The Art of Evading Mr. Distraction
Have you ever stopped a conversation sometimes to answer the phone or check for a text? Have you ever gone onto Facebook when you meant to do something else? (Have you ever ended up reading a blog post when you meant to write to a friend? hehe Oh, the irony, if you're distracted, reading a post about distraction!) I've recently been reflecting on the times I get distracted. Why do I succumb? Why do I find it so hard to focus on a task? I hope this blog post is of help in dealing with your own distractions.
Know thine Enemy. Know thyself.
If you know the enemy and know yourself you need not fear the results of a hundred battles. - Sun Tzu
As the above quote implies, it's useful to know what you're up against and know your own strengths and weaknesses when you're about to do battle. To beat distraction in a battle, we need to understand how distraction works and how it 'gets' to us. To reflect on that, let's imagine Jack, a year 8 boy, who has just arrived into the school library after the end of a hot, tiring day of classes. He's got his English homework paper that's due tomorrow and he wants to get it done.
It'll only take 30 minutes max, he tells himself. So he quickly sits down in the quiet spot of the library and sets his things up. Just then, he notices a new issue of PC User magazine sitting on the bookshelf nearby. He tells himself to focus. But the more he tells himself, the more appealing the front cover of his favourite mag looks. He gives in, but just for five minutes, he tells himself. Ten minutes later, he closes the last page, dreamily. Mr. Distraction--1, Jack--nil. Better get back to the old homework sheet, he mutters. He gets to work and is pleased that it's actually not that hard.
About a minute later, a friend walks past and whispers "nerd". He sticks his tongue out and makes a face at his new distraction. Make that 2-0. After a few minutes, he tries to again concentrate, but he can't help wondering why everyone is crowding around his friend's iPad and laughing. What's the joke now? He gets up, just to check. He gets in on the action and soon becomes immersed in a funny Spunge Bob Squarepants episode. The next thing he knows, his phone is ringing. It's his mum. She's waiting at the school entrance, ready to pick him up. He had gotten about five minutes of his homework done. Doh! I guess I'll work on it tonight, Jack rues. 3-0. Mr. Distraction wins again.
How Mr. Distraction works
In the story, Jack sees something (the magazine) which he cares about, but initially resists the temptation to look at it. The appeal is strong. He wants to read it, even though he has a task which is a higher priority for the moment. But as he plays around with the idea of finding out all the cool games, tech,etc. inside, his focus is taken off his work and onto this fun, relaxing alternative. He's fighting a mental battle. Not that it lasted very long. Easy and fun distraction looks better than hard and boring assignment. And so he turns, and grabs the new issue. Without realising, he quickly gets carried away, and his imagined short break quickly doubles. When Jack realises he's gotten distracted in the story, he either admits failure and return to task or he revels in the distraction. Mr. Distraction ("Distraction for short--he doesn't like formalities) would prefer Jack revels in any diversion, but he's pretty pleased if Jack loses focus even for a bit. So, the cycle of distraction could be The Appeal, The Battle, The Turning, The Admission of Failure (and then, hopefully, The Return or…) The Revelling. The Return is the good choice--a decision to get back on task, despite failing to stay focused -- whereas the The Revelling is going into denial mode and getting more distracted.
The different sides to Mr. Distraction
We can be distracted in different ways. We could be working along on a hard task, and the we get distracted by another activity that's easy to do. Perhaps we don't find our project very exciting. Actually, to be frank, it's rather boring. So we play an online game or join an interesting conversation--basically, do anything more interesting than that task! Maybe we don't think that the task we're focusing on is important. So we find something else that's a diversion. Anything! Even if the diversion doesn't really matter either! Often, I think, we confuse rest with work. We want to relax, but we also want to get a job done. At least, we partly do. The problem is that we want our rest now! A common way I get distracted is confusing activities which are important with activities that are urgent. A conversation is often more important to me, but an assignment might be due at the end of the week. Maybe I could chat with them another time? Just because the conversation is more important than the task doesn't mean it is a good idea to have the conversation right now.
Having a civil conversation with Mr. Distraction
So, there's a process to getting distracted and there are different things that distract, but how can we actually fight distraction? You might need to have a civil conversation with Mr. Distraction. By that I mean you might need to respond to distraction by telling yourself things. Self-talk. There. I said it. Imagine you are writing an essay which is due soon, but you want to check how the item you're selling on Ebay is faring. "Which is more important? The essay is. The Ebay item can look after itself. I can check Ebay after I've finished my work." You can mentally remind yourself of what are your priorities. Perhaps write a list of what tasks need to be completed, in order of priority. I've found that works for me. Of course, writing lists can be a distraction, too! (I warned you, there are lots of sides to Mr. Distraction. He's sneaky--that's all I can say.) Imagine this: you're tired, but you want to write a page of notes (it's a crazy story, I know). Maybe Mr Distraction has a genuine point: you need to take a break before getting back to this energy-sapping task. Probably put a time-limit on that break, though! Speaking of tiring tasks, if you've got a few of them that you'd like to complete on the same day, why not do the more tiring ones when you have the most energy? Usually, that means starting the harder tasks earlier on, rather than leaving them until you're more tired.
Three last thoughts
1. Distraction, I believe, is fundamentally a symptom of a bigger problem that humans have. It's called sin. Humans have the habit of thinking that their way is better than God's. I want to do things my own way, for my interests and I'm no. 1. Whether I acknowledge this superiority complex or not, it does leak into many areas of life, negatively affecting my ability to make good, hard choices which are for the long-term good of myself and others.
2. I believe the God of the Bible can and often does help us with our distractedness. We can ask for help in staying focused. 1 Peter 5:7 encourages followers of him to 'Cast all your cares on him, for he cares for you.' I find this helps me enormously in not only avoiding beating myself up when I have become very distracted and wasted time, but also in keeping perspective that God is indeed in control and does aid us and work for our ultimate good.
3. I spoke to a wise, highly disciplined man recently and he commented that you can build focus over time. As you practise staying on track with a task, you become better at staying on other tasks.