It’s 11:37 PM and I can’t sleep because my brain is too busy reliving all the embarrassing things that have ever happened to me. Naturally, I reach for my phone in search of a distraction- anything must be better than reliving the 8th grade. I type “baby guinea pigs” into my phone, hit the search button and am not disappointed.
Am I alone in this? Do you ever catch yourself having a stressful thought, and suddenly feel the urge to grab your phone and Google something random? This is a coping mechanism my mind has developed to avoid the subjects I don’t want to deal with, like cringe-y memories I’d rather forget.
While this coping mechanism is great for when I can’t fall asleep, it’s not so great when there are important things swimming around in my brain that need to be addressed. My smartphone has made it super easy to never have to think deeply about things that are tough. I have to make a real effort when I want to focus on something by putting away these easy distractions.
As a 24 year old in today’s technological age it’s not too surprising that the devices I use have a an impact on my personal life. What I didn’t anticipate was feeling the repercussions of that in my job. I remember the first few days after my formal training ended, I felt the urge to grab my phone every time I felt that panicky, lost feeling.
Luckily I curbed that temptation from the start and kept my phone turned off or in my purse until lunchtime. But this need for distractions has manifested itself in another way that doesn’t directly involve my phone. It has effectively chipped away at my capacity to focus for long periods of time. Let me explain.
My job is fast-paced and requires me to keep a lot of balls in the air at once. Naturally that leads to switching from task to task pretty frequently. I’ll be making changes to an order and the phone will ring, or I’ll be looking through a report and an email will pop up on my screen that needs my attention right then and there. But a good chunk of the day revolves around solving problems; trying to dig into an issue and figure out how I am supposed to do something or how it could be done differently.
When I get stuck, instead of pouring my whole efforts into that one thing I find myself looking for excuses to move onto the next task. There’s something about thinking through an issue that my brain doesn’t like. Anything that isn’t easy or familiar or quick is seen as a threat, so my focus starts shifting to other things that I could be getting done.
When I let these feelings take over I end up going around in circles- starting a difficult task, stopping, starting again and having to remember where I left off, then feeling overwhelmed all over again and taking a break. Instead of getting through the hard stuff throughout the day, I find myself stuck at 3pm trying to muddle through it all. I’ve finished all the random to-dos and now all that’s left are all those tricky problems I kept avoiding. Talk about overwhelming!
One day as I reflected on these bad habits I was forming, I recalled hearing of studies that prove you have more decision- making power earlier in the day. That made sense, but I was starting to feel like I had no decision-making power at all! Why was my brain so lazy all of the sudden?
I had gotten through college just fine, and that had required a ton of studying and and intense focus for long periods of time. I thought of my tendency to be a perfectionist and how that might make me want to put things off. It can be a huge road-block to only want to do things perfectly the first time, especially when learning something new. But I felt it was more than that- almost like an impulse I was barely aware of.
I realized that over time, I had created bad habits when it came to managing my time. In my personal life, my phone served as that distraction I could pick up in a moment’s notice. It was constantly available and ready to be used in an unhealthy way if I allowed it. Any time I had a thought pop in my head that was upsetting or too much to handle at the moment, I could unlock my screen and begin sifting through tweets.
To make matters worse, the type of job I have provides me with an endless amount of distractions. There are always emails piling up, workflows that need to get done and live orders that require attention. All of these tasks are way easier than some of the problems I need to work through to get my job done. The problem is, like my phone, these tasks will always be there. Always competing for attention no matter what I have on my schedule that day.
When I took a step back and started to see this parallel I realized that my brain, if left to it’s own devices, would never want to think about things that require a lot of brain power. It would always default to the easy stuff and keep putting off the things that were hard. By allowing my phone to distract me in my personal life, I was weakening the brain muscles I needed to tackle things that can be challenging at work.
My job would be easier if I just took an issue by the reigns, set timer for 20 minutes and forced myself to work through it. Even if it meant I still didn’t have an answer when the time was up, but I had something concrete I can send on to a manager or coworker, I would have accomplished something. Instead of putting off all of my difficult tasks until the end of the day, I should sprinkle them throughout and let my brain chew on easier things in between.
To build that focus muscle I need to work on this in my personal life too. This means taking time out during the day where my phone is turned off completely and I can focus on the things that matter. Whether it’s ways I can improve myself, goals I want to work on, quiet time with God; I need to re-learn the art of stretching my attention span for as long as possible. I don’t want to spend my days spinning my wheels. If I don’t work on this I’ll end up not accomplishing anything meaningful on a daily basis or even in the next few years.
I haven’t seen any studies on how bad phone habits can impact your work even when your phone is off, but I know it rings true in my own life. Leave a comment below if you’ve experienced something similar and how you are working on it. Also, do your own search on baby guinea pigs, I promise you won’t be disappointed!