Focus in a Distracted Era

Two people sitting next to each other on a bench in a lovely nature setting, both looking at their phones

I recently had the opportunity to attend my first Prometheus Retreat (more on that in a minute), and it got me thinking about the concepts of connection, distraction, unplugging, and focus, issues I’ve written about here before.

Twenty association executives (CEOs and EDs, AMC leaders, and consultants) gathered at a lovely resort in Pennsylvania to ponder some Big Issues together: AI, DEI, nurturing the next generation of association leaders, the role of voluntary membership associations in an increasingly polarized society, and, of course, boards boards boards.

At our closing circle, one of the other newbies mentioned that an experienced Promethian had, upon seeing her take out her phone to respond to email early in the retreat, advised her to put it away. My fellow newbie expressed her deep gratitude for that advice, which she chose to follow and which she felt dramatically improved her experience.

As I wrote back in 2009:

The thing about being “on” all the time is that it can seriously interfere both with our actual face-to-face relationships (and our ability to form and nurture them) and with our ability to really *think* about stuff. We’re not multitasking mavens – we’re just distracted…all the time.

“Connection” is ubiquitous today. We all always have a tiny super computer in our pockets that lures us with games and amusing (or infuriating) videos and the infinite scroll of social media platforms and “I’ll just take 30 seconds to answer this email right now and get it off my plate.”

But that doesn’t come without a cost. We’ve all seen – or been – the distracted spouse, parent, friend scrolling our phones rather than paying attention to the person in front of us. We’ve all experienced the Pavlovian response to the new email notification that “is just going to take 30 seconds” and yet interrupts our focus on whatever it was we were doing before it arrived for FAR LONGER than 30 seconds – that “switch tasking” (a more accurate descriptor than “multi-tasking”) can consume as much as 40% of your productive time.

How do we ensure that all this wonderful tech serves us rather than the other way around?

Some of the practices I follow include:

  • Turning off nearly all notifications on both my computer and my smart phone
  • Using time blocking for tasks that I know will require significant uninterrupted focus
  • Confining work, to the greatest degree possible, to my actual physical home office (I am fortunate to have a dedicated room)
  • Not keeping my phone on me at all times (a privilege of not having school-aged children)
  • Resisting the siren song of false urgency (just because someone wants something right this second does not necessarily mean that they need it right this second, aka “A lack of preparation on your part does not constitute an emergency on mine.”
  • Identifying a few trips each year where I am NOT working (and letting clients, partners, and my various volunteer gigs know that WELL in advance)

What practices have you found to be helpful in preserving your ability to focus in a distracted era?

Photo by Gigi on Unsplash