Working in a busy newsroom requires reporters to develop the ability to concentrate deeply in the midst of chaos. Loud sportswriters wisecracking about the World Series? Police radio blaring about a hostage situation? No matter. One’s story must be compelling and succinct, submitted on time and without grammatical, spelling or factual errors. Readers (and editors) depend on it.
It may be my decade working in newsrooms that makes me immune to most distractions when I’m writing. Husband chatters. Phones ring. Computers flash. My full attention is on the story; it will be on time and under budget. It will sing.
Shiny Object Syndrome Explained
Still, there are some times when a shiny object captures my attention. Look! There’s a new app that will track my time better! Oh! Here’s a project management system that could be more economical! I must stop immediately to learn about these things!
I sometimes fall victim to Shiny Object Syndrome, or what some call Squirrel Syndrome. Distracted by Facebook posts, online shopping opportunities or email announcements, I lose valuable time chasing the Next Big Thing. Yet I am rarely thankful that I wasted valuable writing time – and even more rarely do I agree that the amazing new thing can actually change my life.
Summing up the syndrome is executive coach Heather Gray, recently writing in Entrepreneur: “Whatever you call it, the concept is familiar to entrepreneurs: products, ideas, services, and conversations that effectively replace our plans and focus with doubts and second-guessing. These are the things that make us pause and ask ourselves “Am I doing this right? Am I sure this is the best way?”
Why We Suffer from the Syndrome
“We fear that we don’t know all the things,” Gray writes. “We worry that there is a better, more efficient way. We question whether or not we have really thought of everything. Let’s call this by its less sexy name: Anxiety.” As Gray notes, we’re insecure. “A shiny new thing captures our attention, distracts us from our intent and enables that doubt and worry to root and take hold.”
As if we don’t have enough on our plates already, the Shiny Objects threaten us on every level. Overburdened with trying to keep up with too much information, in the midst of our most concentrated tasks we fall prey to interruptions that underscore our deepest insecurities. We worry that we are ‘not enough’– we aren’t doing enough, working hard enough, being a good-enough partner, friend, parent or offspring. These Change-My-Life interruptions feed into our anxiety.
The Costs of Chasing Squirrels
Interruptions cause us to lose focus and cost us time, money and momentum. That is bad business. But making things worse is that we have entered what many people are calling the “attention economy,” says mindfulness expert Rasmus Hougaard, writing in the Harvard Business Review. In the attention economy, Hougaard explains, the ability to maintain focus and concentration is every bit as important as technical or management skills. “And because leaders need to absorb and synthesize a growing flood of information in order to make good decisions, they’re hit particularly hard by this emerging trend.”
How We Beat the Squirrels and Ignore the Shiny Objects
When things distract us, we must have the internal fortitude to refuse to pay attention. Belief in ourselves means developing the self-confidence necessary to focus unwaveringly on the task at hand. “Every time we let a shiny object distract us from our plans for today and from what we are capable of achieving, fear wins and entrepreneurship loses,” says Gray.
Still, snapping back to our work is challenging. Productivity experts recommend turning off the phone, ignoring emails, resisting the urge to hop onto social media – but that’s not always possible. Yet there is a particularly useful activity that boosts your resistance to distractions and bolsters your self-confidence: Practice mindfulness.
Being mindful means having keen focus and awareness; the ability to concentrate on what you’re doing to the exclusion of everything else; and the power to recognize and release unnecessary distractions.
“Understand that mindfulness is not just a sedentary practice; mindfulness is about developing a sharp, clear mind,” writes Hougaard. “Mindfulness in action is a great alternative to the illusory practice of multitasking.”
Testament from the Trenches
Mindful working means that as soon as I sit down to write I am focused and aware of everything I’m doing. Focusing on my assignment, I recognize and release internal and external distractions as they arise. In this way, mindfulness helps increase my effectiveness, decreases potential mistakes and enhances my creativity.
If something pops into my head that I need to do, I make note of it so I can deal with it later and get back to the task at hand.
I pause to take breaks every hour to cease activity and do a minute of deep, mindful breathing, as Hougaard recommends. This helps me resist fatigue, stay sharp and avoid poor decisions, especially in mid- to late-afternoon when I begin to fade.
There are many useful apps dedicated to the practice of mindful meditation, and some of them are free. Spotify and other music apps offer meditation selections. Books and articles online discuss the practice. While I don’t incorporate mindfulness successfully in everything I do, I’m working on it.
The practice of taking three deep, calming breaths, closing my eyes and focusing on my breathing has made me much calmer, more confident and centered. I’m aware of my surroundings, my breath, my health – and I’m able to meet demanding deadlines without distraction Best of all, I give each moment the attention it deserves and as a result live and enjoy each one.