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 a phone call, but become distracted by notifications on your phone. Relate?
Distraction-seeking: A behavior in which focus is willingly abandoned in favor of engaging in a less-desirable, low-return activity. Here we are choosing to be distracted. These activities aren’t actually fun, joyful, or life-giving. They’re just mindless–checking email, looking at social media, eating, drinking, etc. (Note: None of those things are bad by themselves, but doing them mindlessly makes them 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.
If you are among those of us who are distracted from our goals, 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.
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.
You can use the same approach for developing focus that is used for strengthening muscles with weights and resistance.
With weight training, you do reps until you hit the point of exhaustion or failure, and then you give yourself some recovery time (about 48 hours) and try again–with more weight or more reps.
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. Stop trying to accomplish your task, but make note of the time. How long did it take you to reach the point of exhaustion? Twenty minutes? Great–that’ll be your minimum goal for next time.
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 that minimum goal (“focus for 20 minutes”), notice your distractions when they happen, and keep coming back to focus. Keep doing reps.
Three: Make 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.
Being human means being distract-able, 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. And so can I.
Okay, everyone. Deep breath. Choose your time to focus, block out distractions, and get those tasks done! I’ll be working at it, too.
Image credit: Diego Martínez Castañeda on Flickr