There are now more informational and entertainment resources than ever before available to us thanks to the spread of technology and the internet. This is both a blessing and a curse because it means that we have easy access to a variety of tools and pursuits that can aid in our education and development. But with so many options vying for our attention, it can also be challenging to remain concentrated on a single task.

A study found that different parts of our brain focus on the environment in various ways, and that the type of external stimulus even affects the frequency at which our brain waves pulse:


“Neural activity goes up and down in a regular periodic way, with everything vibrating together. It is faster for automatic stimuli and slower for things we choose to pay attention to.”

This means that when we are surrounded by distractions, it is more difficult for us to focus on what we need to focus on.

As an illustration, you might be tempted to check a notification on your phone while working on a project if you get one. It may be more difficult to get back into the flow of your work after being pulled away by this minor interruption. Similar to this, you might find yourself drawn to click on a news headline or social media post while working on a task if it catches your attention.

3. We Have a Short Attention Span

According to a 2010 Harvard study, the average person’s mind wanders 47% of the time, which means that you’re thinking about something else almost half the time you’re doing one thing.[5]

Humans have a short attention span, so it’s normal for our attention to start to stray after a while. This is especially true if we are required to work without any breaks on a single task for an extended period of time.

For instance, if you are working on a task that demands a lot of concentration and you don’t take any breaks, you might find that after some time you are easily distracted. This may be brought on by a number of things, such as weariness, boredom, or merely the need for a change of scenery.

4. Most Of Us Have Poor Time Management Skills

Poor time management skills can lead to a lack of focus and productivity in several ways:

  • Lack of clear priorities and goals: Without clear priorities and goals for your work, it can be challenging to maintain focus and avoid getting distracted by less important tasks.
  • Failing to allocate time effectively: Without a clear plan for how to divide up your time and resources, you may find yourself switching between tasks or getting stuck on less important ones.
  • Procrastination: Procrastination is a major source of distraction because it keeps you from your work and makes it more challenging to get back to it.

We can become easily distracted for a variety of reasons, all of which can be present at the same time. But we can sharpen our focus and increase productivity by identifying the sources of distraction and creating management strategies for them.

The 2 Types of Distractions

In order to successfully overcome distractions, we must first understand where distractions often come from. There are two kinds of distractions:

External Distraction

External distractions are those that come from outside of ourselves. Noise, interruptions, and other stimuli that pull us away from the task at hand are a few examples of external distractions.

External distractions include visual triggers, social interactions, sound, and technology. A few of these are:

  • Phone calls
  • Text messages
  • Emails
  • Notifications on the phone
  • Social media
  • Movement
  • Conversations
  • Noise
  • Music
  • Coworkers
  • Family
  • Pets

Quick Action Item

  • The quickest way to eliminate external distractions is to remove yourself from obvious distractions when you need to focus.
  • For example, muting phone notifications, wearing noise-canceling headphones, closing the office door, blocking your schedule to prevent coworkers from interrupting you, and informing your family ahead of time that you will need to focus.

Internal Distraction

Internal distractions are the root of our distraction. They are distractions that originate within us rather than from outside sources. They are your own thoughts and emotions such as worries about important obligations or enjoyable activities you’d rather be doing; and negative feelings you have regarding the project you are working on.

Typical internal distractions include the following:

  • Negative Thoughts: Worry, anxiety, or frustration are all examples of negative thoughts or emotions that can be distracting and make it difficult to concentrate.
  • Impulses: Impulses or desires, such as the need to check our phones or take a break, can divert us from our work.
  • Daydreaming: It can be difficult to focus when our thoughts start to stray and we begin to consider matters unrelated to the task at hand.

Internal distractions are linked to our natural instinct to avoid discomfort. We, as humans, are motivated by freedom from discomfort rather than punishment and reward. When we are in physical or mental distress, we naturally seek ways to alleviate it.

