Why Giving in to Some Distractions Can Make You More Productive

Forget multi-tasking, "strategic shifting" may be the answer to our overworked lives.

Photo Credit: Cathryn Lavery

For many working women, a single day can sometimes feel as if it’s pulling them in a thousand different directions at once. And yet contrary to our own instincts, trying to work on multiple projects at once can actually be incredibly counterintuitive to making progress. In fact, in the past decade the concept of multi-tasking has been taken to task for not only increasing stress levels, but actually creating a 40 percent drop in productivity.

So how do we make it through the day? According to Susan Nethero, the answer lies in embracing what many might consider “distractions”—anything from a ringing cell phone to the pings of urgent emails. “The diversity of things you’re involved in can actually bring the inspiration you need,” says the former CEO of lingerie chain Intimacy and a mentor, business coach and angel investor for women-owned businesses via Golden Seeds, an angel investment firm of which she is managing director, a tactic she calls strategic shifting. “The trick is allowing yourself to give it your full focus—not just partial attention and with the burden of worry.”

Nethero credits the ability to compartmentalize and refocus on each task at hand as one of the skills that helped her through some of the biggest challenges in her balancing family and business life. “It’s important to be a good mother, to be a good employer, to be a good friend and family member. To do that, I tell women that it’s okay to take a moment away from what you’re doing to talk to people,” says Nethero, a mother of two. “You think these ‘distractions’ are taking you away from something, but sometimes it’s that distance that you needed to come back at it and look at it anew.”

Nethero says growing a business when her children were young helped her hone her ability to be present, whether business or family. And that rather than succumb to any guilt about it, strategic shifting helped her make the best of each moment. “For example, coming home and reading books to my daughter at night and saying that’s our time. We made a big game around it. We just made it magical,” says Nethero. And sometimes not thinking about an issue can inspire a solution more quickly than hyperfocusing on it or letting it spin away in the back of your mind. “Finding ways to step into the moment and be totally engaged allows you to get much-needed distance. It puts you in a different place.”

Experts agree. Psychologists have long touted the benefit of shifting focus to help people solve problems and lessen stress. But how? Here are three tips to try:


1.Embrace your task… no matter what it is. Watching a TV show with a spouse or hitting the gym can help the brain rest. Occupy your thoughts with something pleasant and your stress level will not only take a dive, but you’ll replenish your energy levels for your next task.

2. See the positive in distractions. Take a page from Campbell’s Soup CEO Douglas Conant and reframe “distractions” as “touchpoints.” Wrote Conant in a 2014 Harvard Business Review article, “Every ‘interruption’ offers an opportunity to lead impactfully, to set expectations, bring clarity to an issue, or infuse a problem with energy and insight.” In other words, instead of skipping catch-up lunch with a friend during the work day, embrace it as an opportunity to clear your head, process stuff that’s lingering and gain a new insight that hadn’t occurred to you.

3. Get moving. Give yourself a few minutes before shifting your attention to a new person or task to focus on your body. Take a few deep breaths, go for a short walk or just stretch at your desk. It will not only help you transition, but it will allow your subconscious to keep working on past tasks in the background and open up the possibility of new, creative ideas.