How I Made Friends With Distraction
This article originally appeared on 19th November 2017 in Be Yourself publication on Medium.
My latest source of inspiration is a book called „The Art of Learning” by Josh Waitzkin. One of the most valuable insights I found there is about channelling difficult emotions and distractions so that you can take advantage of them. How is it possible?
Josh, who is a world-class chess and tai-chi champion, learned how to do this in multiple situations. The most vivid example is connected to music. At some point in his chess career he encountered a problem — whenever he would hear a particularly catchy song before a tournament, it would get stuck in his head and distract him while he played.
He tried to make himself forget the song, because it wouldn’t let him focus on the game — sometimes it would even make him lose. But no matter how hard he tried, once a melody entered his mind it seemed impossible to get rid of it.
The more you fight with something, the bigger it becomes. Josh came to understand it very well.
After many failed attempts to take disturbing songs out of his head (they became a reoccurring problem in his tournaments) Josh discovered that, in fact, he can use them to his advantage. He trained himself to think to the rhythm of the song while he played chess. A previously unwanted melody became his facilitator and a source of inspiration.
Josh learned how to embrace distraction and use it to his advantage by accepting it as a part of his experience — instead of denying it.
Two sources of distraction
In my everyday work I face a lot of distraction. By “a lot” I mean that I feel tempted to disconnect from what I am currently doing and occupy myself with something else at least… 5–10 times per hour.
Because as a freelance writer I mostly work by myself from home, I need to constantly learn how to cope with my distractions — otherwise nothing gets done. There is no one standing by my side to tell me what to do and when.
My writing career is still “work in progress”, so it is very obvious to me that I either learn how to manage distractions, or else, I get carried away into:
- Reading instead of writing
- Copying instead of creating
- Old habits instead of new (and, possibly, better) ones
I read a lot of productivity articles and I try to implement them in my working routine. I experiment with to-do lists, logging my work and rest time, different types of break activities and much more, to overcome distraction. Sometimes I succeed and sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I beat myself up internally for not being able to pursue a 100% productive work day.
However, after reading what Josh Waitzkin had to say, I started looking at distraction from a new angle. First of all, it became clear to me that it is an experience we all share. Even if you are a productivity genius, you are still going to have moments when your attention is all over the place.
So what if distraction is not only normal, but also a necessary part of our lives?
I decided to embrace a belief that distraction doesn’t have to be a “bad thing” and that we are able to use it to our advantage. Here is what I found and how I choose to see things now.
I noticed that my distractions generally come from two sources: either internal or external. Interestingly enough, depending on which source it is rooted in, a distraction can point me to a different aspect of my experience.
Distraction rooted internally usually points to something in my external world that I would like to change.
Distraction coming from the outside is often a messenger showing me something about myself that I haven’t yet internalized or even perceived — although I need to.
To illustrate this, let’s imagine a university student getting ready for her final exams, spending her days studying and revising all the material from the past semester. She is committed to prepare for the exam to the best of her ability. Yet, she is prone to those two major kinds of distraction — internal and external.
The distraction sourced internally manifests when she can’t seem to focus on the studied topic anymore. Her mind wanders and numerous thoughts unrelated to her task appear. She checks Facebook updates or goes to eat something just to break the monotony of studying. In general, this distraction calls her to do something about her external circumstances: take a rest, switch to a different task, or — in an extreme case — make a change in her academic curriculum because she is not excited about the merit of her studies anymore.
This situation is easy to imagine and understand, because we have all observed this kind of behaviour within our life experience. What might not be equally obvious is the impact the externally-sourced distractions have on us.
When the student gets distracted by a friend calling to invite her to a party, she experiences an internal conflict. Because she hasn’t yet set her personal priorities and goals, she might not know how to respond to this situation. She might feel like she should study, but she wants to go to the party. So how does she choose? This is how a distraction coming from the external world can guide her to discover something about her inner self.
A lot has been said about dealing with the internally-sourced distraction — the one we have more control over. How To Boost Your Productivity, 10 Tips To Overcome Distraction or Start Accomplishing More By Doing Less are just a few examples of advice on this topic that I found online.
