We have all been there. You sit down to write your next masterpiece that you know any journal would be lucky to accept and “ding” your phone goes off. You check it, you type a few words on the google document, you hear some yelling in the other room (A kid? Your neighbor’s kid?). You try to focus and tell yourself not to worry about it. You need to get this section of the paper written today. The doorbell rings, you hop up to see what it is. Amazon has arrived.
Sound familiar? Our brains are hardwired for distraction. Back in the day, this was a good thing when the saber-tooth tiger was attacking us. Nowadays, it’s just taking your attention away from writing your next paper, finishing your charts, or concentrating on what is meaningful and productive.
The case for banning distractions
You probably know distractions are bad for you. But as a data-driven cohort let’s talk about some numbers. A study out of Michigan State University found that an interruption 2.8 seconds long doubled the rate of errors in the task being performed. Not so great for ED physicians. The Harvard Business Review reported a study out of the University of California Irvine which showed that once interrupted it takes 23 minutes and 15 seconds to refocus back to the original task after an interruption (1). So that quick phone check is costing you more minutes than you think.
How do we stay focused while working from home?
Cal Newport defines “Deep Work” as “the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task.” Doesn’t that sound nice? I’m going to give you 3 tips so that you can master deep work the next time you work from home (WFH).
We perform “time outs” in the Emergency Department to set ourselves up for success and improve the quality of our work, so why not have the same philosophy while WFH? Plan a “time out” that you will perform every time you WFH (or WFA, Work From Anywhere, for that matter). Ritualizing it, doing the same routine every day, can improve your performance (2).
Step 1: Clear your physical environment from distractions
As we talked about in the WFH strategies post, our brains like order. My first step when I sit down to WFH is to clear my desk of anything that would lure my brain to start thinking about something other than the task at hand. Mail, paperwork, and old coffee cups all get the boot before I sit down to do deep work.
And yes, that definitely means clearing your environment of your smartphone too. Ward et al, published an article talking about the “brain drain” of a smartphone (3). The study found that working memory and fluid intelligence were both affected when a participant’s smartphone was in their visual field (it didn’t even have to be doing anything!). Out of sight (e.g., desk drawer) even had a negative effect, although not as much. If you want to retain your cognitive capacity for all that deep work you’re doing, the best place for your phone is in another room. If you think it’s heresy to have your phone that far from you, then at least put your phone out of your visual field and set it to Do Not Disturb (DND). If you are worried you are going to miss an emergency call, use the Emergency Bypass function to allow your emergency contacts to still be able to call or text.
Step 2: Declutter your digital space before starting your day
My computer lives in Do Not Disturb (DND) mode for 23 hours and 59 minutes a day. It gets one minute not in DND at 1:59 am. No banners, dings, pop-ups. As mentioned in the WFH strategies post, start your day with no icons on your desktop and only one window open for what you are currently working on. Your brain is easily nagged by things left undone or unexplored. Don’t give it options.
Step 3: Pause
Consider doing a 2-minute meditation before you start your WFH. Meditation has been shown in studies to improve your working memory, reduce mind wandering (3) and relieve stress-related memory impairments. My go-to apps are Insight timer (free!) and Headspace.
I have invested in a number of distraction busters that keep me focused while WFH. The first one I recommend is a white noise sound machine. I turn on my sound machine and I am naive to all screaming littles, construction, and traffic noises. Some studies show white noise can improve cognitive performance (5), being most favorable to those with lower attention spans (hello EMers!).
Also, consider investing in noise-canceling headphones. These have 2 purposes. First, they block out ambient noise (great if you are WFA and not home with your sound machine). Secondly, they have the bonus of creating a social cost for interrupting you. When people see headphones, they are less tempted to interrupt you since there is a subtle social barrier in their way (try it next time you have to work from the office if you are unable to shut your door).
One of my favorite distraction busters is the “Be Focused Focus Timer.” This iPhone app utilizes the Pomodoro technique, a nifty time management system that encourages people to work in 25 minutes blocks with 5 minute breaks. This timer sits on the top bar of my screen and counts down every second. Rather than feeling like I have endless time for a task, I know I only have 22 minutes and 24 seconds, for example, to write this section of my blog post. This sense of urgency helps me not to get sucked into distractions.
Probably one of my favorite time management quotes comes from Nir Eyal’s book Indistractable. He says “you can’t call something a distraction unless you know what it’s distracting you from.” I remember reading this quote and having one of those “a-ha” moments. We so often blame something, usually a technological device, for distracting us but if we haven’t planned our day, therefore our day having no traction, how can we call something a distraction?
Cal Newport, author of “Deep Work,” actually has a section in his book called “Schedule Every Minute of Your Day.” He suggests at the beginning of each workday, write down your schedule for the day with every minute accounted for. He time blocks his day, with each block being 30 minutes. He goes on to add that it’s okay if your schedule is disrupted and a task takes longer than expected. He recommends during the next transition to revise your day plan. Consider giving that task more time in the future or making “overflow conditional” blocks that are “catch up” time. This exercise encourages you to continually ask yourself “What makes sense for me to do with the time that remains?” What is my next most important task?
- Each time you sit down to work, be it WFH, WFA, or even your office, perform a “time out” ritual. Make it your own. Set yourself up for focused and productive work. Clear your physical environment of distractions, disconnect from all technology, and pause.
- Think about what distraction busters will set you up for success while WFH. Invest in a white noise sound machine or noise-canceling headphones. Close your door, let your family/housemates know you are doing deep work. Create a social barrier to interrupting your focus.
- Schedule every minute of your day. Write it down somewhere. I like using OmniFocus Task Management App. Make sure to have traction in your day-to-day life.
- Mark G, Gudith D, Klocke U. The cost of interrupted work: More speed and stress. Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems – Proceedings. 2008; 107-110. https://doi.org/10.1145/1357054.1357072
- Wood Brooks A, Schroeder J. et al. Don’t stop believing: Rituals improve performance by decreasing anxiety, Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, Volume 137, 2016, Pages 71-85, ISSN 0749-5978, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.obhdp.2016.07.004.
- Ward AF, Duke K, Gneezy A, Bos MW. Brain Drain: The mere presence of one’s smartphone reduces cognitive capacity. Journal of the Association of Consumer Research, 2017; 2(2), 140-154. https://doi.org/10.1086/691462
- Mrazek MD, Franklin MS, Phillips DT, et al. Mindfulness Training Improves Working Memory Capacity and GRE Performance While Reducing Mind Wandering. Psychological Science. 2013; 24(5), 776–781. http://www.jstor.org/stable/23409426
- Angwin AJ, Wilson WJ, Arnott WL, et al. White noise enhances new-word learning in healthy adults. Sci Rep 7, 2017; 13045. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-017-13383-3
As physicians we are managing many different roles in our lives: academician, researcher, clinical provider, spouse, parent, just to name a few. Despite our many roles, the amount of time we have in a day to complete the tasks of each role remains the same: 1,440 minutes. Is how you’re spending your 1,440 minutes in a day the way you want to spend them? By assessing your priorities, practicing time saving tips and being proactive and not reactive you can live the balanced life you’ve dreamt of. There are only 1440 minutes in a day. Are you utilizing them well?