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How to Improve Productivity in a Growing World of Technological Distraction

07/03/2016 10:23 GMT | Updated 07/03/2017 10:12 GMT

It's so easy to be side-tracked these days, particularly by gadgets. We live in an 'always connected' world. Tech has become increasingly adept at attracting our attention with alerts and notifications.

According to RescueTime, a company which develops time management and productivity software, the top 5 technology distractions are Facebook, YouTube, Facebook applications, Twitter and Amazon. On average we spend 18 minutes per day on Facebook during work time and almost 10 minutes on YouTube. Other popular online distractions include Netflix, Reddit, Flickr and blogs.

Sometimes what distracts us is not external but our own internal thoughts. Our brains are constantly processing information and this is known as "ambient neural activity".

A recent piece of research found that distractions account for an average of 2.1 hours a day of lost productivity. The average amount of time we spend on a task before being distracted is 11 minutes. It then takes us 25 minutes on average to return to the original task and by which point we have even less glucose available. Reduced energy levels mean that we are less able to think in an effective way.

Why is it that we are so easily distracted? One reason is because the things that take our attention away are fun to do. We are wired to avoid pain and move towards pleasure. So if we are struggling with a task or feeling overwhelmed, then it's so easy to tell ourselves that it's okay to spend a couple of minutes on Facebook or on YouTube. When we are working on something we love, however, we have no problem staying focused.

It's also important to be aware that, as with physical exertion, thinking uses energy mainly in the form of glucose. Some thinking tasks use more energy than others. For example, self-control and decision-making are high-energy mental activities. So switching our attention on and off uses up a lot more mental energy than working continuously. It's similar to what happens with a car engine because starting an engine uses up more fuel than cruising along at a steady pace does. Studies show that each high-energy mental task makes us less effective at the next task.

So what are the answers? The main solution is really simple but surprisingly hard to do - switch off all devices so that the most attention-grabbing potential distractions are eliminated.

Another key is to learn to use a part of our brain called the right and left ventrolateral prefrontal cortex, or the VLPFC for short. Think of the VLPFC as being the human brain equivalent of the braking system in a car. However, unlike the braking system in a car, the VLPFC is quite weak. It finds it difficult to stop us from carrying on with a distraction activity that we have already started because that requires a lot of strength. The trick to using the VLPFC effectively is awareness and getting into the habit of stopping the wrong behaviours well before they take over. For example, once you open up your email application it takes a lot of effort not to read the emails in your inbox. But it takes much less effort not to open up your email application in the first place.

Finally, because self-control is a high-energy mental activity it is best to do tasks which demands a lot of thinking at the start of the day while our mental energy levels are high.