How to keep distractions at bay

How to keep distractions at bay


Walk into an average office today and you will see umpteen fingers tapping away on keyboards while screens flicker in front of tired eyes. In addition, people will glance at phones beeping with updates, and answer calls with an unmatched urgency. With chattering mouths and flying fingers, most offices are charged with energy. Yes, everyone is veritably busy but is anyone truly working?

Focused work

Not according to writer  and Computer Science professor, Cal Newport, who has coined the term ‘deep work’ to describe “professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit.” Students, who will be embarking on a career soon, and young and seasoned professionals, can all benefit from developing ‘deep work’ habits. By understanding how the tugs of daily workplace demands can actually hamper more significant aspects of productivity, they can make a conscientious effort to optimise their time so that they don’t feel that they haven’t accomplished much at the end of another busy day.

According to Newport, our current work habits, which for most of us involve periodically checking our inboxes and phones, are eroding our ability to work in a focused manner for extended durations thereby degrading the quality of our output. Furthermore, in today’s fast-changing world, jobs are metamorphosing at increasingly rapid rates. To stay relevant in such an economy, we have to continually upgrade and learn new skills. And, as any experienced learner can attest, “to learn hard things quickly, you must focus intensely without distraction.”

Foremost, Newport cautions us against equating busyness with productivity. How often have you felt that you were so caught up in the humdrum of everyday things that by the end of the day you felt you still hadn’t accomplished much? It’s not like you were goofing off by lying in a hammock. On the contrary, you may have been at your desk, responding to emails and messages, talking to colleagues and sorting out day-to-day problems.

But most people’s jobs also demand that they produce something of value. It could be a lesson plan for a teacher or a market forecast for an executive. But very often, these responsibilities, which are core to our productivity, get sidelined as other activities compete for our limited attention. The reason we tend to postpone these jobs is that they demand more intense focus than attending meetings or answering emails. Newport thus cautions us against conflating ‘busyness’ with ‘productivity.’

Furthermore, not only does working with focus make us more prolific or inventive, it also enhances our overall well-being. He quotes science writer, Winifred Gallagher, who learnt a profound truth about life satisfaction the hard way. Upon receiving a diagnosis of cancer, Gallagher boldly pledged that, “This disease wanted to monopolise my attention, but as much as possible, I would focus on my life instead.” Indeed, at a most elemental level, the quality of our lives is determined by what we choose to attend to.

In fact, renowned psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi coined the term ‘flow’ to describe the experience of intense focus where people lose sight of all else but what they are working on. And, surprisingly, people report feeling deeply satisfied when in this state.

Have a routine

So, how do we engage in deep work when innumerable demands tug at our attention right through the day? Newport sagely reminds us that we can’t simply will ourselves to work deeply all of a sudden. Instead, we need to cultivate routines and rituals that promote our ability to work on meaningful tasks with razor-like focus. Depending on the type of job you have, you have to decide how you can carve out time for deep work. For example, a professor may decide to take on a heavy teaching load one semester so that she can work almost exclusively on research another semester.

Choose whatever works for you based on the demands of your current job. But once you decide on a routine, stick to it in a steadfast fashion. Try to work in the same location every time with a ‘Do not disturb’ sign outside your door. You also need to decide whether you will ban Internet connectivity altogether or limit it to sites that you will need for your work. Make sure your phone is away and you don’t access other sites that will intrude on your focus.

Of course, engaging in deep work does not have to make you a monk. In fact, new ideas and inventions often spring from collaborations and serendipitous interactions. But for these ideas and inventions to take root, you also need time alone with your thoughts. Also, it’s important that you have well-defined goals, when it comes to deep work. If you are running a start-up, your long-term goal may be to have an app running within six months with a client base of at least a few thousand people. Your short-term goal may involve developing various facets of the app and pilot testing them with a small number of people.

