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Small Distractions Keep You Focused

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Today Zack Grossbart stops by to take a different take on distractions and focus.  Zack is the author of the upcoming book The One Minute Commute and writes over on his blog.  Zack focuses much of his writing on exploring how to build distributed teams using best practices from the high-tech industry.

Everyone knows that distractions make it more difficult to stay focused, but sometimes they stressballsattack.jpgmake it easier. Have you ever fallen asleep during a long phone meeting? My father (a practicing psychologist) told me how distractions can make it easier to stay focused on the telephone.

When you talk with someone face-to-face you are getting a huge amount of information. Telephone conversations give your brain the audio information, but not the visual information. When it doesn’t get the visual information from the conversation it will look for it somewhere else. Give your brain something more to do.
Other people can tell when you lose focus on the phone conversation.

Use small distractions to help you stay focused:

  • Visual distractions help you focus. Don’t watch a movie (that is too distracting), but some low-key Internet browsing can work well.
  • Do something with your hands. Play with a desk toy, pass a ball back and forth, knit, anything that you can do mindlessly.
  • Walk around. Exercise is good for your brain and movement helps you focus.

Giving yourself small distractions while you are on conference calls will help you stay focused and be more productive.

Do you have a good idea for staying focused on the phone? Post a comment and let other people know.

Photo by: Robert Banh

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  • zgrossbart.myopenid.com

    Justin, thanks for having me over. This was a lot of fun to write. My favorite little distraction is a hacky sack. Easy to throw, easy to catch, and not too loud in case I miss.

  • https://www.google.com/accounts/o8/id?id=AItOawnwAKiukWSdv1WaaesKBFU3wFzsa2vuPaQ

    Playing a casual game at work can be a good way to reward yourself, have a little fun and still keep your ears and mind focused on work. WebWars has just launched a movement to play@work, which encourages workers to reward themselves in a non-distracting way with a bit of quick gameplay. You can find out more about the play@work initiative and learn how you can join us here

  • robbsterino

    I don’t spend much time on the phone, but if I’m on for long with nothing else to do, I pull out my pen and start drawing abstract shapes and shading them. This study says that mindless doodling improves memory recall: http://bit.ly/1dTis2

    • zgrossbart.myopenid.com

      I first posted this in response to an article looking for telecommuting horror stories, but it was the beginning of why I started looking for small distractions in the first place so here goes:
      During my first long conference calls I was very easily distracted. I never had this problem in the office since there was a lot of visual input to keep me focused. But over the phone long team meetings were deadly boring. This was a big problem since I really wanted to pay attention to the meeting.
      I tried everything I could think of to remove all distractions. I closed the window shades, turned off my computer, and removed anything I could play with from my office. Nothing worked. The more I removed distractions the more distracted I would get. Around 90 minutes I would always start wandering around the room looking for something to occupy my excess attention. When that stopped working I expanded my wanderings to other areas of the house.
      On one ill-fated day, in the middle of the third hour of a conference call, my eyes fell on an a box of supplies my wife had ordered for a craft project. With a glee I can only attribute to hours of staring at a blank wall, I opened the box and found it was filled with enough random junk to occupy me for the rest of the day.
      I played idly with the spools of wire and small plastic tubes until I noticed a small deflated beach ball. This was perfect. I could blow it up and play with it for the rest of the meeting. Sure I didn’t have a mute button, but I was certain I could inflate the beach ball quietly and nobody would notice.
      The plan worked great until I got to the end. My tongue was pressed into the plastic valve and I needed to move my finger to replace it over the hole so I could stop the air from escaping long enough to get the plug in. The maneuver seemed simple enough, but someone asked me a question just at the wrong moment and in my haste to answer the valve slipped causing a loud wet plllffffttt noise right by the mouth piece of the phone.
      The meeting stopped dead and after a pregnant pause a teammate asked me, “Zack, did you just blow us a kiss?” I stammered something about having sneezed and quickly moved to another topic. To this day I am cenrtain that nobody knew what was really happening and not a single person in the room believed the sneezing story.
      Now I always keep a small Hacky Sack by the phone so I have something to do with my hands during long calls. I also bought a phone with an easy to use mute button. It was money well spent.

  • christammiller

    I write things down. It’s not a “distraction” per se but it does provide the visual stimulation you mention, which is important because I’m a visual learner. As a writer I find this helps me process what I’m hearing, which helps me organize faster, so that I can write better and more efficiently.
    Even during “social” calls I often end up brainstorming something, so I make sure to keep a notebook and pen handy whenever I talk, interview or not!

  • Tammy Green

    My favorite distraction is a yo-yo. You get to stand up and walk around, be creative, and move your arms. The only negative is that I have to remember to keep my phone on mute to prevent the sharp cracking and smacking sounds that come from my inexpert use of the yo-yo. Otherwise, it sounds a bit like I’m roughing up one of my colleagues.
    My least favorite distraction is solitaire. As mindless as it is, I found that it was still too distracting for me to really focus.
    I’ve been contemplating getting a couple of dumbbells to heft while I listen.