Have you seen the classic movie – Jurassic Park?
A wildlife amusement park, created to be structured and safe, suddenly turns chaotic and dangerous for the visitors due to small unrelated and unpredictable incidents.
Does your productivity suffer the same eventuality?
Mine certainly does!
I will start the day with great intentions of working through my to-do list. But before you know it, some tiny unplanned event will crop up, like a phone call (I don’t avoid) or the urge to finish laundry and my entire schedule will go up in flames.
Wondering what is this phenomenon?
It is called the ‘Butterfly Effect’ (a principle of chaos theory) that states how a small change at one place in a complex system can lead to huge disasters in another place.
In my case, loss of a productive day.
I realised this while watching Jurassic Park.
In one scene, Ian Malcolm, the mathematician in the movie, explains the chaos theory very clearly. He drops a bead of water onto the knuckles of Dr. Sattler and asserts that “tiny variations, the orientation of hairs on your hand, the amount of blood distending your vessels … vastly affect the outcome”, of the droplet’s route, thereby preventing you from foreseeing the path it will take.
How a Small Change can Create BIG Differences in Results?
Few days ago, I was taking a short break from writing this article. I had just finished the research phase and watched more parts of Jurassic Park on YouTube than I had intended.
Suddenly, the phone rang.
Now, my mobile was turned off (so as not to get interrupted). But this call was to my landline (which very rarely happens because not many people have that number).
Since I was on a break, I decided to take the call. It turned out to be my 90-year-old grandpa’s accountant. There was some issue with my grandpa’s bank account and the accountant wanted to meet soon to study the bank statements.
After I hung up, I called my grandpa to let him know of the situation.
By the time I finished the second call, my five-minute break was already longer than I had anticipated. While walking up to my office, my eyes fell on the pile of laundry and I decided to tackle it before heading back to work (It would only take a couple of minutes extra.)
Then something else nabbed my attention.
You know the rest.
It took me two hours before I could return to my computer to finish the initial draft of this article.
99.9% of Time the Small Change Will Damage Your Productivity
I have noticed the same thing happening when I check my emails first thing in the morning or my latest WhatsApp messages.
I don’t want to mention how many hours I have wasted because of a small distraction that resulted in complete chaos in my day’s plans.
In 99.9% of the time an interruption leads to major loss in productivity and distracts you from doing your most important work (writing my article). Only in 0.01% of times will it result in something useful (like getting the laundry out of the way!)
But best-case scenarios are usually few and too far in between to be of any help.
Usually, I get distracted reading blog posts about productivity or watching interesting videos on YouTube and do not work on the important tasks.
That’s what I call my ‘INNER Butterfly Effect’.
The ‘inner butterfly effect’ is the mental process that gets triggered when a small random thought occurs in your mind that leads to further irrelevant, useless, and distracting thoughts and activities throughout the day.
This can keep going till you have wasted your entire day.
This is how it works:
How the ‘Inner Butterfly Effect’ Affects Your Productivity?
Before you can prevent the ‘inner butterfly effect’ from taking over, you need to accept the fact that we as humans are susceptible to distractions.
It’s what kept us alive for thousands of years. If there was a predator, it was imperative that you pay attention to everything around you or get killed. Because of that our brains are wired to pay attention to anything new.
As it turns out, there are no saber-toothed tigers anymore. Even so, the old mechanism in your brain still works.
Nowadays, different (not life threatening) activities try to nab your attention.
Habit-forming services like Facebook and YouTube take advantage of this. If you get hooked to them and engage in multitasking, things can get really out of hand and wreck your productivity.
You may even become a ‘butterfly addict’ because your brain gets addicted to distractions. It releases stress chemicals, and when you don’t get your fix, you feel uneasy.
Even worse for your productivity is the variable rewards built into services like Facebook, YouTube and Reddit that make time pass quickly, so you become oblivious to what’s happening around you.
How to Stop the Inner Butterfly Effect?
The problem with technology is that many of them are designed to grab your attention and distract you.
When was the last time you checked your email?
Probably a few minutes ago!
Once you get hooked to technology, you often start rationalizing. The brain says: “I really need to check my email right now. Otherwise, I could miss something important.”
There might not be a crisis that needs your attention, but you might get a notification about an interesting new article like 5 Ways Email Cripples Your Productivity and How to Break Free.