In order to motivate yourself, Newport urges you to keep a visible scoreboard where you can chart your progress. Keeping a tab of the hours you spend in deep work each week can goad you into optimising your potential essay writer. In addition, you may put a star when you achieve a particular milestone.

Finally, he also reminds us that we need to schedule downtime so that our brains can unwind and recharge. Here’s wishing you a happy and hopefully more productive 2018.

(The author is director, PRAYATNA)

An apology works wonders

Sibling Sensitivities

Gita Nambiar

“You love Anna, you don’t love me”, is an oft heard refrain in families with two or more children. Parents are generally at a loss when it comes to handling sibling rivalry. The reasons are many – ranging from physical appearance, prowess in sports to excelling in academics. It is inevitable in most households; however, the severity varies from home to home. Whereas in some cases it is mild and manageable, in others, it takes on gigantic proportions, even culminating in bodily harm or seriously affecting the personality.

This is a sensitive issue and needs to be handled with caution and in an empathetic manner. Parents need to give it a thought even before the second child is born. The first child would have monopolized all the love and affection for a long period and become accustomed to receiving the undivided attention of parents and other family members. To be suddenly deprived of all this and be thrust aside, while the newcomer is welcomed into the fold, can be traumatising.

It would be a wise move to prepare the firstborn for the arrival of a sibling, in a positive manner. That he or she will have a playmate and companion and would soon be given the esteemed status of an older brother or sister, with someone to take care of and protect. Each parent can take turns spending time with the two children. Other family members too can ensure that the older sibling is not deprived of attention.

It is quite natural for the arrival of the newborn to be viewed with apprehension and sometimes rejection by the older sibling and these feelings need to be handled delicately. Parents who are themselves the older of two siblings may recall their own reactions at the birth of a younger brother or sister. It would be a good idea to involve the older child in the care of the younger one so he does not feel left out. He could be a participant in all play activities and given responsible roles to play in the nurture of his sibling.

Bringing up two or more children in a family should be a pleasurable experience for the parents and not considered a deprivation of freedom and private space and time. The happiness automatically transfers to the children, who grow up emotionally secure and content. The way we scrutinise our children determines how they look at each other. The most important factor to remember is that each child is a unique creation. Once we absorb and internalise this idea, it makes the going easier.

Children are unlike peas in a pod. No two are alike, even among identical twins. As parents, we cannot rest on our laurels thinking if we can bring up one child, the second should be a piece of cake. Each one is different and has varying needs. As they grow and learn, we grow and learn too, and it is an enriching experience. We need to be alert and sharp in order to identify each one’s highs and lows. A requirement that is absolutely essential in their nurture is ‘acceptance’ – for what they are and what they turn out to be. While the former is beyond our control, the latter is well within our means. We need to revel in their victories and strengths and be supportive in their defeats and weaknesses.

As much as we are aware of each child’s pluses and minuses, we also need to make each sibling aware of the other’s strengths and weaknesses. They should respect each other’s qualities. We, as parents, should encourage each one’s pursuits and refrain from comparing one with the other. Quality time should be spent with each separately, doing what they like. Household rules should apply equally to both and each should be given his or her share of responsibilities. The atmosphere at home should be conducive so that each child feels free to share his concerns and emotions. Children should be encouraged and appreciated for helping and caring about each other.

In families where there is a special child, there is a natural tendency to focus more on this child. The typical sibling may feel neglected and bitter, but this attitude can be turned around by counselling him or her on why the other child requires the extra attention in view of his inadequacies. A feeling of empathy can be created, which could prove beneficial in the care of the special child.

Sibling rivalry is a problem that can be worked on and solved with sufficient forethought on the part of the parent. As most parents would agree, even a one-year old child has a mind of his own. Bringing up two or more very different individuals is definitely challenging, but the right measures of patience, understanding, tolerance and appreciation can mould well-adjusted and mutually accepting kids. We can then pat ourselves on the back for a job well executed!

(Gita Nambiar is a Special Educator at PRAYATNA.)