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Taming Distractions

Balancing Tasks and Social Interaction

By Jennifer Keluskar, Ph.D

I am walking towards the kitchen when my daughter stops to share a story. I try to listen as I make my way to the coffee machine, and struggle to focus enough to count the scoops I put in. I stop mid-scoop as I feel a beep in my pocket prompting me to check a social media update. I then realize I forgot to write an email for work. In the midst of this, I also notice I wasn’t paying attention to my daughter, and that I started the coffee machine without pouring water into it first.

Distractability has become a buzz word in the self-help world. With reports of skyrocketing prescriptions for stimulant medications, our Prozac nation seems to have also become an Adderall one. While the tendency to get distracted has been linked to conditions such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), mood and anxiety disorders, and chronic pain, many people who struggle to focus do not have a formal diagnosis. They might be sleep-deprived, over-scheduled, or anxious about possibly failing at tasks, so they avoid them.

In an effort to get more done, it might be tempting to attribute distractability to interactions with colleagues, family, and friends. For me, this tendency can be traced back to high school when, in a room of chatty students, I was the quiet one trying to eke out an extra sentence of an assignment. The more I got pulled into social interactions, the less mental and physical effort I could exert towards being productive, and that was not a chance I was willing to take.

On the other hand, when people engage in enjoyable and meaningful social interactions, the autonomic nervous system responds in a way that is focused and relaxed at the same time. Consistent with this, I have found that chatting with a friend and giving them my undivided attention feels reviving. Our understanding of human biology also supports these experiences and observations, as social interactions have been shown to impact the activity of dopamine, a chemical produced by the brain that plays an important role in pleasure, attention, and processing pain.

Distractability is as much a part of being human as is being social. Nevertheless, balancing social connection and productivity is challenging, especially for over-achievers, who are highly reinforced by their accomplishments and consequently tend to take on too much at once.

Here are some tips for enhancing meaningful connections in ways that won’t sacrifice productivity, and might even boost focus on tasks:

  1. Fill your social bucket with meaningful interactions. Think of the need for social connection as a bucket that needs to be filled. I could fill my bucket most of the way by calling a friend, and the feeling of satisfaction might last for hours. In contrast, while several likes of my social media post might give me a quick “high,” the feeling of satisfaction is shorter lasting. Consequently, I soon feel the urge to fill the bucket again by checking for more likes or creating another post. Every time I do so, it is distracting me from whatever chore or work assignment I’m supposed to be doing, and worse yet, it is also taking time away from activities that will improve important relationships, such as playing with my children. Hence, engaging in meaningful interactions can lead to longer-lasting contentment as well as perseverance on work tasks you take on afterwards.

  2. Notice urges and think about them. The key here is to notice when you get an urge to distract yourself. This could be an urge to check social media, or to pull away from a more meaningful social interaction. The next time you feel that urge, but before you jump right into what that urge is telling you to do, think about it and sit with it for a moment. Calm your body by sitting back, taking a deep breath, and slowing down your thoughts.

  3. Make one choice that is in line with your values. As you notice the urge to get pulled into a distraction, think about whether shifting your attention is in line with your values. In some cases, you might find that talking with a loved one is more in line with your social values than checking a social media update. You might also find that your values for work and relationships conflict. Perhaps you value hard work and productivity, but you also value being an attentive parent, and you are having trouble deciding whether to write an email or have a conversation with your child. The way out of this conundrum is to accept that you are not going to make the perfect choice and, instead, look at the big picture. Not everything has to be done at once. For instance, it is OK to take care of an email before having a conversation with your child, or to chat with your child before taking care of the email, as long as some focused time and attention is devoted towards both, but not both at the same time.

  4. Communicate in a way that enhances social connection. Frustration is often an unfortunate consequence of trying to focus on too many things at once. If you choose to attend to the To Dos over interacting with someone you care about, express your interest in listening to them as a reason you want to take care of a task first. You could say, “I want to hear this story, but let me finish this email before I forget what I’m trying to write.” Being honest with yourself and others about the limits of your attention is better than trying to do it all at once and getting frustrated.

  5. Mind your nonverbals. One way that distractability gets in the way of social connection is that it comes with nonverbal communication that pushes people away, such as looking down at your phone, showing a preoccupied facial expression, or having a disinterested tone of voice. Looking interested will improve your relationships, and in addition, research has shown that smiling can impact the nervous system in a way that improves mood.

Balance is key to being effective in both social and task-driven lives. While time management tips can be helpful in this regard, it is important not to overlook emotional needs for human connection, and to take a hard look at how well you are fulling those needs. Here’s a good place to start: The next time you feel overwhelmed by distractions, look for a meaningful social interaction, even if it is a brief one. Acknowledge your need for connection and, when it’s time to get back on task, communicate this to others in an honest and genuine way.


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