The Truth About Distractions

by Haider on May 20, 2010 · 4 comments

in Productivity

It is very common to blame distractions for getting in the way of our goals. We play the victim role, because distractions are obviously the villains in the story of our lives.

“I was innocently working on my dear novel, when all of a sudden a big, ugly, hairy distraction came and pulled me away from it!”

“I was writing my report when I heard a chirping noise from my computer. It was getting louder and louder that I could no longer focus on my work. I went through all open windows to see where the noise was coming from and discovered that it was my Twitter client informing me of new tweets! I had to go through them so I can get back to my precious work.”

“I uninstalled all chat programs from my computer, but was shocked to discover that they have miraculously reinstalled themselves on my computer! Not to be rude or anti-social, I had to start a few conversations to see how my friends were doing, and replied to a few messages I received. I feel pressured by my social obligations that I can’t seem to get anything done.”

You may notice from these fictional stories that they have a high dosage of fiction.

The truth is, distractions don’t usually get in our way. We put them there to distract us!

I’m not talking about interruptions beyond your control, or circumstances where it is more appropriate to deal with an issue before getting back to your work.

I’m talking about distractions such as checking email, surfing the web, shuffling papers, going through Facebook pages, checking for new tweets every 3 minutes, etc. We’re not forced to do any of these things, but we choose to do them.

But why would we do such a horrible thing to ourselves and our goals? Don’t we want to see ourselves succeed?

We resort to distractions to avoid discomfort that our work (or any situation) makes us feel.

This “discomfort” comes in all shapes, sizes and colors, and spans all the seven life areas. To understand why we go crawling to distractions, it’s important to understand the many different motivations that make distractions more appealing than getting work done.

Let’s look at some examples of “discomfort” now…

Examples of “Discomfort”

Spiritual: A clash between your spiritual values and your work tasks can lead to a physical and mental standstill. Rather than sit there staring at a blank screen, or acknowledge this clash, you resort to distractions.

“Let’s see what people are saying on Twitter…”

Intellectual: Learning a new subject can test your learning abilities and lead you to question your intelligence. Rather than persist in pursuit of understanding, you look for the closest exit.

“I’ll get back to this after I watch that YouTube video everyone’s talking about…”

Psychological: We approach every task we undertake with an impression of ourselves and our abilities (mentally etched as a self-image). When we have a positive self-image, we do everything within our powers to avoid circumstances and experiences that may prove that our self-image is a self-deception. It’s best to think we can do it, rather than discover that we can’t.

“I wonder what Digg has on its front page…”

Social: There’s a reason why public speaking is one of the biggest phobias people have: other people are scary. They judge. They mock. They can do things better than we can. What will they think of me? How can I approach my colleague with this request? What if he turns me down? How will I react?

“Oh, let me check my emails before I make that phone call…”

Professional: If the quality of your work matters to you, and you feel that the last product you produced is in need of improvements, how enthusiastic would you feel about promoting it? My guess is you won’t be all that enthusiastic. You could work on your product to bring it to a level of quality you’re happy with or promote it as version 1.0 of your work with an upgrade to come in the near future. Or, you can look for distractions to take your mind off the difficult decision you have to make.

“I think my sister added photos from her latest trip to Facebook…”

Recreational: If you’ve been working for 6 hours straight, without any mental breaks or recreational rituals to replenish your mind, body and soul, don’t be surprised if you gasp for distractions to bring you a sense of pleasure and relief you’re depriving yourself from. We may wrongly think that working for many hours on end is necessary for success and the symbol of productivity, when in fact it diminishes our productivity and sense of joy.

The danger here is that we mix work and play in an extremely unproductive way by constantly oscillating between work and distractions in the name of getting work done while being too afraid to acknowledge that we need a break from work.

“What movie am I gonna watch this weekend? Let me check out a few trailers before I decide.”

Physical: To stay focused and attentive your body needs to be supplied with the right nutrients and a healthy dosage of activity. If your body isn’t getting the attention it deserves, or isn’t making progress towards a healthier lifestyle, then your brain will look for less taxing activities to deal with.

“This desk is a mess! Let me tidy it up before I write that report.”

How to Deal with Distractions

While closing your favorite Twitter client or disconnecting from the Internet can help you face your work, you are only dealing with the symptoms of the problem and not its root cause.

The root cause is that you find it suitable to evade reality – and avoid dealing with your own feelings – in the hope that the problem you’re facing will somehow go away.

If this is your life strategy to deal with discomfort and difficult decisions, then you’ll resort to mental distractions when your handy browser and trusted softwares aren’t there to distract you.

Don’t blame the tools for your decision. Instead, pick a new life strategy.

When you face a difficult task, don’t look away. Stare at it with eyes wide open. Determine what’s to be done and do it.

If a thought is troubling you, acknowledge the thought or feeling, accept its presence in your psyche, then ask yourself:

How can I resolve this feeling? What can I do to move my project forward? Which life area is in need of my attention, and what can I do to alleviate the problem that exists there?

By confronting your problems rather than escaping from them, you will no longer resort to distractions as a coping mechanism. Only by changing your attitude towards life and its challenges – and never resorting to evasion – will you be able to deal with distractions on a root level, so that they can never come between you and your work.

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Sara May 21, 2010 at 6:55 pm

I think you made some great points here. Distractions are everywhere you want them to be. Personally, I try to harness my natural tendency towards distraction to be productive. An oxymoron I know, but it’s when I’m at my busiest that I am able to keep my house cleanest. Why? Because I constantly say things to myself like, “This room is a mess! How can I possibly concentrate!?” I’ve also learned that I am the least distracted early in the morning, before my family is up, and the most easily distracted from 2 pm on. By 10:00 pm, I’ve learned I absolutely cannot be on the internet, because that is prime mindless surfing time.

So when it’s really “go time”, I make a list before I go to bed, get a good night’s sleep, and start right on it in the morning before I do anything else (except drink coffee, of course!) Recognizing my flaws and learning to work around them has helped me become far more productive.

2 Haider May 21, 2010 at 7:18 pm

Hi Sara,

Your “productive distraction” goes along the lines of “structured procrastination” (you can read more about that in the Structured Procrastination site).

Thank you for your wonderful insights. :)

3 Gina
Twitter: starlightlife
May 23, 2010 at 1:50 am

Haider did you write this for me? I bet many can relate to this issue, certainty helpful for me.
Personally I will be using a schedule as I am so easily distracted and have little time restrictions right now I put things off thinking I have plenty of time and nothing gets done (until the pressure of a deadline appears).
Mucho Mahalo!

4 Haider May 23, 2010 at 3:17 pm

Aloha Gina!

I think I should write a blog post about my mind-reading skills. ;)

Happy to hear you found it useful! Thank you for your feedback.:D

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