Suppose you start the day on a great note. You know exactly what you need to do that day. You are FOCUSED. Your to-do list has only the Big Stuff on it. Three or four things that are DO or DIE. And you have the energy to make it happen!
Before you know it, you’re off on a hundred tangents. The task list is all but forgotten.
Does this ever happen to you? I experience it all the time, and based on what I’m hearing from my clients, so is practically everyone else.
At least three things are going on here: distract-ability, distraction-seeking, and displacement activity. Here’s what I mean:
Distract-ability: A state of being easily pulled away from my goal or chosen focus. Example: you want to make an appointment on your calendar, but become distracted by notifications on your phone. Relate?
Distraction-seeking: Abandoning focus in favor of a less-complex, low-reward activity. Here we are choosing to be distracted. These activities aren’t necessarily fun, joyful, or life-giving. They’re just easy–checking email, looking at social media, eating, drinking, etc. (None of those actions are “bad,” but if you’re doing them because you’re avoiding something more complex, then they are serving as a distraction.)
Displacement activity: The act of focusing my energy on a secondary activity that is almost as deserving of attention and time. Displacement activity can be fun and productive. It’s different from distraction-seeking because there are benefits. But there are costs too, in that our primary goals are not being reached. (My favorite example: A graduate student rearranging his dorm furniture because he has a paper due.)
If you are among those of us who are distracted from what’s most important, try these steps to find the zen:
One: Choose a limited time to focus on accomplishing your task(s).
Have you ever noticed that your willpower runs out through the course of the day? A friend once told me, “I start every day on a diet. By lunch, I’m done with it.”
A great explanation for this is offered by Chip and Dan Heath in their bestselling book, Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard: “Self-control is an exhaustible resource. It’s like doing bench presses at the gym. The first one is easy, when your muscles are fresh. But with each additional repetition, your muscles get more exhausted, until you can’t lift the bar again.”
This is the story of my friend’s diet. Each day we have a finite supply of choices that we have the power to make on our own behalf, so plan wisely. Choose a short period of time in which you will devote your energy to powering through your short task list. The more difficult and important the items in the list, the shorter the list should be.
One way I do this is by calendaring a 90-minute block in which I have one priority (such as editing and sending out this blog post). I have a definite deadline, which helps me focus, and it’s a short period of time, so the temptation to seek distraction is less than it would be if I had set aside two or three hours.
Two: Notice when you become distracted, and refocus
During the short time period you’ve set aside for accomplishing your tasks, pay attention to what’s going on with you. If you suddenly find yourself on Facebook, notice that it happened, close the window, and return your attention to your task. That’s all it is: Notice you’re distracted. Let it go. Come back. Don’t beat up on yourself–just let it go and refocus.
The metaphor of doing bench presses at the gym is a good one here, too. Every time you notice your distraction and refocus on what’s important, that’s a rep. Do you know what happens when you do lots of weight reps? First, you become exhausted and your muscles fail. And then they rebuild. You become stronger.
With distraction and focus, you do a rep this way: notice your distraction and choose to come back–over and over–until you’re just exhausted. The more you do it, the tougher the workout. Eventually you’ll get to a mental point where you reach exhaustion. That’s okay. Allow yourself to move on, but come back to the exercise on another day.
Recovery time is important. For weight-training, it’s 48 hours. For mental exercise, recovery time is one good night’s sleep. On the next day, set your timer for a minimum goal (“focus for 20 minutes”), notice your distractions when they happen, and keep refocusing. Keep doing reps.
Three: Take note of how the distractions happen
Are you distracted because of apps on your phone? Because of a blinking light or an audio signal? Or is it a person who distracts you? Or your expectations of what “should be”?
One thing I’ve noticed about myself is that I’m more likely to seek distraction if I don’t feel good about myself. For instance, when I read the book Getting Things Done by David Allen, I felt so guilty about all the things I wasn’t getting done that I had to keep putting the book down so I could watch a movie! Once I noticed that my feelings about myself were part of the fuel behind my distractions, I realized I could practice some self-compassion so I wouldn’t be so hard on myself, and then I could refocus more easily.
When you can identify WHAT distracts you, you can do something about it. You can choose which apps have notifications. You can choose where to put your phone when you aren’t in checking-email mode. You can choose to be gentle with yourself when you aren’t perfect.
Bottom Line: Being human means being distractible, and living in our modern society means we’re surrounded by distractions. Nobody is going to do the focusing for us, unfortunately. We each have to choose it ourselves–but we can. You can do this. Choose your time to focus, block out distractions, and get those tasks done.