Easily Distracted? How to Become Indistractable
For the past few years, I (Katrina) have been wondering two things. First, is the use of my devices giving me bad posture? Second, are my devices hurting my ability to focus? The answer, of course, is yes to both. What to do about it?
My beloved, the in-house social psychologist here on Linderwood Drive, ordered a book for me titled "Indistractible: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life," by Nir Eyal. The first third of the book almost lost me, but the rest seemed to speak directly to my problem. Here's what I took away. Let’s start with how the mind works.
Distraction is moving away from something, not moving toward something. What is it that I am moving away from when I am distracted? What is the discomfort I am avoiding? Why, first thing in the morning, do I check my email instead of going to the perfectly prepared list of important things to do that I spend so much time composing? It’s because failing on something I spent two or three hours on is much more painful than failing on a two-minute email response.
In the same way that the playground is right next to the trash chute on our bodies, our brains have a similar counterintuitive design. Humans hate failing more than we like succeeding. When we are distracted, we are not running toward something that pleases us, but rather running away from something that feels unpleasant.
Once you’ve found the discomfort underlying the distraction, surf it. Explore it. Be curious about the negative feeling. Let it dissolve instead of fighting against it.
Self-talk matters. Avoid labeling yourself as someone who’s easily distracted or as having an addictive personality. You are what you say you are.
Being distracted is a behavior. It turns out, behavior is the result of a formula. That formula, defined by Dr. BJ Fogg at Stanford, is: behavior = motivation + ability + trigger. So, let's say the behavior is distraction, and the motivation is to get away from pain. The ability to do so is easy because Facebook is... well it's just right there all the time. Potentially, the most effective thing is to focus on the triggers that cause us to spend untold hours doing things that have almost no value.
According to Eyal, it’s best to manage external triggers by asking, ”Is this trigger distracting me or giving me traction?” Is this trigger working for or against my end goals? Once you figure out which team that trigger is playing on, you're in a position to do something about it.
Let’s get tactical now on common goal-thwarting triggers:
• People reply to your emails—almost always. So, to reduce email traffic, send fewer emails (I am chagrined and embarrassed that I couldn't figure this out on my own—I send a lot of emails).
• Signal to others that you’re focusing during the time you choose. Use a calendar appointment, a sign, a do-not-disturb headdress, whatever works.
• Make it harder to call meetings. Require an agenda, and if you need to (and who doesn’t?) no devices except for the one projecting the material. In the video conferencing world, ask everyone to agree that they are present on the one application you currently use, like Zoom or Teams. It’s unfair to check emails when you’re using someone else’s time in a meeting. These rules make meetings less attractive.
• Schedule group chats with a beginning and end time instead of letting them linger on indefinitely, a never-ending source of distraction. Even the leadership at Slack constrains the use of Slack on this front. Having 15 different group chats or channels open all the time is the route to complete lack of focus.
• Time-block your day to reflect your values. For example—if family is important, time for it should be on your calendar. If your strategic plan is important, time for it should be on your calendar.
• Delete distracting applications. In the moment, it will feel like cutting off your hand. It will get better.
• Ditch notifications. Yes, this is hard. But you (nor I, in fact) aren’t integral to the world spinning.
• If your organizational culture is always on, your people suffer. As do you. Turn off when you are not at work.
That device-driven posture? Still there.
Yoga is the answer at our house.
Otis Fulton, Ph.D., spent most of his career in the education industry, working at the psychometric research and development firm MetaMetrics Inc., Pearson Education and others. Since 2013, he has focused on the nonprofit sector, applying psychology to fundraising and donor behavior at Turnkey. He is the co-author of the 2017 book, ”Dollar Dash: The Behavioral Economics of Peer-to-Peer Fundraising,” and the 2023 book, "Social Fundraising: Mining the New Peer-to-Peer Landscape," and is a frequent speaker at national nonprofit conferences. With Katrina VanHuss, he co-authors a blog at NonProfit PRO, “Peeling the Onion,” on the intersection of psychology and philanthropy.
Otis is a much sought-after copywriter for nonprofit fundraising messages. He has written campaigns for UNICEF, St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital, March of Dimes, Susan G. Komen, the USO and dozens of other organizations. He has a Ph.D. in social psychology from Virginia Commonwealth University and a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Virginia, where he also played on UVA’s first ACC champion basketball team.
Katrina VanHuss has helped national nonprofits raise funds and friends since 1989 when she founded Turnkey. Her client’s successes and her dedication to research have made her a sought-after speaker, presenting at national conferences for Blackbaud, Peer to Peer Professional Forum, Nonprofit PRO, The Need Help Foundation and her clients’ national meetings. The firm’s work is underpinned by the study and application of behavioral economics and social psychology. Turnkey provides project engagements, coaching, counsel and staffing to nonprofits seeking to improve revenue or create new revenue. Her work extends into organizational alignment efforts and executive coaching.
Katrina regularly shares her wit and business experiences on her and Otis Fulton's NonProfit PRO blog “Peeling the Onion.” She and Otis are also co-authors of the books, "Dollar Dash: The Behavioral Economics of Peer-to-Peer Fundraising" and "Social Fundraising: Mining the New Peer-to-Peer Landscape." When not writing or researching, Katrina likes to make things — furniture from reclaimed wood, new gardens, food with no recipe. Katrina’s favorite Saturday is spent cleaning out the garage, mowing the grass, making something new, all while listening to loud music by now-deceased black women, throwing in a few sets on the weight bench off and on, then collapsing on the couch with her husband Otis to gang-watch new Netflix series whilst drinking sauvignon blanc.
Katrina grew up on a Virginia beef cattle and tobacco farm with her three brothers. She is accordingly skilled in hand to hand combat and witty repartee — skills gained at the expense of her brothers. Katrina’s claim to fame is having made it to the “American Gladiator” Richmond competition as a finalist in her late 20s, progressing in the competition until a strangely large blonde woman knocked her off a pedestal with an oversized pain-inducing Q-tip. Katrina’s mantra for life is “Be nice. Do good. Embrace embarrassment.” Clearly she’s got No. 3 down.