Matt Fernand
Jul 30 · 12 min read

Each month a group of us from ELSE get together to discuss a book we’ve read. Unlike a regular book club, we don’t all read one title and compare notes on it. Instead we choose a theme and each of us selects a book which is related to that, but also looks like it’s going to help with an area of our own personal or professional growth.

Last month we chose influence, this time our theme was distraction. This one came from an R&D project that Poppy and Greg had been working on. The topic fired up quite a lot of discussion within the studio so we decided to theme a book club session around it. As before we found some clear themes, and a few intriguing new ideas.

Here’s what we read, and what we learned.

What we read

Greg chose The Distraction Addiction by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang

“It talks a lot about the importance of mindfulness and the pursuit of flow. There’s a whole thing around breathing and the anxiety of anticipation. He talks about the idea of contemplative computing — being more in the moment and aware of what you’re doing and when you’re getting distracted. There’s a set of principles at the end that it’s all building towards, around that awareness and how to reset and recalibrate.”

Would you recommend it?

“Yes. It was a book I’d been aware of so I took the chance to read it. In terms of structure it was good, I particularly liked the 8 steps at the end — some useful practical tips to help manage things.”

Matt went for Driven to Distraction at Work by Ned Hallowell

“The author is an expert on attention deficit disorders. Normally those things are congenital so you have them from birth, but he was finding people coming to him with symptoms of it that they’d developed in later life. So he figured there must be some environmental cause and he started to unpick what his patients were doing and making connections with their ADD -type behaviours. The book is all about what those are, and how to deal with them.

Would you recommend it?

“Sort of. It’s an interesting book because it’s written from such an unusual angle. He uses six examples of the different ADD behaviours that he’s observed, but they’re all so extreme that it’s hard to relate to them. So you have to pick through it, but there are some really interesting things hidden away.”

Holly read Deep Work by Cal Newport

“I went straight to the second part which is probably a bit backwards, but there were two rules that I was really interested in, one of which is embracing boredom and the other is quitting social media. Saying ‘Why don’t you just quit social media?’ is like saying to a smoker ‘Why don’t you just stop smoking?’ That’s what’s really interesting about this book. There are strategies to help — rather than rejecting the urge to look at social you embrace it. So you do 15 minutes of focused work and then check your social channels for a break.”

Would you recommend it?

“Yes. I really like the way it’s set out by giving you a hypothesis which you then subscribe to.”

Jack selected Make Time by Jake Knapp

“The whole premise of the book is setting a highlight for every day. The idea is that you have one highlight every day which you’re going to work to complete. That could be literally anything — writing a novel, going fishing — but you have to set it. And then there’s a bunch of tips on how to focus, like moving all of your apps off of your home screen, and moving anything that will give you notification to the last screen.”

Would you recommend it?

“I would recommend it, yes. I love that the whole premise of the book is built around the idea that people remember certain moments in life, rather than particular days. So creating a specific moment each day means you have something valuable to look back on.”

Poppy and Gareth both chose Hyperfocus by Chris Bailey

Gareth: “The first chapter is really interesting. He focuses half the book on doing one thing and one task, but it could probably be two chapters as opposed to eight.”

Poppy: “He talks about different modes of thinking and he has this way of sorting your tasks out using a grid system, which is really useful.”

Gareth: “Most of the rest of the book is about focusing your mind using meditation, which would probably be useful for some people but not really for me.”

Would you recommend it?

Neither were keen.

Gareth: “You have to buy into the mindset and build all of the habits or it’s never going to work. I didn’t really find it that committing though.”

Poppy: “I’d recommend the first half. There’s so much content on meditation later on, and if you’re not going to tap into that then you could summarise the rest of the book really quickly. But if you want meditation tips and tutorials there are loads of places you can go for those.”

Karen read ‘Some blogs and articles and stuff’

What we talked about

As usual we covered quite a few different topics — thinking styles, mindfulness, reframing attitudes to social media and, ironically, some that were nothing to do with distraction. The session started with Matt explaining a new thing that he took away from his book …


Most people will be familiar with the idea of cognition, the process of learning and understanding. Less well known is its companion conation, which is the process of putting thoughts into action. It’s associated with focus, since it’s related to motivation and self-regulation.

Everyone has their own conative style. It’s why if you give people a box of Lego, some will start building straight away, others will sort the bricks by size or colour and others won’t start at all but will grill you about what exactly you want them to make.