But what about the interruptions coming from the external world — the ones that I don’t have any control over and that I cannot schedule? Like a sick friend who suddenly needs my help, Internet breaking down in the middle of an important task, or a social occasion that I feel like I should attend — even if it is in the way of my personal working goals.
I decided I want to investigate what is the best way of dealing with the latter kind of distractions. The ones that seem to have nothing to do with me and that come in the most unexpected moments — often when I feel like I have set myself up for the most productive day in months.
In the next part of this article, I will focus on how those external distractions can point us to the places within ourselves that need working on — be it an emotional issue, lack of crucial information, or an interesting twist to one of our relationships. My observations stem from thinking about life holistically. This means that I believe each aspect of life to be intimately connected with all the other ones — even if I cannot perceive it directly.
Grounded in this holistic view, I trust that allowing distractions to guide me from time to time can be a valuable way of facilitating my growth and accessing experiences that wouldn’t find me otherwise.
The unwanted distraction as a message
“Distraction — an interruption to attention or anything that draws attention away from the primary task.” — Psychology Dictionary
The question is: how can I define my primary task at any given moment?
Usually I assume I know it, because I assigned it myself. And, usually, that’s all— I don’t question the task once I have decided on it. But what about those cases when there is something to be taken care of, but I am just not aware?
This is a realistic scenario, isn’t it?
We are in a paradigm in which we talk a lot about setting clear goals for ourselves and the importance of knowing what we want to achieve. Prioritize your tasks, stick to your plan, don’t get distracted… This is great advice if you want to advance in any chosen area. I do my best to follow it, too, and most of the times those productivity techniques prove to be invaluable.
However, no matter how hard I try to stay well-organised (or especially when I try too hard!), there is often something I overlook. A task or a piece of information that I don’t perceive as particularly important, but which proves to be important later on.
My conscious mind might not even realise this. But this thing is usually hovering around, until I give it the attention it needs.
It doesn’t have to be directly connected to work. Life demands a whole lot of tasks, roles and activities, but after all they merge into one integral whole — which is our life experience. On one level, we can categorize the areas of our life into what we call “professional life”, “private life”, “relationships”, “spiritual life” “rest time”, “self-care routines” and so on. But we need to remember that, in fact, all of those sections have more in common than not. They constitute life as a whole.
They overlap, merge and impact one another. And while I think I should be in the “working zone”, signals from the “emotional realm” or the “relationship area” might come in, bothering me and asking to direct my attention to an overlooked, yet important issue.
This is why I believe it is a good idea to pay attention to my external “distractions”. They are very likely to be my messengers — saviours in disguise, reminding me about something that would otherwise be forgotten or neglected.
I try my best to remain open to all the messages the world is communicating at any given moment. After all, who am I to ultimately know what my “primary task” is, each day of the week and each hour of the day? Sometimes I surely know it, because I have planned my work and all I do is simply follow the plan.
But sometimes the plan falls apart. This is when I remind myself to be receptive to what the incoming “distractions” are trying to tell me.
Give some of the control away
Of course, there are some things I know I should do to be successful, sustain myself, keep my current job, and so on. There is nothing wrong with focusing on that, naming several primary tasks and avoiding distraction while preforming them.
However, there are also lots of things I simply believe I have to do, even if they are not the best way to take care of the present moment. And if I just blindly follow a preconceived plan, I may not even notice that there is something else, possibly more important, waiting for my attention that day.
This is when an incoming external distraction might appear as a helpful clue, rather than annoying interruption. It might signal that I neglected another area of my life and remind me about something that is waiting to be taken care of.
Let me give you an example.
I experienced one of those “distracted” days last week. In the morning I said to myself: look, you are finishing this article today and publishing it on Medium. No excuses.
I got to work early in the morning and edited for about two hours. It was going well and I decided to reward myself with a yoga class — and come back to work immediately after. I went for it and when I came back, I was fully determined to hit the desk straight away. And then… my phone rang.
It was my brother to whom I hadn’t spoken in a couple of weeks, because we could never find the time. Now, because I wasn’t in the working mode yet, it seemed like the moment was best since weeks. So I decided to let the conversation flow for as long as we felt like and postpone my writing until we will have finished. I enjoyed telling him about my plans and small successes, as well as listening to his.
