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The High Costs of Distraction

And what you can do to regain your focus

Key points

  • Distraction costs us money and time in the workplace, but there are also great costs to our daily life.
  • Distraction can impact work performance, reduce our ability for deep thought, and weaken our relationships.
  • It is important to acknowledge that some distractions are inevitable, and to accept them.

When we talk about the cost of distraction, we often think in terms of productivity or the bottom line. We might talk about the amount of money wasted, such as the average of $4500 per employee businesses are losing every year to social media. Or the fact that a recent survey from the app RescueTime found that most people check their phones 58 times a day, spending over a minute each time.

That’s over an hour responding to messages, checking social media, or simply scrolling mindlessly in search of entertainment.

Distraction isn’t just a problem when it comes to productivity during the work day, however. It can affect the most important — and intimate — areas of our lives.

1. Distraction impacts work performance

When we’re interrupted, it takes time away from the task at hand. As a result, a study found, interruptions cause us to speed up the task in order to make up for lost time, increasing our stress levels and frustration.

It’s hard to do our best work when we’re rushing, but even the briefest of distractions can have a negative impact on our performance. A study from Michigan State University found that students were twice as likely to make an error when they were interrupted — even though the interruption took less than three seconds.

2. Distraction reduces the capacity for deep thought

When I used to give talks on concentration and focus in the early 2000s, I would say that humans have had difficulty focusing since we developed a central nervous system and self-awareness. For millennia, we’ve used tools like yoga and meditation to help lessen our minds’ chatter and boost our concentration.

Yet there is increasing evidence that we collectively have developed fractured focus as social media, surveillance capitalism, and other digital distractions become more pervasive. In a study of how social media impacts students, researchers found that students who spent time on Facebook more frequently had a much harder time focusing on their academic work.

When we’re distracted, we lose one of the things that makes us most human: our ability to think profoundly, solve puzzles, make connections, and do deep work.

3. Distraction weakens relationships.

If you’ve ever watched a couple on a date absorbed in their phones, you may have wondered if their relationship is hampered by distraction. According to one study, the answer is yes.

Researchers covertly observed pairs of students talking, then approached them afterward to survey them about the conversation. In 62 of the 100 pairs, researchers saw at least one person use their phone. Students whose partners used a phone reported feeling less intimacy.

Distraction’s toll on relationships goes beyond one-on-one. I would argue it has reduced the ability for us to have important and nuanced conversations with each other at a societal level. Collectively, we might be losing the capacity for focus required to sift through the enormous amount of information on any given topic, discern fact from fiction, and respond in a thoughtful manner.

What can you do about distraction?

There’s not one easy trick to cure distraction, but there are evidence-backed ways to build your focus.

Harness your breath: As James Nestor writes in Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art, “It’s much more common, especially in the modern world, to never experience full-blown, life-threatening stress, but to never fully relax either. We’ll spend our days half-asleep and nights half-awake, lolling in a gray zone of half-anxiety.”

Your ability to affect your respiration is your most direct avenue to calm the sympathetic nervous system, and slow down your frontal lobe’s brain wave frequencies to a rhythm that correlates with relaxed focus. Bringing your attention to the rhythm of your breath and increasing the volume of air you inhale can help you recenter more quickly after a distraction. When you feel your focus slipping away, pause and breathe deeply, keeping your attention fully on the simple act of breathing.

Protect your time: Do what you can to reduce the number of notifications that make it through to you. Apps like Self Control and Freedom can help you block out social media. You can also turn off your phone notifications and ask colleagues and family not to interrupt you during deep work time.

Identify and disrupt downer patterns: When a project gets difficult, or when you’re tired, you may do what I call slipping into the pit. Your mind’s pit is where your attention gets hijacked by negative thought patterns of fret or regret. To avoid the pit, it’s very easy to go over to the rabbit hole of distraction, where you’re zoning out on Twitter or YouTube or Netflix.

In my book, Tracking Wonder, I discuss ways to disrupt these patterns by tapping into your surroundings in order to become more present in the morning. Stop what you’re doing, step away from a screen or put away your device, let your gaze rest on a nearby object, and spend a moment appreciating it. Then, take a deep breath and allow yourself to return to focus.

Seeking moments of wonder can be like experiencing instant mindfulness. An experience of wonder has been shown to pause our fight-or-flight response and even momentarily dissolve our biased perception.

Finally, acknowledge what you can’t do about distraction

Many distractions are a necessary part of our daily lives and jobs. Our boss may need us to respond quickly to emails, for example, or our children may need our attention. Other distractions are extremely difficult to avoid in this digital age when social media companies are becoming masters of psychology to make their products addictive.

The world is filled with interruptions, and for the sake of mental health it’s important to identify which distractions you can control, and accept and acknowledge those you cannot.

Then extend yourself grace, take a few deep breaths, and return your attention to what matters.


MacKay, J. (2019). Screen time stats 2019: Here’s how much you use your phone during the workday. RescueTime.

Mark, G., Gudith, D., Klocke, U. (2008). The Cost of Interrupted Work: More Speed and Stress. Conference: Proceedings of the 2008 Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, CHI 2008, 2008, Florence, Italy, April 5-10, 2008. DOI:10.1145/1357054.1357072

Altmann, E. M., Trafton, J. G., & Hambrick, D. Z. (2014). Momentary interruptions can derail the train of thought. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 143(1), 215–226.

Feng, S., Wong, Y.K., Wong, L.Y., Hossain, L. (2019). The Internet and Facebook Usage on Academic Distraction of College Students. Computers & Education, Volume 134.

Vanden Abeele, M. M. P., Hendrickson, A. T., Pollmann, M. M. H., & Ling, R. (2019). Phubbing behavior in conversations and its relation to perceived conversation intimacy and distraction: An exploratory observation study. Computers in Human Behavior, 100, 35–47.

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