Woman holding her head in frustration.

Recognizing and Avoiding Distraction

It’s Friday afternoon and you have a lot on your mind. Family is in town for the holidays, and you have a dinner party planned for that evening. Then, your supervisor calls and asks you to complete an important job before you go home.

Our days are filled with personal and work-related distractions. It might be family, finances or health issues, phone calls, texts, emails, Teams’ meetings, instant messaging or social media. These diversions sidetrack our mind from the job at hand, which increases the chance of error and injury.  

Distraction generally comes in three forms: cognitive, visual and manual. Below are examples of each. 

Cognitive distraction

As you perform a job, what mental distractions divert your attention? In the holiday party example that opened this article, consider the thoughts that might be swirling through your head. The party is at your house with a lot of family and friends. Is everything ready? Will it all go as planned? Do you have enough chips and dip? These are all cognitive distractions that can steal your attention. Other examples include talking to coworkers or listening to music while working.  

Visual distraction

We are bombarded by visual distractions every day. Your smartphone can be the biggest culprit as it comes to life with text messages, emails, photos from friends, social media notifications, memes or that funny video of a dog wearing a reindeer suit.  

Our work computers also visually distract us with Calander reminders, instant messages, emails and software updates. Visual distraction can even be as simple as looking out the window and watching someone’s car being towed. 

Manual distraction

Do you ever eat while you work? Maybe you are digging through a file trying to track down information that a coworker just requested. Wait, the holiday party is pressing for your attention again as a text comes in with a ping: “We don’t have enough chips and dip, can you stop at the store and pick some up after work?” You answer, and a text conversation follows. 

Texting can be one of the biggest diversions because it involves manual, visual and cognitive distractions combined.    

The multitasking myth

In our world of distraction, some say that multitasking is the solution. They believe that we get better at it as we multitask more; however, the human brain does not multitask. It operates sequentially, quickly switching from one task to another.  

While multitasking, it might seem like we are doing multiple things at once and doing them well. To the contrary, a study showed that 70% of participants who thought they were above average at multitasking were actually below average.  

Another study found that multitasking does not improve with practice. Those who multitask regularly take longer to complete their work when compared with those who do it less. Those who multitask are also distracted more easily while focusing on a single job.  

Avoiding distractions

Distractions impair situational awareness and the ability to recognize and react to hazards. This can be especially dangerous when working around energized or heavy equipment. 

Recognize distractions and make a conscious decision to focus, mentally committing to a task and avoiding the pitfall of multitasking. As we focus and keep our eyes and mind on task, we strengthen and increase our attention span with practice. 

Also, reduce the number of distractions around you. We cannot stop coworkers from asking us questions; however, we can turn off social media notifications and limit other diversions while working. We can also schedule and complete challenging assignments early in the day, while our attention is fresh. 

Eating right, exercising, getting enough sleep and taking short breaks during the day are other ways to contribute to focus and strengthening attention spans. 

In a world filled with distractions, we can decrease the diversions around us while increasing our focus, attention, productivity, safety and success. 

The success of that holiday dinner party on the other hand, is another story.  

Sources: University of Utah Genetic Science Learning Center and thrivingcenterofpsych.com 

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Note: Robbins is a technical writer who works under the Cherokee Nation Strategic Programs contract. 

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Last modified on March 12th, 2024