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Distractions Destroy Productivity

Written by: Patricia Faust, MGS, Executive Contributor

Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.


It goes without saying that these past couple of years have dumped a boatload of distractions on us. Some time ago in the not-too-distant past we were going about our daily lives. It wasn’t an idyllic life, but it was one we were comfortable with. That could be how we remember it, but we were struggling with focus and distractions. Employees back then spent 11 minutes on a project before they were distracted. Then, after the interruption, it took 25 minutes to return to the original task. It was reported that people switch activities every three minutes! Any distraction, good or bad, diverts attention. It takes effort to shift attention back to where it was before the distraction.

That was before the pandemic shut everything down and employers were trying to establish remote work on the fly. That is when distractions hit the ozone layer. It is one thing to work in an office where co-workers might be doing the distracting but now the office was at home. Not only did everyone have to contend with workplace distractions via Zoom, but now the family was around too. It was and still is, a challenging situation. Stress levels went up and burnout has ensued. What have we learned and what can we do to solve this long-standing problem?

Distraction is a brain problem. Attention is easily distracted. When we get distracted, it is often the result of thinking about ourselves. Even with our brain at rest, there is a constant storm of electrical activity taking place within our brain. The prefrontal cortex does our active thinking. It is an energy cannibal and utilizes large amounts of glucose to function. Distractions exhaust the prefrontal cortex’s limited resources.

There are two types of distractions – eternal and internal. External distractions are just that – they originate from outside of you – an email marked urgent, phone calls and texts drawing your attention away from your task. These distractions can be exhausting. By the time you get back to where you were – your ability to stay focused goes down even further. You have less glucose available for fuel to your prefrontal cortex. Less energy, less capacity to understand, decide, recall, memorize and inhibit more distractions. The result is a substantial loss- mistakes, forgotten good ideas, and loss of valuable insights. Can you manage these external distractions? Once you realize how much is involved in high-level thinking (planning, creating, decision-making) you should be more vigilant about allowing distractions to steal your attention.

What is a strategy that you can immediately employ to stop external distractions? Turn off all your communication devices during your thinking time at work. Always being on, by being connected to others via technology, can drop your IQ significantly as much as losing a night’s sleep. The brain prefers to focus on things right in front of you. Blocking external distractions is one of the best strategies for improving your mental performance.

Then there are internal distractions. The mind likes to wander. One reason is that the nervous system is constantly processing, reconfiguring, and recollecting trillions of connections in your brain – each moment! This is known as ambient neural activity. The electrical activity lights up different parts of your brain several times a second. The result of this is a stream of thoughts and images emerging into conscious awareness. You are daydreaming and problem-solving!

What happens to people when they are bothered by internal distractions while they are working on a difficult task? Lapses in attention impair performance independent of what the task is. These lapses in attention involve activating the medial prefrontal cortex – it is in the center of your forehead area and part of the prefrontal cortex which is the executive function center in the brain. This part of the brain activates when you think about yourself or other people. These internal distractions might not leave enough glucose available for intensive thinking – so you keep losing your train of thought. You might be trying to hold on to too much information (more than four concepts at once) and so you keep losing items. Other earlier decisions that need to be made keep jumping into view. It becomes so clear why distraction destroys productivity!

How can you stay focused? Our magnificent brain has developed specific neural circuitry for this process. But there is a paradox here. Maintaining good focus on a thought occurs not so much on how you focus – but rather how you inhibit the wrong things from coming into focus. Inhibiting distractions is a core skill for staying focused. Specifically, to inhibit internal distractions you need to be aware of your mental processes before they take hold. The brain has a common braking system to inhibit distractions. Inhibition uses a lot of energy because the braking system is part of the prefrontal cortex. Each time you inhibit something, your ability to inhibit again is reduced. Inhibition requires catching an impulse when it first emerges before the momentum of an action takes over.

Here are some ideas to help you maintain focus:

  • When you need to focus, remove all external distractions completely

  • Reduce the likelihood of internal distractions by clearing your mind before embarking on difficult tasks

  • Improve your mental braking system by practicing any type of braking, including physical acts

  • Inhibit distractions before they take on momentum.

David Rock. “Your Brain at Work”

For more info, follow me on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and visit my website! Read more from Patricia!


Patricia Faust, Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine Patricia Faust is a gerontologist specializing in the issues of brain aging, brain health, brain function, and dementia. She has a Masters in Gerontological Studies degree from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. Patricia is certified as a brain health coach and received a certification in Neuroscience and Wellness through Dr. Sarah McKay and the Neuroscience Academy. My Boomer Brain, founded in 2015, is the vehicle that Patricia utilizes to teach, coach, and consult about brain aging, brain health, and brain function. Her newsletter, My Boomer Brain, has international readers from South Africa, Australia, throughout Europe, and Canada. Patricia’s speaking experience spans the spectrum of audiences as she addresses corporate executives on brain function, regional financial professionals on client diminished capacity, and various senior venues concerning issues around brain aging and brain health.



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