The amount of information we can access instantly has a detrimental effect on some conative styles. We’re so aware of the number of possible things in the world that to some people starting a project feels not so much like beginning a new thing, as rejecting the millions of other things they could do.

“Hallowell calls this The Despair of Infinite Possibility,” explains Matt. “For some people it ends up creating a chaotic world where they either procrastinate — a classic ADD symptom — or start a series of different things that they can’t commit to and so don’t ever finish. It’s that restless feeling that the other idea you had might turn out better than the one you chose to work on.”

The never-ending list

Jack’s book highlighted the hamster-wheel nature of social media. “The author calls social channels Infinity Loops because you just go round and round.”

Holly agreed: “When you go on Instagram or Facebook or any of them, there’s no end-point; you’re just scrolling. You could literally sit on Instagram and just keep going and going. That’s what I think is really dangerous.”

This is something Greg had encountered before. “They’re referred to as stopping cues. If you read a book, it’s got chapters so they’re packaged up into individual chunks and there are regular points where you decide to stop or carry on. Although Instagram does highlight when you’re up-to-date, there’s still no strong cue to stop scrolling and get on with your life”

Being part of the problem

This took Greg back to a topic of conversation in the studio. We tend to think about the distractions we receive, but not the ones we generate. “We were talking about the WhatsApp Group for Jack’s rugby club. There are about 60 people in there, so every time someone posts some mundane thing in there, it’s distracted all of those people.”

Jack gave a user’s point of view, “One person will say happy birthday to someone and that’s 60 people distracted. Then 20 other people will join in and wish them happy birthday too and that’s 1200 interruptions.”

Matt: “Yes we never think about that. How about just shutting up? Stop sending s**t and then you won’t interrupt everyone else.”

Reframing the habit

Holly chose her book because of its angle on dealing with the potential distraction of social media. “A lot of the dialogue around social [media] is very negative, ‘You shouldn’t be doing that. Why are you doing it?’ The more you approach it as, ‘You can do that, just not right now’ the more it becomes a positive experience because you’re in control.”

Poppy found some parallels to that in her book, “He talks about being aware of what you give your attention to. So if you’re reading a book and your mind starts wandering, where does it go to? If you notice that your mind’s wandering you stop and recognise it. I noticed that the more aware I was of my social media usage, the less I was going on it. You can create those cues for yourself.”

Which chimed with Greg: “In my book they talk about a reset point. The importance of taking stock and being more mindful.”

Karen had also read about this, “When you’re focusing on something for a long period of time, one of the most important things is to realise that your mind is wandering. That one thing alone increases your productivity. Just by noticing that your mind is wandering you can bring it back to where it needs to be.”

Mindfulness was a common theme amongst pretty much all the books we read. If you’re training your brain to notice unwanted thoughts and let them pass when you’re practising meditation, then you can do it with distractions at work, too.

Bedtime stories and brain tingles

The various books recommend different apps to help practise meditation. Most suggest Headspace, but Poppy uses Calm. She loves the sleep stories. “Every night I listen to Wind in the Willows — never get past 10 minutes.”

Which is fair enough. Lack of sleep has a direct effect on your ability to focus as well. So anything that helps you get a good night’s sleep is a good thing. The app also has a section on ASMR, which led to a lively discussion…

For those unfamiliar Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response or ASMR is a synaesthetic reaction to a particular combination of visual and/or auditory stimuli. It’s usually felt as a tingling in the upper back, shoulders, neck or scalp and in its most intense form is also accompanied by a feeling of euphoria. Hence why people like it.

Different people have different ways to set off their tingles. For Matt it’s “a scratching feeling just behind me”, Poppy is a fan of The French Whisperer, while Holly is obsessed with peeling soap. “It’s the reason I can’t quit Instagram.”


Mindfulness doesn’t just mean sitting and thinking about your breathing. Catching mindful moments anywhere can be helpful. As Jack’s book pointed out, “When you’re in the shower it’s the one time that you can’t check your phone. You have to be alone with your thoughts. But you can create that kind of time too, by not just putting your headphones on when you’re on the tube, for example. Just sit there and embrace that time.”

This came up in Poppy’s book, too. “Instead of having the radio on in the car just leave it silent. That allows you to get all those random thoughts out of the way, so you can focus on more important tasks later in the day.”

Scatter Thinking vs Attentional Thinking

This kind of random thinking is what Joe & Poppy’s book calls scatter thinking. Joe explains: “The way he puts it is that you have those kind of nodes scattered around your brain — things that you’ve learned, that your brain has saved for later. The more you can link these up, the better your chances of solving a complex creative problem.”

