Sam Woolfe - Jan 9, 2020

Why Am I So Distracted All the Time?

Distraction. It’s something we all struggle with. Many of us also find that we are chronically distracted – we are distracted all the time and have been experiencing this issue on a long-term basis.

Not being able to focus on a single task or activity without becoming distracted has negative consequences. It leads to wasted time, unfulfilled goals, not being fully present, and increased stress and anxiety about getting tasks done. The causes of being distracted all the time are manifold. Let’s examine them and then offer some ways to overcome chronic distraction and experience more focus, satisfaction, and peace of mind in the process.

Rather listen to the highlights of this article? Be sure to check out the video recap on YouTube!


Addicted to Technology

It is palpable that one of the biggest causes of chronic distraction is technology. We are more attached to our devices than ever before, with many of us feeling ‘addicted’ to our smartphone, computer, or social media accounts. We may find ourselves habitually drawn to technology for a number of reasons. For example, with our smartphone or laptop, we have constant access to all kinds of entertainment and stimulation, such as YouTube, Reddit, and Netflix. And when it comes to social media, we know from a wealth of research that social media can encourage compulsive use, due in large part to the fact that receiving notifications, likes, and comments lead to a surge in dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure and reward.

If you’re trying to get some work done on your laptop, it’s so easy to become distracted – you simply just have to open another tab and before you know it, you’ve gone down a YouTube or Reddit rabbit hole. Also, when out with friends or doing any activity, you may find yourself automatically reaching for your smartphone to check your emails or social media, all the time, without even thinking about it.

The Problem With Multitasking

As a freelancer, I have many tabs open on Chrome so that I can multitask. This means that I’m constantly switching between checking Gmail, reading an article to share on social media, checking Twitter for notifications or scrolling through the Feed, perusing job boards for work, looking at Google Analytics for my website, and so on. The problem with this kind of multitasking is that I always feel distracted. I can never seem to focus deeply on a single task and complete it without getting distracted multiple times (whether that’s reading an article or writing one).

The ridiculousness of my chronic distraction is that I will actually distract myself from an initial distraction (such as reading an unrelated article when I should be writing) with another distraction (such as checking Twitter). This kind of meta-distraction eats up a lot of time, makes progress slow, and makes me feel very disorganized.

Chronic Distraction May Point to a Deeper Emotional Problem

Chronic distraction and procrastination can be an emotional problem for different reasons. Tim Pychyl, the author of Solving the Procrastination Puzzle, says:

“We have a brain that is selected for preferring immediate reward. Procrastination is the present-self saying I would rather feel good now. So we delay engagement even though it’s going to bite us on the butt.”

So that’s a kind of evolutionary explanation for chronic distraction and procrastination. But this behavior pattern is also an emotion regulation problem. Pychyl states that “to the extent that I can deal with my emotions, I can stay on task.” Studies have shown that negative emotions can lead to procrastination, as the pleasure we get from a distraction helps to deal with difficult feelings. Devon Price, a social psychologist, argues that laziness does not exist. He views problems of chronic procrastination as being related to emotional issues such as fear of failure, low self-esteem, or symptoms of poor mental health (e.g. exhaustion).

How to Overcome Chronic Distraction

Your issue with chronic distraction may involve just one of the aforementioned causes or some combination of them. Let’s address how to resolve each of the causes in turn.

  1. If you feel that technology is controlling you, rather than you controlling it, take steps to prevent this. Be mindful of your impulse to check your phone when out with people. Notice the impulse arise and pass, without giving in to it. Over time, this will train you to control your impulses. You can also take practical steps to avoid digital distraction. For example, try installing an extension on your browser like StayFocusd: this blocks websites at times during the day when you don’t want to be distracted. Avoiding digital distraction is also a matter of self-discipline. Try to self-impose rules about keeping your devices away from you at certain times.
  2. Always try to do one thing at a time, starting with the thing that most deserves priority. This will allow you to be more fully present and focused.
  3. Practice mindfulness so that you can become aware of the emotional issues that lie behind the impulse to distract yourself. By working on your emotional well-being, you will find it easier to focus on your tasks and goals.

Keep these tips in mind the next time you find yourself opening up a new tab on your browser or habitually reaching for your phone to check your Instagram. The digital age makes chronic distraction an easy trap to fall into, but it’s not inevitable.

Written by Sam Woolfe

I'm a freelance writer who is interested in mindfulness, mental health and the evolving concept of masculinity.