The Psychology of Distractions and How to Beat them


We’ve all been there. You’ve got an important project due and you’ve procrastinated until the last minute, and now you’re frantically trying to get the work done to meet your deadline. I can’t tell you how many papers in college were the result of pulling the infamous “all-nighter” because I waited until the last minute. There was always something else to drag my attention away from the task at hand. Even now, I am easily distracted by cute dog videos when my schedule simply does not allow for it. So, why is it that we are so easily distracted during times when we need to get the most done?

In a study done by Duke University on organ donation in European countries, it all came down to the DMV form that made the difference.

“It turns out that it is the design of the form at the DMV. In countries where the form is set as “opt-in” (check this box if you want to participate in the organ donation program) people do not check the box and as a consequence they do not become a part of the program. In countries where the form is set as “opt-out” (check this box if you don’t want to participate in the organ donation program) people also do not check the box and are automatically enrolled in the program. In both cases large proportions of people simply adopt the default option.”

Because this is an emotional decision that takes work to thoroughly consider it, psychologically we default to the easiest option which is not to make the decision at all. Each day we are faced with numerous decisions to make; everything from what to eat to what time you leave for work. This is also true of your work; although these decisions seem smaller and we often aren’t even aware of them. For example,

Should I work on that report that’s due tomorrow or check my emails?

Do I finish the research I need for that report or send my friend a text?

Do I finish this document for the boss or, oh look, a squirrel!

Even during the course of your work there are several distractions that can occur during the working process. Take an average web search that you’re doing for a project. On the way to find that important piece of information to substantiate your view point, you run across everything from puppy videos to cool new recipes you just have to try. Unfortunately, the more daunting the task is, the easier it is to get distracted and make those little decisions necessary to stay on track.

People often think that this is just an issue of will power and tell themselves that they just need to stay focused. This can work for a time, but let’s face it, we all have those days when we’re not highly motivated or just plain tired. This makes making those little decisions even harder and we can easily fall back onto distractive behavior. It’s easier to choose the distraction because it’s so much easier than the work we need to do.

It’s all about making the decision to block the distractions. Now when I need to write a blog or work on that report, I’ve gotten in the habit of turning my email and any social media sites off until my work is done. I turn the ringer on my phone off and block my schedule so that others know that during that time period, I just can’t be distracted from the task at hand.

However, many of us utilize the internet for work projects and let’s face it even simple research can lead to distractions. But don’t despair, there is a simple solutions for this dilemma. You can set up a separate browser for work only.  For example, if you use Chrome for everyday searches, use Firefox or Internet Explorer for your work browser. From here you can install a site blocker. The site blocker options which has most often been utilized by moms and dad to protect their children from offensive sites online can help to make even the most distracted among us stay on track. Site blockers will allow you to create a list of websites that you will not be able to access. While this may seem extreme, you’ll quickly notice the benefits you’ll receive in the form of productivity.

While we can all agree about the psychology of distractions, the good news it, that we don’t have to allow this behavior to win out and make us unproductive. We can utilize simple electronic tools to prevent the very things that distract us ………..oh look, another squirrel.


  1. The Internet is the Is…both the Heaven and the Hell.

    This is a great article about a topic that transcends, and detracts from, just about all facets of life.

    Focus is kinda like zen…so hard to hit that samadhi soft spot…but when you do…bliss.

    Good stuff…good tips, too…especially about the browsers….now, back to those squirrels go I…

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