These discomforts and escapes can take many forms, such as:

  • The reality of marriage problems and the escape provided by video games
  • The reality of work stress and Netflix binges as the escape
  • The reality of a difficult task and the escape of doing house chores when you work from home
  • The reality of tough life and the escape of social media scrolling

As a result, these escapes become our distractions.

Quick Action Item

  • There is usually a trigger that causes you to switch to a distraction activity. Determine the trigger and how you feel at the time.
  • Instead of allowing your emotions to control your actions, sit with them for 5 minutes and avoid getting caught up in the wrong activity during that time.
  • Then start breaking down the challenge into smaller tasks that you can tackle right away.

The Cost of Distraction

Distractions are the number one killer of productivity. A person is distracted every 11 minutes on average, and it takes at least 25 minutes to regain optimal focus. That means you’re wasting six out of every eight hours of your day to distractions.

Here are some more startling statistics:

  • On a personal level, distractions have an impact on our performance:[6]
    • 54% aren’t performing as well as they are supposed to;
    • 50% are significantly less productive;
    • 20% are unable to reach their full potential or advance in their careers.
  • On an organizational level, distractions cause company loss:[7]
    • 45% reported compromised quality of work
    • 30% reported lower morale as a result of other employees having to pick up the slack
    • 25% reported a negative impact of boss/employee relationship
    • 24% reported missed deadlines
    • 21% reported a revenue loss

Distractions can significantly reduce productivity, efficiency, and even safety. The cost of distraction, for instance, can be potential harm or even death when operating machinery or while driving a car.

Furthermore, distractions can contribute to a less fulfilling life. Since distractions make it difficult to stay focused on the things that are most important to you, you may find yourself wasting time on tasks or activities that do not contribute to your long-term goals or overall well-being.

For example, you could spend hours scrolling through social media or engaging in other activities that are enjoyable in the moment but have no long-term value. On the contrary, focusing on jobs and pursuits that are worthwhile and advance your goals and general well-being can improve your life.

Quick reflection:

  • Consider how many hours of time and energy you waste each day.
  • Now multiply those hours by the number of weeks and months.
  • Consider where you spend the majority of your time.

How to Overcome Distractions

You cannot control every distraction; some distractions are truly urgent. Sometimes you do have to take care of unexpected things but 90% of them aren’t really that urgent or important.

Most people choose to be distracted subconsciously and allow the distraction to take them away from what they’re trying to focus on.

That’s right, you can choose to be distracted. That means you have control over distractions.

Distractions are a reflection of an internal conflict within you. They are a reflection of something your mind is still debating. Things tempt you away from it and compete for your attention because your mind hasn’t fully committed.

I’ll give you an example:

Consider the last time you needed to pee urgently… when you were completely focused on finding the bathroom. I’m sure those urgent emails and messages could wait. In fact, you were probably so focused on it that it was difficult to divert your attention away from it.

What is the deciding factor? There was no doubt about it. Your mind, your body —- were completely dedicated to answering nature’s call.

However, this was a decision made by your subconscious mind. Consider bringing this decision to the forefront on a daily basis and proactively activating this type of focus.

The real key is how to use the distraction to reach into your mind so you can commit to a decision easily without a doubt. In short, use each distraction to strengthen your focus.

To learn more, check out my focus-boosting guide: How to Focus And Stay Sharp (A Comprehensive Guide)


Read this focus-boosting guide: How to Focus And Stay Sharp (A Comprehensive Guide) 


We can be easily distracted for a variety of causes, and each person will have different reasons why they are distracted. The root cause of all distractions, however, is within us, which includes negative thoughts and mental discomforts that cause us to want to escape reality.

Distractions can have a significant impact not only on productivity but also on our life fulfilment by making it difficult to focus on tasks and goals that are truly important to us.

To overcome distractions and find focus, you must first identify the sources of your distractions and then take steps to strengthen your focus.

Featured photo credit: Nubelson Fernandes via unsplash.com


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