What Psychology Teaches Us About Distractions (no, it’s not the lack of self-discipline)

posted on January 12th 2017 in Productivity & Remote work with 0 Comments

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Have you ever sat down determined to complete a task and several hours later discovered you had barely put a dent towards its completion? Distractions have a sneaky way of slipping into our lives and distorting time.

When it comes to working remotely, distractions seem to be the number one issue people are facing.

“I tried it out. It just didn’t get anything done. Remote working doesn’t work for me” people keep on telling me. Funnily enough, when I started working remotely almost 10 years ago, it was actually to escape distractions. Instead of the noisy work environment with coworkers and constant phone calls, I can focus with the workspace I designed at home or even work remotely from other countries.


The twofold nature of distractions

Distractions come in many different forms and can even disguise themselves as being an important task, such as an “urgent” phone call. There are involuntary ones, such as unwanted noises outside your window or people in your home who want your attention at the most inconvenient times. Whether or not we like to admit it, there are also more voluntary distractions we allow ourselves. We’ve all had a time when we promised ourselves we would only spend a few minutes on our favorite website and were shocked to see how much time had passed next time we looked at the clock.

The first question to ask is: why do distractions occur?

Blog posts on distraction and remote working (like this one and this one) are full of helpful tools that block certain websites and help with time management or they even suggest to use different laptops for work and leisure. Others suggest to improve on discipline.

I think blog contents like this stay at the surface of the problem and this is why their advice won’t help in the long run. The first question to ask is: why do distractions occur? This is what psychology tells us about distractions.


#1 It’s about habits

If you are new to remote working you will be faced with new distractions, old distractions in a new environment and unknown ways of dealing with it. Several people I know ended up returning almost thankfully to the office again after having tried to work remotely. What went wrong? Working outside the office means also getting used to something new.

Research in behavioral psychology found that new habits need in average two months to be formed and can take up to almost a year. I recommend giving yourself time to get used to the pattern of working remotely before you consider that it might not be for you.


#2 It’s about knowing yourself

You’ve learned now that you need a new habit of remote working. You will also need time to get to know the new “you” outside the 9-5 default working structure, to discover your own and very individual ideal working style. (I will talk deeper about this in another post).

People are different, tasks are different. If everyone works in that cool hipster coworking space, that doesn’t mean you have to as well. Find out what works best for you – and for the specific tasks you are working on.

You will also need time to get to know the new “you” outside the 9-5 default working structure


This mainly includes:

  1. Coffee shops and libraries are popular work spots, but try out a few different locations. You might be surprised by how it affects your work. I love to work on train rides as the landscapes fly by my window.
  2. Don’t squeeze yourself into 9-5 if you don’t need to. Get to know your personal peak times and actively use them for the most important tasks. Mine are 10-12 and 21-24.

Think back to a time when the rest of the world went still


#3 It’s about motivation

I am convinced that being voluntarily distracted from work very often and over a long period of time shows an underlying problem: you have a lack of motivation and this lack probably comes from the fact that you are not on the right job.

Think back to a time when you were immersed deeply into a task, when you were “in the zone,” and the rest of the world went still. This is what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi refers to as “flow.” In this state, distractions melt away and you don’t feel the passing of time.

We have a neural network in our brains responsible for self-awareness that is “switched off” until the task is finished and then becomes active again rather by default.

In his very early research in 1975, later published as bestselling books, he found out that “flow” occurs when your task is slightly above your skill level – not too easy to result in boredom, but not extremely challenging to the point of frustration. Your concentration is very complete. Your mind isn’t wandering, you are totally involved in what you are doing. Perhaps the clearest sign of flow is the merging of action and awareness. A person in flow has only a single perspective: he or she is aware of his or her actions but not of the awareness itself. There is undivided attention to the task.

Why does this happen? We have a neural network in our brains responsible for self-awareness that is “switched off” until the task is finished and then becomes active again rather by default.

The state of flow indicates something very important: that your work makes you feel more active, alert, concentrated, happy and satisfied. You don’t need nasty self-discipline to achieve it, it comes naturally, your brain just does it for you. This is a state when you prefer doing your work to Facebook, cleaning up, listening to background noise and other distractions.

So next time, you are distracted from your work, take a minute to ask yourself about the reason.

Distractions can actually guide you to find the best workplace, get to know your own workstyle better, create proper habits and help you find out, if this is really the right job.


Thank you for sharing this blog post!