All that gleams may be a distraction from work

time-fliesIn the late, lamented TV series Firefly, “shiny” was a futuristic word meaning “cool” (or the equivalent). For writers and other creative folks, it still is—and it’s something to watch out for.

Avoid Shiny Object Syndrome,” warns author and book marketer Sandra Beckwith in a recent blog post. To Beckwith, a shiny object or other cool thing may be helpful, or it may be a distraction. For instance, lately she’s been hearing a lot about Periscope, the Twitter video tool that can help sell books. It’s also fun, cool, amazing, and—well—shiny.

“Before you are distracted by the newest shiny object that everyone seems to be chattering about,” she writes, “ask yourself these questions:
• “Who is using this tool or service?
• “Who will I reach if I use it?
• “Is my target audience—the people who are most likely to love my book—using it?”

If not, ignore it. Back to work.

Beckwith is talking about longer-term distractions. There are also shorter-term, day-to-day ones. I’ve written before about shiny objects in general when trying to work—things like food, laundry, a sudden need to exercise, and of course the very shiny Internet with its newspapers, YouTube, email, and other fun dalliances. Any excuse to spend minutes, even hours away from what really matters.

“When you finally get back to work—two, five, maybe 10 minutes after the initial interruption—it’s harder to focus,” Laura Entis worte on Entrepreneur.com. “You pause to check your email again, peruse news sites and look at cute kitten pictures on Instagram. Consequently, you find yourself making more mistakes.”

Entis cites a 2014 study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology “that a mere 2.8 second interruption more than doubled the number of errors study participants—300 undergraduate students—made when asked to recall precisely where they were in a sequence of tasks.” Shiny = scary.

What to do? Commenters on Beckwith’s blog offer suggestions for avoiding distractions, whether specific or general. “I’ve set up an Outlook rule so that all marketing emails from people I follow automatically go into a marketing folder,” wrote one. “This folder lets me quickly delete 95% of them and only open the true gems.”

Entis offers others. Set up chunks of time in which you refuse to be distracted. No phone, no Internet, no lunch. My previous post, cited above, includes links to apps that can temporarily block access to email and the Net so you won’t be tempted.

Figure out when you’re naturally most awake and alert, and do your most important work then. According to David Rock, coauthor of Your Brain at Work, most people can focus best only six hours a week. Even more scary!

And last, grow up. Seriously. In another post, Entis, who writes a lot about procrastinating, quotes Tim Pychyl, a Carleton University psychology professor and author of Solving the Procrastination Puzzle. “I don’t know where we learn this, but somehow we internalize the notion that our motivational state has to match the task at hand,” says Pychyl. “For many important tasks, if not most of them, getting started has nothing to do with how we feel.” (Entis also recommends deleting games from your desktop and blocking Facebook—“whatever you have to do.”)

Shiny objects are good for writers if we can corral them, tame them, shape them into article queries and blog posts and book chapters. But shiny objects are bad when they become distractions from doing that work. Few apps, games, emails, or news articles are “shiny”/cool enough to be worth losing 2.8 seconds of work over when those so often turn into two, five, or 40 minutes and errors to boot. All that lost productivity will take the shine off—fast.

Copyright 2015 Ellen M. Ryan. All rights reserved.

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