Have you ever picked up your phone or logged into your computer with the intention of accomplishing a simple task and then getting back to whatever you were supposed to be doing? Have you ever wondered how a 60-second task turns into an hour of wasted time?
Well, it has to do with your brain’s ability to be easily distracted by external stimuli. And once you understand your biological proclivity for distractions, you can make an effort to overcome them.
The Distracted Brain
In his groundbreaking book Thinking, Fast and Slow, Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman walks readers through his discovery of the two brain systems that control attention. He calls these “System 1” and “System 2.”
System 1, also known as the automatic system, is the involuntary part of your brain that takes in stimuli and processes it – all without you really choosing to do so. For example, when someone yells your name down a hallway, you instinctively turn around. When you walk up on a snake in your yard, you suddenly freeze. When someone shines a bright light in your face, you close your eyes and shield your face with your hands. These are all illustrations of System 1 at work.
System 2, also known as the reflective system, is the voluntary part of your brain that processes the suggestions made by System 1 and makes decisions about where to allocate attention and how to respond. For example, System 2 would kick in when you see a snake and choose between walking away or grabbing a rake to kill it. Any time you weigh multiple options, think abstractly, or search for rational conclusions, you’re using System 2.
“Although System 2 is running our attention and our concentration, there’s only so much to go around, and it takes a lot of effort to stay focused on something,” entrepreneur and marketer Belle Beth Cooper writes. “We’re bombarded all the time by distractions, which the System 2 part of our brains has to fight against.”
With each distraction, some of our System 2 energy gets depleted, and we become fatigued. Eventually, we no longer have the willpower to fight off distractions, and we give in and waste time. This applies to school, work, home life, and, yes, internet activity.
3 Techniques for Avoiding Online Distractions
You don’t necessarily have to be aware of all the little nuances of your brain’s two processing systems to avoid online distractions, but it certainly helps to have a big picture view of what’s happening. This will help you become more aware of how you’re interacting with information and what you can do to stay focused. Combined with the following tips, you should be able to stop getting distracted and fully embrace productivity. Take a look:
- Use a Website Blocker
Everyone has a list of at least three to five websites that distract them online. Some people are really drawn to social media sites like Facebook, others fall for clickbait sites like Buzzfeed, and others can waste hours on sports- or celebrity-related blogs that promise to offer the latest scoop. Whatever the case may be for you, it’s imperative that you avoid these time-suckers.
The best way to avoid the sites that distract you is by installing a website blocker. A plugin like Block Site for Chrome lets you block certain sites and automatically redirects your browser to other websites that promise to get you back on track.
- Log Out of Email
In most cases, there’s no need to be logged into email. Having it running in the background is like having a ticking time bomb waiting to distract you from what you should be doing.
According to a Harvard Business Review article, it takes the average person up to 20 minutes to refocus attention after being distracted by email. The same goes for social media notifications and instant messages. By logging out of these and only signing in at certain times, you can keep yourself on track.
- Establish Deadlines
Finally, establish clear deadlines for yourself. If you’re writing a paper, tell yourself that you have two hours to complete the work and set a timer. This keeps you accountable and discourages you from engaging in distracted behavior that compromises your ability to meet the goal.
Take Control of Your Focus
You’ll never be able to fully take control of your concentration and focus. System 2 will always have a finite level of energy and attentiveness, and there’s only so much that can be done to enhance it.
Having said that, there are little tips and techniques you can use to set yourself up for success. Integrate them into your daily routine – you’ll notice a big difference.