Dealing with distraction in academic work

Dealing with distraction in academic work

It’s the end of the semester, and for academics that means it’s the season of Stuff We Don’t Necessarily Enjoy Doing. Yesterday, for example, I spent the entire day clearing a backlog of grading. Today, I am giving two sets of final exams, which means tomorrow I will be grading them and determining course grades. Last week it was all about making these exams out, plus more grading, also writing end-of-year reports and going to end-of-year meetings. None of this stuff rates highly on my list of fun things to get done, but get done they must.

This time of the year reminds me that inside anything that I love to do, there are things that must be done that I don’t love doing. It’s a fact about all human work and it’s a lesson we learn, hopefully, on the way to being adults. (It’s well worth remembering that students have to deal with this lesson too.) In the short term, though, the work has to be done, and doing it requires battling against an enemy as old as work itself: distraction.

Distractions are costly. David Rock, author of Your Brain at Work: Strategies for Overcoming Distraction, Regaining Focus, and Working Smarter All Day Long, writes that

One study found that office distractions eat an average 2.1 hours a day. Another study, published in October 2005, found that employees spent an average of 11 minutes on a project before being distracted. After an interruption it takes them 25 minutes to return to the original task, if they do at all. People switch activities every three minutes, either making a call, speaking with someone in their cubicle, or working on a document.

Distractions are not just frustrating; they can be exhausting. By the time you get back to where you were, your ability to stay focused goes down even further […]. Change focus ten times an hour (one study showed people in offices did so as much as 20 times an hour), and your productive thinking time is only a fraction of what's possible. Less energy equals less capacity to understand, decide, recall, memorize, and inhibit. The result could be mistakes on important tasks. Or distractions can cause you to forget good ideas and lose valuable insights. Having a great idea and not being able to remember it can be frustrating, like an itch you can't scratch, yet another distraction to manage.

For academics, those “important tasks” include items like grading, making out exams, planning lessons, drafting reports, writing grant proposals — all activities where mistakes can lead to serious consequences for oneself and others and, of course, added time needed to fix the mistakes. We are all so busy in academia. If we want to be do our work without being so busy, an important step in that direction is managing the self-inflicted time requirements we create for ourselves, including distractions and their consequences.

I deal with distractions all the time, just like anybody else. Here are five ways for managing distractions that have worked for me, that seem to be corroborated by others who have written about this.

  1. Break big projects down into small tasks that proceed to completion. In the GTD for Academics series, we talked about the difference between a project and a task: A task is a single irreducible action, whereas a project is a collection of tasks that are thematically grouped. Many academics get these confused, and it causes major problems. For example, “Grade final exam” is not a task! That is a project with potentially many subtasks. If I put “Grade final exam” on my to-do list, it’s such a big job that it’s going to be hard to get motivated to begin, and hard to stay motivated once I do begin, because the “task” takes enormous time and energy. Distractions enter into those cracks where motivation flags. On the other hand, if I see “Grade final exam” as a project and break it down into small, doable tasks that take relatively short amounts of time, it will be a lot easier to get and stay motivated. Shorter tasks provide fewer opportunities for distraction than longer ones because… they’re shorter.
  2. Block off time to work, and commit to the time. Good planning involves intentional commitment of time to important work that needs to get done, and a great way to do this is to schedule time on your calendar for projects and commit to that scheduling like you would a department meeting or a class you teach. I’ve found that two things happen when you do this. First, it’s easier to stay motivated and avoid distraction when you have made a personal commitment to devoting the next hour (or 30 minutes, or half day, etc.) to work on one thing and nothing else. Second, it’s easier to avoid being distracted by the other things we need to get done if we give each important item of work its own time block and stick to it. If I have two projects to work on, I can say “no” to the temptation to switch from project 1 to project 2 because I can say, “Yes, project 2 is important — and that’s why I budgeted 2 hours on Thursday morning to work on it.”
  3. During your time blocks, go into lockdown mode. Be mindful of your weak spots for distraction and eliminate the source. Shut down your email (don’t just close the window, but actually terminate the program); turn off notifications on your phone; snooze your Slack notifications. If you are really prone to distraction from your phone or computer, don’t just close out the programs that distract you but uninstall them altogether. (You can reinstall them later.) If you are working in your campus office, shut the door and don’t respond to knocks; or work in some other location where people aren’t looking for you. Or on the other hand, if you’re prone to being distracted by the computer and having your office door open helps keep you focused, then open your door. If any notification comes in while you are working — from email, a personal visit, a text message, whatever — make a note of it and the time you received it, and then get back to work, and respond to it later. You could even set an away message on your email that says “Thanks for your email. I am working on an important project right now that needs focused attention, so I am offline until [whenever]. I will respond after this period if your email requires a response.” It’s OK to hide from people — even students — and notifications for a time, if it means you are going to get stuff done with fewer mistakes and less busy-ness.
  4. Work in sprints on small chunks, then take breaks. My experience is that working in short, focused “sprints” keeps me at maximum productivity and minimum distraction. I like to work in 90-minute sprints followed by 15-20 minute breaks (usually involving getting up and moving). This idea of working in short bursts punctuated by breaks has a lot of variations. The famous Pomodoro technique, for example, involves breaking work into 25-minute chunks with shorter breaks in between and using a timer to keep things running. Another approach is the 45/15 system, which is simply 45 minutes of focused work followed by a 15 minute break. Yet another approach for the truly distraction-prone flips this, and you work for 45 minutes on fun, creative tasks followed by 15 minutes of focused work on the difficult, un-fun stuff. The common denominator is that you create smaller blocks of time within the block of time on your calendar, and those mini-blocks are relatively short and have a visible endpoint. It’s easier to persist through distraction when you can see the end of the task even as you begin.
  5. Focus on the task in front of you. When working in sprints, focusing on the one task at hand — and not task switching — is crucial. Task switching requires physical effort to refocus energy, and this is where distraction creeps in.

