Performance Declines with Distractions

Dealing with distractions is a part of life. Effectively doing so however is infrequent. It’s not really new news but ongoing research demonstrates the negative effects of distractions and multi-tasking. Researchers have found that switching from one task to another makes it difficult to tune out distractions and can cause mental blocks that can slow down your progress. Increased error rates due to distractions are well documented. Multi-tasking is actually a form of what I would call organized distractions. A number of studies have also shown that multi-tasking is less effective (poorer performance) even for those who say they are great at multi-tasking.

But what if some people have a special gift for multitasking? The Stanford researchers compared groups of people based on their tendency to multitask and their belief that it helps their performance. They found that heavy multitaskers—those who multitask a lot and feel that it boosts their performance—were actually worse at multitasking than those who like to do a single thing at a time. The frequent multitaskers performed worse because they had more trouble organizing their thoughts and filtering out irrelevant information, and they were slower at switching from one task to another. (

The cost of a distraction for an athlete may be dropping a ball, missing a cue with a teammate, a turnover, or a defeat on the road.For many people the cost of a distraction is an error to correct, a report to re-run or a misunderstanding that needs smoothing over. However a more sober illustration of the serious consequences of distractions is that it is estimated that 25-50% of all motor vehicle accidents are due to distractions. People die due to distractions.

It comes down to  an individual choice to deal with distractions or not. We need to stop deluding ourselves that we are somehow an exception and can do multiple tasks at the same time equally well or that we are somehow immune to the effect of distractions. Peak performers not only admit that distractions rob them of being their best, they do something about it. Anyone wanting to perform at anything to the best of their abilities needs to identify distractions and execute a plan to minimize or eliminate them.

Seldom do we have unfettered uninterrupted complete focused time to accomplish a given task. [By the way, there is a place for multi-tasking for very simple tasks which are mastered before attempting multi-tasking. But I’ll save that topic for another day.]

In sports we deal with coaches, parents, fans, opponents, varying venues, and trash talking. We also have the mental distractions of doubts, fears, negative self-talk, worry about outcomes, disappointing and/or impressing others. Coaches screaming out complex instructions is another form of distraction for athletes.

At home we may have to do lists, phones, TV, tablets and computers straining for our attention while we prepare dinner, change diapers (some one else’s not our own). We have various mental preoccupations such as money worries, elderly parent health concerns, home repairs, and all those things not done that weigh on us.

In business we balance demands from clients, peers, employees, bosses, external forces, phones, computers and reports. Mentally we are distracted over handling multiple demands, dealing with emotional clients, decision making, personnel decisions, weighing options and managing perceptions.

Key: Not all of these distractions effect everyone, when they do they effect us in different ways; and they bother us in different magnitudes. You have to identify your key distractors. You must prioritize them. To be effective you must know the situation, place, and environment each of your distractions occur. Then you have to develop a plan to deal with your distractors (or at least your biggest offenders), hone your skills in dealing with them and then actually execute your plan.

I tell my athlete-clients that knowing isn’t doing. To read this post and nod your head telling yourself ‘yup, makes sense’ or ‘I have some of those distractions mentioned’ won’t change anything. If you admit to having distractions in your life and can identify those distractions, you still fall short. Nodding your head and checking off distractions will lead you to either victim thinking (i.e. I can’t do anything about them.) or resorting to complaint mode. You must take action. Peak performers take that action.

Individuals who effectively manage themselves and their distractions are most effective at home, work and athletics. Part of that management is honing your ability to handle distractions. In my next post I’ll offer a simple 3-step approach to get a handle on handling distractions.


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