• Carolyn Stuart

How good are you at managing distraction?

Updated: Nov 15, 2019

The other morning day as I was driving in town, I noticed that as I started to look for a park I leant over and turned my music down. I didn’t consciously think “I’m about to start looking for a park I’d better turn the music down”. No, at the same time as I thought “any park from here on will do” I noticed my hand, quite uninvited by my conscious self, reach over and turn the music down. Interesting. Do you do this well? Chances are the answer is yes.

So what causes us, as highly evolved humans, to subconsciously turn the music down when we are looking for a park? It is not like the parking angels look more favourably on those without music blaring (as an irrelevant but nevertheless interesting side issue - praying for a carpark is the most commonly reported thing for which people ask for divine assistance).

Turning down the music when you are looking for a park or in a tricky driving situation is something we do subconsciously in order to reduce our cognitive load. But we only do this in situations where there is a perceived risk.

In situations where this risk is not present, our subconscious leaves it to us to manage distractions. My observation is that we are not so good at this.

Image Credit: Pixabay - Rawpixel

Have you ever been in a meeting and become distracted by an email or text message, and found that when you return your attention to the meeting you have absolutely no idea what has transpired since you allowed yourself to be distracted?

I know I have.

Maybe this is why our brain takes over to manage our cognitive load in risky situations. Maybe as humans, we just can’t be trusted by ourselves to manage risky situations.

Psychologists tell us that multitasking is actually a myth. The reality is that we can only fully concentrate on one thing at a time. This means that every time you allow yourself to be distracted by technology you are making a choice about being present physically or present digitally. If you are with others and you allow your phone to distract you, then the message you are really sending is ‘this thing on my phone is at this moment more important than you.”

The only exception to this is any situation when you are managing something critical. In this circumstance, letting the person you are with know that you are expecting a call that you need to take, prior to taking the call, is a great move. For example “my father is currently having surgery and I am waiting for a call from my mum to tell me everything has gone okay’. In that circumstance, no one will feel put out at being in second place for your attention.

Too often we allow the urgent to take priority over the important.

Saying “sorry I really need to take this” doesn’t make it right. Saying sorry does not make our actions okay.

One of my pet hates is when people say sorry as a way to excuse their poor behaviour. I had a couple of examples this week. Example one: People arriving late at the airport and pushing themselves to the front of the security line because their flight is on final call. “I’m sorry, but my flight is on its final call”. The naughty part of me always wants to say “You’re not sorry. If you were you would’ve gotten out of bed earlier to make sure you here were in plenty of time” Instead, this behaviour is reinforced as we all politely allow the tardy passengers through. The second example was also at the airport when a woman reached over me to check herself into the Koru lounge. At the time I was organising my daughter and son-in-law to come in as guests and was helping them scan their tickets. “Sorry,” said the rude woman as she reached over me to get her phone onto the screen. “No you’re not,” I said much to the embarrassment of my daughter. “There is nothing preventing you from waiting for your turn.”

How many times have you been with someone who has apologised as they allow their phone to distract them? Or worse still how many times have you apologised to someone in order to let yourself be distracted by your phone?

We live in an age of unprecedented distraction. Our subconscious only rescues us when a situation poses an increased risk. The rest of the time we are left to manage distraction ourselves. I wonder if at times my subconscious throws her hands up in despairs as she watches me yet again being needlessly distracted.

I’m sorry, I promise to try harder in the future.

'Til next time,


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