Here’s a real-life example that is literally on the desk in front of me right now: A stack of 30 final exams that need to be graded by the end of the day tomorrow. This is how this is going to work:

  1. Breaking into tasks: There are two versions of this exam that I gave to the class, one on green paper and the other on yellow paper. Each one has eight questions. So this project — that’s what it is, and not a task — naturally splits into 16 smaller tasks: Grade green exam problem 1, grade yellow exam problem 1, grade green exam problem 2, and so on. I estimate that grading 15 instances of a single problem might take 15 minutes on the average. That’s bite-sized. Even if I don’t get it all done in the calendar block I have for it, if I happen to be around the papers and have 15 minutes with nothing else better to do, I can grade one problem from one color of the exam.
  2. Blocking off time: I scheduled 8:00am to 4:00pm tomorrow to be solely devoted to grading these final exams and the exams from my other class. I have other things I am working on this week, for example an online course I am taking right now. I’ve budgeted 2:30-4:00pm today to work on that online course. Because I have two distinct blocks of time for these two projects, and because I have such a huge time block scheduled for the exams, I’m not going to be tempted to stop working on my online course this afternoon to get a headstart on grading, nor will I be tempted to stop grading tomorrow and go back to my online course. Everything has a place on the calendar, and distraction has no foothold if I’m not deliberating on what I am supposed to be doing with my time.
  3. Lockdown mode: To avoid distractions from co-workers, students wanting to know their grades, etc. I will probably work at home. But at home, there are distractions too — food from the kitchen, cats climbing in my lap, etc. Some distractions are hard to eliminate (I’m not putting a chain on the fridge or dumping my cats off at the neighbor’s for instance) but there are fewer distractions at home. If it gets really bad, Plan C would be the coffee shop in the adjoining town. I might put the away message on my email as I mentioned, and I’ll definitely have email, Slack, and phone notifications turned off.
  4. Sprints: Having broken my exam grading into 16 chunks of 15 minutes each, it’ll be simple to put together a sprint tomorrow that fits my energy level. I could grade four problems at a time (half of one exam) and then take a 15 minute break every 75 minutes, for instance.
  5. Focus: Grading exams is literally the only thing on my calendar tomorrow. Everything else is either in its own time block or it’ll have to wait.

None of this, of course, guarantees that distractions won’t happen or that I won’t succumb to them. If it happens, it happens, and I’ll just have to shake it off, refocus, and get back to work. But I’ve found that careful planning as we learned in GTD together with simple discipline can get me through the worst of it. I think this might work for you, too.

What are some of your suggestions for managing distractions in academic work?

Robert Talbert

Robert Talbert

Mathematics professor who writes and speaks about math, research and practice on teaching and learning, technology, productivity, and higher education.