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Attention to distraction - are there health implications?

Updated: Aug 30, 2022

How often have you said or heard the phrase ‘I just don’t know where the time has gone’?

Here in the clinic, clients are saying it all the time. There is a sense that time is speeding up and that people can’t keep up with the hectic demands of modern life. This may be reality or it may just be our perception, but either way it makes us examine how we use our time, and whether or not we think we are using our time well.

When viewing this within the sphere of technology, distractions manifest themselves in both our work and our personal life. It can also adversely affect our health and wellbeing. Lets take a closer look at these areas, and then discuss some strategies that might help you manage your daily distractions.

Working with Distractions

Distractions are a constant issue, particularly in the modern office. Clients comment on feeling unsettled, annoyed, frustrated, angry and overwhelmed to the point of despair when they experience frequent distractions and interruptions.

Even outside the working environment, our social world places an expectation to be available 24/7, 365 days of the year, and accessible on demand. This effect is called ‘digital distraction’, however humans have been susceptible to distraction even before technology.

Despite our individual frustrations with distractions, often the only way to get someone else’s attention is to distract them from some other focus. This article is doing just that, by enticing your attention away from other tasks you might have on your to-do list.

Emails are one of the worst offenders for distraction, the constant notifications on both computers and phones, and the expectation to respond quickly, means we are always stopping and starting other (often more important) tasks. This leads to an almost never ending to-do list, and tasks taking longer to complete due to distractions.

In order to combat the ever-growing list of tasks and distractions, we often try to take on multiple tasks at once. Some people may seem very successful at multitasking, however studies by the Assistant Professor of Computer Science at Georgetown University, Cal Newport, conclude that attempting to complete several tasks simultaneously will reduce the quality of each task. Switching back and forth between activities and tasks leads to less productivity overall caused by a reduction in cognitive ability.

Some people are more susceptible to being distracted or ‘intentional blindness’ than others. When the brain is flooded with stimulus it becomes selective to the point of potentially missing something that would have been important, says Nilli Lavie, Professor of Psychology and Brain Sciences, Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, University College London. For example, crossing the street and chewing gum seem manageable together, but add texting at the same time and the risk of missing important information (such as seeing an obstacle in front of you) increases. Unfortunately, there’s no evidence to suggest that training the brain will improve attention and multitasking skills.

Distractions & Down Time

The technologies that challenge to fragment our attention and make it difficult to focus for long periods of time also provide a valuable connection to services, people and information. We use our devices to make our lives easier, accessing banks, news organisations, retailers, friends on the go and on demand.

Mobile phones are constantly beeping/pinging, alerting us to new messages, emails or notifications from applications. These continuous sounds act like ‘periodical rewards of interest’ (like a slot machine) that encourages us to always feel the need to check, read, scroll, endlessly searching. We develop a habit that requires us to always be connected and searching in order to satisfy the addictive part of the brain (reward centre).

We must also remember that our personal device connection not only comes from the world back to us, but also from us out into the world. All the apps and websites we use are all collecting and collating data on how we use our connected devices, like: How frequently and at what times do we check our emails, click links in emails? How long do we spend on certain website pages? How long we spend scrolling through social media? What people or pages do we like or follow? How many times do we post photos or messages? Where do we congregate?

They then sell or use this data to create advertisements and distractions that encourage you to interact and/or buy from them. They have a vested commercial interest in distracting you as much as possible, because the longer they hold your attention, the more valuable you are to them.

Managing Distractions

Being personally responsible to what is distracting or just paying attention is not always the simple answer. By taking deliberate steps to manage your distractions, you can be empowered in your work and personal life.

Some strategies you could try include:

Managed Productivity – Modern management methods often focus on team or individual productivity and performance capacity (KPI’s). Start a conversation with management about the priority tasks and their importance to the team result or project/documentary quality. Seek guidance to define all tasks and implement staggered/specific times of availability to which the whole team/company is aware. This strategy would support both team and individual productivity, as well as lessening individual/collective stress.

Self-Productivity – Prioritising projects or important document processing over less immediate correspondence seems obvious but worth reminding in this strategy. Breaking tasks down into measured packets of time would allow for focused attention on each and improve productivity overall. Turn off email notifications while you are completing designated tasks and only action or respond to emails in specific periodical blocks throughout the day. If someone’s email really does require urgent action, they will follow up with a phone call!

Personal Down Time – Your personal time is precious and should be valued accordingly. By giving emphasis to yourself through recognition of your needs, a different experience can be fostered and this would flow outwards in to your community (family, friends, workmates) enriching the world you inhabit. Some personal relaxation methods might include yoga, meditation/sitting quietly, massage or even reflexology. Where are you placed on your to-do-list? How would being first feel?

Being Present – This last strategy is possibly the most difficult to master but is definitely the most rewarding. Martina Sheehan, distraction specialist and author and co-founder of Mind Gardener says we need ‘to better live in the moment’. Asking the question ‘What matters at this moment?’ and ‘Does this deserve my attention?’ throughout the day is key to becoming more mindful and more present. The distraction may be a sound in the background or feeling hungry or a conversation nearby. Being in control of your attention is based on what action you take directly after being distracted!

How Distractions Effect Your Health

The mood states we feel when we are constantly distracted (unsettled, annoyed, frustrated, angry and overwhelmed) can have an adverse effect on our health. The psyche is in a constant state of flux and response, and this directly impacts our ‘stress response’ and ‘stress load’, often manifesting as physical symptoms.

In some cases, ‘fight or flight’ self-preservation is activated and a series of nervous system, chemical and hormonal responses take place. If these responses are not addressed and managed over time (hours, days, weeks), a psychological response habit is formed. This can lead to stress induced anxiety, ongoing migraine headaches and poor sleep. Depending on base health factors, other symptoms may be felt or worsened.

The suggested strategies above can help you manage your daily distractions, empower you to feel more in control of your time and attention, and reduce the negative health impacts distraction can cause.


Cal Newport, Assistant Professor of computer science at Georgetown University

Martina Sheehan, Author and co-founder of Mind Gardener

Tristan Harris, Co-director, Time Well Spent

Nilli Lavie, Professor of Psychology and Brain Sciences, Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, University College London

Richard Watson, Author and futurist


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