4 Research-Backed Ways to Manage Distractions and Achieve Goals

4 Research-Backed Ways to Manage Distractions and Achieve Goals


These days distractions are a common thing. From the constant buzz of your mobile to Facebook notifications on your laptop, the world is throwing a hundred distractions a minute at you.

There is a lot of discussion around silencing this “noise” too but people tend to forget that getting distracted has been a part of human life for centuries.

What differentiates humans from other species is their ability to cut off from the external world and focus inwards, feel nostalgic, or create a long term goal.

Scientists have researched whether human beings actually want to mentally detach from their surroundings?

In a recent official survey about how Americans spend their time, it was found that in the last 24 hours,  95% of people had spent their time watching television, reading a book, or socializing.

At the same time, 83% of people did not take a break where they relaxed or actually thought about something consciously. This is because human beings hate boredom.

Using Our Negative Mindset For Our Advantage

In his book, Indistractable, Nir Eyal mentions that apart from boredom,  negative thinking and sadness takes a lot of our time. Moreover, we always come back to our basic level of satisfaction, like people winning lotteries have reported feeling the same as before after some time.

You might feel bad but it’s not a bad thing! This negative thinking has helped us survive and grow exponentially over the years. It has helped us build machines and grow food unlike before.

Trying to suppress negative feelings can have a counter effect. In a study,  participants were told to not think of white bears, as expected, that was the only thing that participants could think of. Later on, the same group and another group was asked to think about white bears. The group which has previously tried not to think about white bears were able to think about them much more.

The good news is that a lot of scientists have worked on these issues and suggest the following strategies to not think of the “white bear” (negative things) :

 1. Focus On Something That Interests You

Thinking of a red van would supersede the thought of the white bear.

The same logic can be used to attain goals and avoid distractions. In my post about, “5 Ways to Achieve Goals”, I mentioned research on how having goals that you value can make you take actions that help your get near the goal, not only that, they will also make you avoid the habits that have been detrimental to goal attainment.

If you have meaningful goals, you will be less likely to get distracted.

 2. Postpone the Thought

If you have any thoughts that encourage you to do something else rather than pursuing your goal, you can postpone the thought and decide to deal with it an hour later.  Or scientists suggest, set aside 30 minutes for worrying in a day.

This is something that I have experienced in my life. I don’t remember if I thought of the idea myself or read it.

I noticed that my brain gets totally exhausted by 9 PM. Due to this, I thought of negatively or questioned my choices. This made me anxious so I decided to not feed my brain more and started telling myself to think about these things with a fresh mind in the morning.

This has been a perfect solution for me. I am so fresh in the morning that any doubts or negative feelings are gone. Most of the time I do not remember what I was worried about.

A good indicator of something to work on would be a thought that is still with you when you are fresh. You should surely give that thought some workover and pay attention to it.

3. Cut Back On Multitasking

There might be some tasks that you do often, like certain reports at the office or doing your dishes. That’s when listening to a podcast along with the task is enjoyable.

The issues arise when we continue this behavior while pursuing goals that are new for us and require more focus.

You might think that you can listen to music while trying to read a textbook but our brains do not multitask, it is just great at switching between tasks. You are losing focus and efficiency if you do this.

Not only is it ineffective, but it also saps our energy which we can use for a better cause.

Even a decade back,  big organizations had started encouraging their employees to check their emails less frequently and avoid distractions from the internet.

4. Catch the Internal Triggers!

Though we are hardwired to think negative thoughts, we can still control how we deal with the internal triggers that precede the distraction.  In the book Indistractable, Nir Eyal mentions these 4 steps researched by Dr. Jonathan Bricker:

Step 1 – Notice the Feeling That Comes Before the Distraction

There was a time when I was eating a lot of sugar, specifically ice cream was my biggest weakness. I realized with time that I go for it when I am nervous or anxious. I did that without being conscious about it for many years.

Once I realized this pattern, I tried to focus on the emotion that I was feeling and then took a more reasonable approach to either managing the emotion or solving the issue.

Step 2 and 3: Writing Down How It Feels and Exploring the Sensations

If you are prone to negative thinking, research has shown that writing about good things that happened in your life can reduce your stress.

In case of internal triggers, scientists suggest that you write down how you feel right at the moment that the trigger pushes you to do something that you categorize as a distraction.

This can take a bit of practice, you can easily identify that Facebook or Whatsapp makes you move away from your goal but noticing the inner feelings is more difficult.

Bricker suggests that writing about yourself as if you are observing another person helps. Writing your feelings at the time like, “I am feeling anxious because of my deadline tomorrow and that is making me want to re-watch  a Game of Thrones episode.”

This kind of observation will help you resist giving in to distractions, you will feel less anxious or you will think about something which will help you come back to your goal.

Exploring how your body feels when the internal trigger hits you can also help. If you feel that you shake your leg when anxious or your eyes twitch, this kind of observation will help you wait before acting on the impulse.

Step 4: Beware of Transition Points

I am perhaps the biggest victim of this issue. Whenever I decide to do something “for a minute” before I get back to my goal, it can de-rail me for an hour or more. A simple refresh on YouTube homepage would bring a Jerry Seinfeld interview and I would click, that’s half an hour wasted away from my goal.

It is important to observe these behaviors and stop yourself from indulging right away. Nir Eyal mentions his ten-minute rule, where he does not stop himself totally from giving in to the transition. Like when he wants to check his Facebook, he gives himself a waiting time of ten minutes. 

This process of letting the urge come in, neither pushing it out like a white bear nor embracing it immediately can help the urge to lose its potency. 

This habit then trickles down into other transitions too when you want to watch Netflix, eat something unhealthy or want to google random stuff rather than pursue your goal.

In the end, working on controlling your distractions has a deep impact in your life. This is an important step towards goal attainment. 

When you plan a meaningful goal, you often think about the positive impact of achieving it.  The truth is that the impact is much bigger. While pursuing the goal, you feel autonomous, competent, and a sense of being connected to others. This brings in a feeling of fulfillment and meaning in your life in general. 

This is why it pays to work towards controlling your distractions! 

Image credit:  Devin Avery via https://unsplash.com/photos/VBBs_SWsdwU

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