It’s doesn’t work for all kinds of problem, “If you’ve got an attentional, practical task you’ve got to shut off all of your distractions. Part of the idea is to encourage those two different thinking modes for different types of tasks.”

Or alternatively, you can let the back-end part of your brain take care of things. Karen: “I find it really helps to take time away from a problem. I was working on a presentation yesterday. I kept taking short breaks but it didn’t feel long enough. Then when I came in this morning I re-read it and immediately knew what I needed to do. The time I get most ideas and solve problems — not just work-related — is when I’m doing something else.”

This made Matt think of James Webb Young’s influential book A Technique for Producing Ideas. “It’s the same principle — you drown yourself in your research, overthink the problem, then put it all down and go and do something totally different. At some point you’ll have a eureka moment and find yourself scurrying for a pen and paper to get it down.

“It also comes up in 100 Things Every Designer Needs to Know About People.” [You can find a summary of that here.]

Going for a walk is a famously good problem-solving technique. Greg remembered Darwin’s Thinking Path. “He had this wood at the bottom of his garden which he walked in every day, it’s where a lot of his ideas came to him.”

The Sandwalk — Darwin’s ‘Thinking path’. Image source: Alex Pang

Working memory

Matt wondered if the change of location might also help literally clear your mind, “I’m sure I saw some research somewhere that showed that a change of location is a really strong cue for your brain to reset your working memory.”

Working memory is your brain’s equivalent of the notebook you take to a meeting. It’s a rapid, temporary space for the things you need right now. After the meeting you might add a couple of tasks to your to-do list, update a document, create a new contact and then you can tear off the page and chuck it in the recycle bin. Once you’ve done your post-meeting admin, the usefulness of a notebook is in the blank page you take to the next meeting rather than the notes you scribbled in the last one.

Working memory is limited in size though, as Poppy explain. “It’s basically like the RAM on a computer. If you fill it up with too many things then things just drop off. So if you’re reading a book and you overload your attentional space with notifications coming in on your phone, it’s really hard to remember what you’re reading about.”

Holly: “Switching tasks is also very detrimental. No one can multi-task.” That came up in Greg’s book too, “He has this thing about ‘switch tasking’ as opposed to multitasking. He defines multitasking as having a set goal. So if you’re cooking dinner, you’re multitasking, but it all has one purpose. Switch tasking is when you’ve got multiple tabs and apps open and you’re flitting rather than deep diving. And that’s the most detrimental.”

[And incidentally, Matt was right about the change of location thing. It’s called the Doorway Effect and it’s the reason you find yourself standing in your kitchen wondering what the hell you came in for.]

So what have we learned?

Gareth: “The main summary I have is that I’m now far more aware of what’s distracting me and recognising that I’m not being as productive and stopping the distraction. Once you can recognise what’s distracting you then you can set about putting things in place to try and avoid that.”

Poppy: “I had been reading about distraction and attention span before, but I found since I’ve read that specific book, I’ve used some of the techniques suggested round being mindful of when your attention is starting to shift, so you can bring it back into focus. And I felt that by not going on my phone in the morning and checking notifications etc, my mind was automatically more clear.”

Matt: “My main take-away is being structured and learning to say ‘no’. That’s something that I’ve worked on a lot with the 4-day week thing. Like today, there’s an issue demanding my attention, but I also wanted to prepare for this. It’s easy to get caught up in a crisis because the emotion around it is compelling, but really you have to take a step back and see where the real priorities are. It’s not that you ignore these things, you just have to take a step back sometimes.”

Greg: “I’ve been thinking about entanglement and how we end up feeling like our devices are part of us. A camera is just a camera but a phone is all sorts of things so they can intrude into lots of areas of your life. You have to make conscious choices and use devices to extend your capability and engage you with the rather than pulling you away. It’s about seeking flow, things that absorb you.”

About us

ELSE is an Experience Design Consultancy helping businesses create products and services that change behaviour.

We work with business leaders on innovation and digital transformation projects — from large multinationals to lean start-ups.

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ELSE is an Experience Design Consultancy helping businesses create transformative product and service opportunities. We work with business leaders on innovation and digital transformation projects — from large multinationals to lean start-ups.

Matt Fernand

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ELSE is an Experience Design Consultancy helping businesses create transformative product and service opportunities. We work with business leaders on innovation and digital transformation projects — from large multinationals to lean start-ups.

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