Is this a good time?
If you’re reading this when you should be finishing that brief, then we need to talk.
Are you a creative, smart person, who can perform remarkably well in the early stages of a project, but once you get deep enough into it you find your wheels spinning? Do you find that yourself looking for excuses to do anything but finish what you started? And while you work, do you find yourself constantly interrupting your flow with a spate of distractions?
Science is showing that one of the biggest obstacles to finishing tasks is impulsivity. When we think of impulsive people, we might imagine someone strung out on drugs or splurging on $500 Hermès beach towels. But even seemingly innocuous impulses — like that itch you have right now to check your phone, email, Facebook, or Twitter — can hurt our performance and keep us from achieving our goals.
What is impulsivity and how does it affect you?
The classic impulse test was developed in the 60s: give a child a marshmallow, tell her she’ll get another one if she waits to eat it, and watch how long she can resist the sugary temptation.
The whole set-up was ridiculously simple, but it was found that when these kids grew up, the number of seconds they waited before slurping up the marshmallow correlated to higher SAT scores, better social and emotional coping in adolescence, higher educational achievement, and less drug use.
In short: kids who showed they could control their impulses became adults who achieved their goals.
Even if your discerning adult palate can’t get jazzed about marshmallows, the same principle applies to the wheedling temptations that worm their way into your brain when you’re trying to do something important.
Think you’re immune? Scholars put together a team to keep track of interruptions at work. They found that on average we’re interrupted every three minutes — and half of these interruptions are self-inflicted. This is the same impulsivity shown by mallow-gobbling infants. Some of those kids went the full fifteen minutes before they ate their marshmallow — the typical worker gives in to her temptations in about six.
These interruptions might be getting up for coffee or a snack, rapidly switching between different tasks, or heading out to interrupt someone else. And our technology is always eager to feed our inexhaustible hunger for distractions (like when the sidebars tout “This child went swimming with sharks and got a nosebleed. You won’t believe what happened next!”).
The impulse toward self-interruption doesn’t happen in our fully conscious, controlled mind. If it did, we would always make the rational decision to continue focusing on our work, take advantage of our flow, and either save that shark story for later or ignore the click-bait.
But we don’t, because the impulse to interrupt ourselves is buried deep in our automatic, nonconscious thought. Fortunately, scientists are uncovering techniques to help us deal with it, and retrain our brains into goal-achievers. Read below for 5 ways to become a finisher!
1. Imagine the future — in detail
Is your future success so present you can taste it?
The problem with distracting impulses is that our brain prioritizes the pleasure we can get immediately over the more abstract and theoretical pleasure we will get from a job well-done, some time in the future. This means the best tool in fighting these impulses might be a good imagination.
Imagine the reward of achieving your current goal as vividly as possible, using all of your senses. How will it feel to send off the final draft or win the case? And without beating yourself up, let your imagination be vivid and present about the possible negative future outcomes you’ll experience if you constantly submit to your impulses. This might be the anxiety you’ll feel next week if you still don’t have this report finished; or it could be the health problems you’ll face if you’re constantly leaving the desk for a smoke-breaks.
Most brains engage in “delay discounting,” a process of ignoring or downplaying future consequences of our current actions. Using our imaginations to make the future more palpable can help direct our daily behavior away from destructive impulses.
Willpower is notoriously shifty. You think you’ve made up your mind to never again eat a double-fried bacon-cheese quarter-pounder and then after a hard day you suddenly come-to surrounded by ketchup stains and a bacon-bliss glaze in your eye.
One way to siphon some of the heavy lifting away from your scrawny willpower is through a pre-commitment plan, which makes your favorite self-distracting vices more difficult to engage in. Do you have to read a pile of downloaded documents and know you’ll be tempted to check Facebook? Move to a space without internet. Get software that blocks certain sites for chunks of time.
