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How to Manage Distraction in Your Life

Reframe the word “ignore”

Key points

  • You are bombarded with distractions every day.
  • If you lack a clear sense of your mission, then the most urgent message becomes the focus of attention.
  • It can be helpful to articulate your mission to yourself every day.
  • "Ignoreing" is not necessary a bad thing to do.

Leaders are responsive. But being too responsive may reduce effectiveness. Effective leaders have roadmaps for choosing what to ignore.

In the absence a roadmap, the most urgent request or the loudest complaint becomes the center of attention. This post discusses how to ignore urgent but not important information.

Ignore” Is Not Necessarily Negative

We live in a distraction-filled world. Maia Szalavitz (2013) summarized research done by Professor Duje Tadin at the University of Rochester. Sixty-seven participants were given a standard IQ test and then asked to identify direction of motion of small and large objects shown on a screen.

In the real world, tracking large objects is more difficult than tracking small objects because background movement like trees rustling in the wind must be ignored. Tadin and his team found that the more subjects learned to avoid distraction the higher their IQ scores. The more they were easily distracted, the lower the IQ.

In other words, the ability to ignore distractions may be a critical component of intelligence.

How to Manage Distractions

What’s your personal mission? You may work for a mission-driven organization, but is that your life mission? Psychiatrist Irvin Yalom writes, “The physicality of death destroys us. The idea of death liberates us.” In other words, by focusing on the inevitability of death, you become sensitive to avoiding wasting precious time. Focus on your life mission or missions in the time you have remaining. Prioritize stimuli in terms of how they relate to your corporate and personal missions. (2009).

Suggestion: Articulate to yourself your life’s mission every morning after you wake up and before your feet touch the ground. Let the articulation of your mission officially begin your day.

For example, one of our clients is divorced and has visiting rights to spend weekends with his daughter Veronica. He has stated that his mission is to be the “best father I can be to Veronica.” He recites his mission every morning upon waking and prior to leaving his bed. This crisp focus on mission helps him be sensitive to the many daily distractions that take him away from his mission. He has used the mission to justify not going on business trips and insisting that meetings be online.

When you create a habit of articulating your mission every day, you force yourself to face your personal north star. Fail to articulate your mission and the urgency of others becomes your center of attention.

Honor Your Span of Attention

You have probably had the experience of being so engrossed in a book, movie, or work project that time seemed to vanish. But what about the “typical” activities of life that are less engrossing?

All of us have attention spans. We have met scientists with attention spans of 90 minutes. We have worked with CEOs of large companies with attention spans of 20 minutes. Forcing yourself to continue working beyond your optimal attention span means triggering the Law of Diminishing Returns: every additional minute of attention produces less than a minute of real value.

Honor your attention span by defining projects in terms of time spent rather than completion dates. Use the stopwatch on your mobile device to honor your attention span. For example, one of the authors has an attention span of 45 minutes. The author has developed a 45-15 routine. Start a project. When the buzzer rings 45 minutes later, spend 15 minutes exercising, chatting with colleagues, reading the newspaper, exercising, etcetera. Return to the project for another 45-minute chunk and repeat.

Change Your Attitude Towards the Word “Ignore”

How would you feel if you sent us an email and we responded by writing, "We have chosen to ignore your request?" How would you feel if you sent the same email and we responded by writing, "We've got to focus on a client project. We are not forgetting your request. We expect to get back to you within 72 hours.”

If your reaction is more positive with the second example, remember the dictionary definition of the word "ignore": intentional disregard for now. Instead of thinking, "It would be rude of me to ignore this request," reframe your thinking to say, "Given my mission, I am not going to focus on this message at this time. I can focus on it later. Mission first."

Summary and Conclusions.

Roy E. Disney was vice chair of the board of directors of the company founded his uncle Walt. Roy Disney once wrote, “When your values are clear, making decisions becomes easier.” (Colan, 2019).

What is your mission?


M. Chernoff. “Nine Things Happy, Successful People Chose to Ignore.” 2013,…

L. Colan. “A Lesson from Roy A. Disney on Making Values-Based Decisions.”, 2019,, olan/a-lesson-from-roy-a-disney-on-making-values-based-decisions.html

I. Yalom Staring at the Sun: overcoming the terror of death. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2009.

M. Szalavitz, “The Key to a High IQ is Not Getting Distracted.” (2013)…