Your brain tells you: Let’s read it. This post sounds appealing, and before you realize it, you have gone off track doing the very thing the article warns you against.
3 Ways to Beat the ‘Inner Butterfly Effect’
1. Notice When you get Distracted
To become more productive and focused the most important thing is to notice everything that is happening to you.
Joanna Jast, author of Laser-Sharp Focus: A No-Fluff Guide to Improved Concentration, Maximised Productivity and Fast-Track to Success has recommended identifying your specific problems by running distraction and procrastination logs for a few days.
Record every instance when your focus slipped off the task-at-hand and write down the when, what and most importantly – the why you did it. Once you’ve got at least a week worth of data try to analyse and identify the patterns.
What’s the most common reason you got distracted?
The goal is to catch your brain when it’s thinking about things that are not related to your current task.
Identify the trigger that starts your psychological avalanche, and stop it right in that moment. As soon as you identify them, try to stop the urge and stay in the current task. Most distractions will go away and then you can concentrate on your work.
2. Design the Right Systems
Once you know where you get distracted it’s important to prevent these distractions.
Greg McKeown author of Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less said: “The way of the Essentialist means living by design, not by default. Instead of making choices reactively, the Essentialist deliberately distinguishes the vital few from the trivial many, eliminates the non-essentials, and then removes obstacles so the essential things have clear, smooth passage. In other words, Essentialism is a disciplined, systematic approach for determining where our highest point of contribution lies, then making execution of those things almost effortless.”
How does this translate to the real world? If you followed Joanna’s advice above you have a rough idea what triggers your inner butterfly effect.
For example, think of how you use your computer. Chances are, you still use the default settings for most of your programs and services. That means it’s likely you will get bombarded with way more notifications and messages than you want.
The default option is usually set to make you come back to whatever software or service you are using. But in every program there are usually settings (unfortunately not that easy to locate) where you can turn off distracting notifications.
Programmers take advantage of this and use the fact that most of us are too lazy to change the default settings. So even if you are annoyed and distracted by them you are too lazy to turn them off.
However this is where you can “sharpen” your saw. Take the time to turn off unnecessary notifications in Skype, your email client, Facebook and any other program you use. Not only do these unnecessary notifications prevent you from work, you will thank yourself that you got rid of them.
If you do not change your notification settings and design the system yourself it’s almost guaranteed that you will get easily distracted.
3. Avoid Online Distractions
I would love to give the same recommendation when it comes to the internet – turn it off. There is only one problem. Network tools are distracting us from work that requires unbroken concentration, while simultaneously degrading our capacity to remain focused.
Of course you can follow the example of Jonathan Franzen, who has publicly shared his own version of his “design” to avoid these distractions. Talking to Time magazine, he explained how he prevented himself from getting distracted by removing the computer’s wireless card and destroying its Ethernet port. “What you have to do” he said “is you plug in an Ethernet cable with superglue, and then you saw the little head off it.”
However chances are, with more and more services moving to the cloud, taking extreme measures like this is not an option for you.
On the other hand doing nothing is not an option either. “Technologies have turned into compulsions if not full-fledged addictions,” said Nir Eyal in Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products.
Fortunately there are extensions like StayFocused or website and distraction blockers like FindFocus and Freedom.to. These software help you by limiting the amount of time that you can spend on time-wasting websites, email or games.
Unlike Franzen, you don’t have to destroy your computer because these solutions are totally flexible, allowing you to set the amount of time you want to waste each day, determine which websites are time wasters and decide if you’d like to block certain sites altogether.
These software allow you “to move beyond good intentions and add routines and rituals to your working life designed to minimize the amount of your limited willpower necessary to transition into and maintain a state of unbroken concentration,” said Cal Newport in Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World.
Staying away from distractions and avoiding hyperlinks is important because “even though the World Wide Web has made hypertext commonplace, indeed ubiquitous, research continues to show that people who read linear text comprehend more, remember more, and learn more than those who read text peppered with links,” said Nicholas Carr author of The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains.
Build a system that will make it almost impossible to get off course and avoid distractions.
Design your system in a way that will make it very hard for you to get distracted and NOT reach your goal.
Which distractions trigger your inner butterfly effect and what measures will you put in place that will make it harder to get distracted?
Let me know in the comments below.