When we hung up after about an hour, I was already extremely hungry — so I decided to eat first and then get back to work. Before I finished eating, my phone rang again. This time it was my close friend to whom I hadn’t spoken for… months. I just couldn’t not pick up the phone — I was so excited to talk to him. I asked whether he had time to talk later in the day (at this point I still had hopes for completing the work I had planned) — but he said he would be busy later. So we talked for over an hour.
Needless to say — I didn’t do any more work that day. Three more people called later in the afternoon and evening, and I think I easily spent 5+ hours on the phone in total (!). Just to make it completely clear — this is not what I usually do.
I discovered that distraction was my friend that day
Now, this experience can be interpreted in two ways.
First one, which builds on the most common approach to productivity, would simply make me believe that I screwed up. I had my goals set and a “primary task” for that day clearly defined — so I should have followed it. I should have had my phone switched off or simply tell all those people that I couldn’t talk at the moment. Then I should have got back to my tasks as soon as possible, complete my priority list for the day and only afterwards — if I felt like — call them back.
This was the line of thinking I adopted in the first place. While I talked to my brother I was, for the most part, enjoying the conversation. But in the back of my head I heard this nagging voice saying:
What are you doing, girl? You are just finding excuses not to get things done! Being lazy! Look at yourself! You should get back to work.
This attitude restrained me from fully participating in my experience — I didn’t give myself entirely in to the conversation with my brother, nor was I working. But with the second and then the third phone call, a new attitude started emerging. The attitude of letting go of control.
I realised that the day was not unfolding as I had planned, but there was no point in fighting with it. The more you fight with something, the bigger and more intrusive it becomes, remember? I understood that I was not going to publish my article that day, and that was ok — the deadline was only in my head anyway.
Instead, I decided to participate fully in all of the phone conversations, since they were already happening. It was clearly a “call day” for me and the main theme was catching up with people that I haven’t heard from in a while. I knew we probably wouldn’t speak anytime soon, so I decided to appreciate this rare opportunity to talk to each of them.
As I was letting go of control, I started noticing how those conversations, on that particular day, showed me what I needed to learn, feel or realise. In the end of the day I was convinced that even though this was something that I haven’t scheduled as a part of my “working plan”, talking to and hearing from those particular people was a step forward in my development as a writer. And, more importantly, as a human being.
Here is what I received that day from my messengers — instead of having published my article.
- While I talked to my friend M., he reminded me about certain details I needed to take care of when running my own business — things that I wouldn’t consider at the very beginning of my freelancing adventure, which I am currently at. He also gave me very practical tips on where to find best deals for a virtual office, which I realised I would need soon.
- During the conversation with my brother I got to verbalise my plans for the future and it was the first time I heard myself talking about them in such a specific way. It pleased me, as I realised that I am so much more precise and confident about what I want to achieve than I was just a few months ago.
- In the same conversation with my brother we started planning our trip to Mont Blanc next year, which is one of my most inspiring dreams at the moment. Discussing details of this endeavour and ways to organise it made it finally sound like a real plan to me.
- In a conversation with another friend M. I got to talk about my spiritual experiences of the past weeks — something that I don’t share with other people all too often. This exchange was very supportive to me on an emotional level, as I felt fully understood and able to express some of my deepest realisations.
- Finally, during the last phone call of the day with my friend D., I received a lot of direct encouragement to simply keep writing. I heard genuine appreciation and a sentence that stays with me until today and continues to strenghten my confidence: “I see that you are already successful”.
In the end of the day I knew I wouldn’t trade all of that for simply finishing my article. I can do the article any other time. In turn, the “distractions” I just described were an extraordinary opportunity to reconnect with people close to my heart, receive encouragment and a huge load of energy for further work. This experience not only supported my future writing, but also myself as person, in whatever else I will be doing.
Now, as you read it all, your question might be: How do I know whether my external interruptions are messengers, too? What if the ones happening to me are just random distractions that I can gain absolutely nothing from?
Here comes the best part: it is you who decides on that. If you choose to see them as random and meaningless, such will they be. But if you want your experience to always be a chance for you to learn, and if you open yourself up to this possibility — then you will learn infinitely.
Strangely, this is one of the few things in life that I am absolutely certain about.
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