Dealing with Distraction is Complicated
Distraction is a hot productivity topic right now. You and I both battle it, and it feels like we’re dealing with it at a much higher rate than before due to the pervasive nature of technology in our lives.
Cal Newport, author of Deep Work, talks about eliminating distractions from life in extensive detail. Chris Bailey discusses this as well especially in the first half of his newest work, Hyperfocus.
Newport advocates for practically removing distractions as much as you can and only doing valuable work, while Bailey takes a more practical approach to embrace certain types of distractions and fight others.
While many authors have great insights on dealing with distraction, there’s one item I often see missing from the narrative of distraction: dealing with ourselves.
Every discussion on distraction tends to focus on the external forces of distraction, but rarely touch on the internal issues that lead you to biting on the tasty bait (and hook) of distraction in the first place.
Tools will only help you so much to avoid distractions without first dealing with the internal issues causing us to want to be distracted.
When I’m dealing with self-inflicted distraction, I’ve found three questions helpful to tame the internal issues ultimately at the root of the problem.
Are Your Needs Met?
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is a psychological theory of what motivates people. Visualized, the hierarchy forms a pyramid. At the very base of the pyramid are physiological needs (food, water, sleep, etc.). Going up the hierarchy are less physical and more emotional/intellectual/relational/calling based needs.
It’s easy to want to be distracted when some of your base needs aren’t met. Lack of sleep, being hungry, or needing water can cause you to be unproductive and unfocused, as well as more complex needs like not having enough social time or clarity in where you are going in life.
When I’m not aware of what I need (or choosing to ignore it), I find myself wanting to numb the pain of that unmet need. Because technology is easy to access, I often find myself in loops of looking at social media and community sites for new things to look at. So instead of taking a brief nap, I’m looking at my phone to try to feel better.
It’s kind of backwards, right?
In asking the question, “Are my needs met?”, I’m taking intentional time to be aware of what I need, then making time to meet it. I’ve even written a Siri Shortcut to help me check in with myself to act on it.
Most times once I act on the need, using my willpower to focus on what’s important to me is much easier.
Are You Clear?
Christmas week 2018 was a rough one on me. I had tons of things to work on, lots on my mind that didn’t end up in OmniFocus, a big snowstorm impacting our travel, and plenty of time with family.
Multiple times throughout the week I recall feeling stressed and overwhelmed thinking about it all. And multiple times I found myself in those darn loops of distraction again.
The clarity finally started to come again once I sat down at my laptop to start writing this post and work through reviewing OmniFocus.
Doing a down-home GTD mindsweep is the absolute fastest way to alleviate this kind of stress and get clear. I sit down with a notebook with some headphones on, and start writing everything down that come to mind. It can be feelings, stresses, tasks, ideas, or literally anything else I’m thinking about.
When my mind is spinning with things to do or ideas to develop, that’s when I need to be honest with myself, schedule some time to mindsweep, and get to a place of clarity. Once I do this, I find it’s much easier to focus because my brain isn’t trying to remember all the things I should, need to, or want to do.
Are You Hiding?
When I think of hiding in the context of productivity, I think procrastination. What’s another word for procrastination?
Let’s just call that one out on the carpet today. I know I procrastinate almost always because I’m afraid. Afraid of the complexity, time investment, chance of failure, or my own perceived lack of ability to complete a task.
When I get scared, I often want to hide, and hiding comes under the guise of distraction.
When I hit those loops, it’s important for me to recognize if I’m feeling afraid. Recognizing and verbalizing that I feel fear (or any other negative emotion) is the best way I’ve found to limit its power to influence the decisions I make.
Give Yourself Space
It’s easy to fill our days so full with busyness that we forget to process and recognize what’s going on inside to cause us to get distracted, unfocused, and unproductive.
Usually, when I’m clear in all three of these areas, I don’t blindly choose to get in those distraction loops. It doesn’t take much time to engage with your internal world, and I find I deal with the root of most self-inflicted distraction by handling issues which rise up in these areas.
Schedule time to ask yourself some of these questions. Even if you only have 10 minutes, taking an internal inventory can help quell some of those impulses and stop allowing distractions before they come.