Interruptions like email or Facebook can be treated as loquacious relatives. You know when you visit Uncle Dale he’s going to try to talk your arm off. So no matter how much you love him, you save that activity for times when you have more leisure. If you need to engage with Dale when you don’t have a lot of time, you go in with firm boundaries, ready to kindly but assertively repeat “I’ve only got five minutes now,” and stick to it.
3. Keep a Distractions Diary
If self-interruptions continue to plague you, you need to do something counterintuitive: you need to devote more time to them.
Impulse activity can be reduced when we devote more mental energy to it. Take a day of your work life and track all the interruptions. Note when they occurred, how much time each one ate up, and whether they came from others or were self-inflicted. Writing a list of distractions moves the behavior from deep in the impulsive, subconscious brain — where we have little control, forethought, or thoughts of long-term consequences — into the reasoning brain, where we can reflect and control our decisions.
This means the simple act of listing your self-inflicted interruptions might give you the psychological boost you require to stop them (doctors use this tool by asking patients who need to lose weight to keep a record of all the food they eat).
And if nothing else, if you have to read that you’ve been checking Twitter every five minutes for the last three hours, you might muster up enough embarrassment to jolt you out of the distraction cycle.
4. Face your fears
Why are we constantly pushing ourselves out of productivity anyway? Psychologists think it’s because we’re afraid to finish.
What’s so scary about finishing? For one thing, as long as you turn nothing in, there’s no one who can tell you you’ve screwed it up. Completing a project means subjecting it to others’ evaluation, which means facing the possibility of disapproval.
Being concerned about how others will respond can be a virtue in the workplace. When the feeling is too strong, however, it can be paralyzing. When this happens, ‘social esteem’ — our sense of what others think about us — overpowers our sense of ‘self-esteem.’ A strong self-esteem is required to carry us through the frightening first moments of revealing our newborn baby project to someone who is able to judge us.
Putting our completed work out in the world, regardless of our fears, is itself one of the best ways to build our self-esteem. As bestselling author Alex Malley puts it:
The only way to build self-confidence is to take a risk and take action despite your fear of failure, messing up or embarrassment. If things work out, then you now know you can do more than you think. If things don’t work out, you now know that you can handle more than you think. Either way, you’re better off.
5. Ask the magic motivating question
When we find ourselves dawdling on a project, we might start asking ourselves a litany of negative questions (perhaps interlaced with profanity). “What’s wrong with me?” “Why can’t I just get this done?”
Psychologists suggest these are the wrong questions. The key question, instead, might be to look at your project to-do list and simply ask “WHY?” This is comparable to creating a ‘why-do list,’ which allows you to remember your values and generate a clear argument to yourself about why you’re doing your work.
While negative questions erode self-esteem, asking why you’re doing your work has been shown to build up motivation.
6. Make tech your ally
New technologies are often blamed as the cause of our short attention spans. But, along with spreading videos of baby goats in pyjamas (no, I’m not linking to it. Focus.), new technology is beginning to find ways to help us out.
Some of these are apps that strategically shut down distractions, following the pre-commitment plan. Another exciting development is workplace communication platforms that replace email. We created Filevine to allow you to control the flow of messages coming at you while you’re working on a project, and help you fight the distracting email impulse.
Filevine also provides team members a way to track each others’ progress, and see iterations of a project as it’s moving forward. This not only gives an early warning to colleagues when you’ve entered wheel-spinning territory: it also reduces some of that end-point finishing fear of disapproval.
Get a free tutorial to see other ways Filevine can become your comrade-in-arms in the war against distractions.
The average American isn’t doing well controlling impulses: we average out to $9,000 in credit card debt, two-thirds of us are wrecking our health with our diet, and almost all of us allow endless self-inflicted interruptions to slow down or stop our success.
But if you practice some of these six tips today, you’ll break out of the impulsive pack and feel the joy of becoming a finisher!
(ok, ok, here’s the baby pyjama goat video after all. But save it for your break!)