Words With Friends – A Distraction Epidemic!
December 8, 2011 by Kay Grossman

If you are experiencing symptoms like reduced productivity, inability to sleep, ignoring loved ones, or getting kicked off planes like actor Alec Baldwin, you may be playing too much “Words With Friends.”

Count me in as one of the victims. I admit it. I’m hooked on the Scrabble-like word game. It calls to me from my iPhone. It lures me to my iPad. I live for that feel-good dopamine squirt I get each time I figure out a new word and connect (however insubstantially) with someone I like. So rewarding. So fun!

And a magnificent time waster. I like to think of it as a positive procrastination tool, if there is such a thing. But I know better. Please excuse me while I check to see if my son has taken his turn.

My iPhone, the master distractor!

It’s not enough to tell myself that I must finish a task before I check to see if it’s my turn to play. The mere presence of my iPhone serves as a distractor. Unless I am meeting with a client or deeply engrossed in an engaging project, my brain takes me to what promises to be more intriguing, satisfying, and less effortful. Period. I think I’d better check my phone again.

It’s not that writing this article doesn’t interest me. It does. How we pay attention and how our brains operate are topics that fascinate me. They are huge components of my coaching. But writing takes concentration and effort. It’s close to the end of my workday. I’m a bit fatigued, I’m hungry, I’m cold, I’m ready to relax. And my cellphone is on my desk. A perfect setup for being prey to distractions.

Distractions, by definition, are not all negative. Like most things, it depends on the context. One definition of distraction from an online dictionary is “that which amuses, entertains, or diverts.” There are times when it is useful to be amused, entertained, or diverted. Managing through physical or emotional pain, for example, is a great time to find entertaining diversions.

Words With Friends, the cookie distractor!

Sometimes it’s a matter of degree. It may be a useful strategy to purposely distract ourselves from a relatively “worse” distraction, or a way of delaying gratification. For example, playing Words With Friends might help me ignore the cookies I am craving or thoughts about going shopping when I’m trying to cut back on expenses. This use of intentional distraction gives me more control of my actions in the moment.

However, most of the time distractions render us less in control, as if our brains have been commandeered by rogue characters. Our attention is pulled to email alerts, text notifications, shiny links from one Web site to another, and another, and to games on smartphones. Other times it’s pulled to distractions in our own heads. We ponder ideas, focus on our worries, or look for something more engaging to do. The result is decreased productivity, guilt for not finishing tasks, lowered self-regard for not meeting our own standards, and more.

Here are some methods I find helpful in taking charge of my brain. Perhaps you will find them useful, too.

  1. Minimize the number of distractors in your environment. Establish electronics-free zones for set periods throughout the day. Put gadgets with tempting options out of sight. Turn off email and text alerts. Install software that limits access to attractive but off-task Internet sites.
  2. Clear your head of distracting thoughts. Create a parking lot journal for random ideas you don’t want to lose. Include brief references to anxious or angry thoughts you’d like to look at after the current task is done.
  3. Take care of your brain. Eat healthy food in small amounts throughout the day. Get enough sleep. Get up and move around, preferably at least once an hour. Exercise regularly.
  4. Single-task. Single-task for greater focus and increased productivity. Since our brains can pay attention to only one complex thing at a time, when we think we are multitasking, we are actually switch-tasking, or switching rapidly from task to task. This process takes extra time, interferes with memory and learning, and is likely to reduce our ability to sustain attention.
  5. Take breaks. Work with your natural attention span to proactively plan breaks. A well-timed break can increase focus and creativity when you return to work.
  6. Build awareness of personal distractions. Each time you notice that your attention has wandered to a distraction, whether in your head or to an external stimulus, make a tick mark on a piece of paper and bring your attention back to the current task. Over time, you will experience two major benefits: (1) You will catch your attention shift more quickly and thereby reduce the amount of time spent off task; (2) You will build “attention muscle,” which will prevent you from being distracted as easily or as often.

With practice, you can train your brain to be less vulnerable to distractions. Your brain’s director will be empowered to keep only the important actors onstage, making the wannabes wait for their cue. Rather than be victim to your brain’s distracted whims, you will be more in control. Now where was I with Words With Friends?

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