In this episode:
Did you know that distraction is motivated by the desire to avoid discomfort? Reward isn't necessarily the motivation that will help you get stuff done. But if you can figure out your distraction triggers and remove the temptation, watch out world!
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How distractible are you? Ironically, I can tune out the noise at a coffee shop to write, but I get distracted at home by the noise my husband makes when he clunks his feet on the stools in the kitchen. I can be laser focused on getting a project done, or I can fritter away time until I have to rush.
Our attention is a commodity! If you can focus long enough, you can reach your goals. That translates to income.
Author Nir Eyal would propose that it is our motive that determines how easily we are distracted. It might surprise you. It’s our desire to avoid discomfort that most typically steals our attention.
Let’s look at this in real life:
Let’s say I always wanted to go back to college and finish a degree. Let’s look at what might distract us from applying, specifically with the idea of avoiding discomfort:
- It takes time to apply.
- You might have to dig up some documents and transcripts.
- Fear is uncomfortable. (Fear of failure, fear of leaving current job, etc.)
- You know it will be hard work to complete homework.
So, to avoid the discomfort of those things you:
- Find other activities that make you “too busy” to apply.
- You turn to procrastination techniques.
- You play games online instead of filling out the application.
- You research more instead of applying.
So what moves us past the distraction to get something done? It is when the discomfort associated with not getting it done becomes greater than the reasons for not doing it.
The discomfort of running out of time makes us get it done when we have procrastinated. The shame of talking about it and not doing it might motivate us to get it done.
See this article by Nir Eyal: Distractions and Causes
The problem with distraction is that it moves us away from what we want to do. So while it is an escape, it’s an unhealthy one.
Nir Eyal is the author of Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life (affilate link). He says, “The truth is, we overuse video games, social media, and our cell phones not just for the pleasure they provide, but because they free us from psychological discomfort.”
Boredom, loneliness, insecurity, fatigue, and uncertainty are examples of some of the feelings we try to avoid. The problem is that each time we try to numb those emotions with distraction (check social media, watch TV, etc.) it provides a temporary solution. Eventually, it actually increases the problem.
I’ve noticed that I often want to blame the external source for distracting me. But really, we are only as distracted as we allow ourselves to be. Opportunities to pull our attention will come from outside of ourselves until infinity. But it’s my own attention that I have control over. It really comes down to changing our habits. (Check out James Clear’s book Atomic Habits: An Easy and Proven Way to Build Good Habits and Break Bad Ones (affiliate link) for more on habits.)
Let’s consider how life could change when we change how we respond to opportunities for distraction.
What are your distraction triggers? We all have different ones. One of mine is overwhelm. When I have a lot of items on my to-do list I struggle. Even when I have a proven track record that I can accomplish an extraordinary number of goals, there is still a moment that can pivot the outcome.
When I am overwhelmed, I want to make it go away. So I turn to social media, online shopping, answering emails, researching recipes…anything that will relieve that uncomfortable feeling of overwhelm.
This might seem like procrastination, but really it’s getting to the “why “ of procrastination. I allow myself to put off starting on the list (which compounds the problem and sucks up valuable time) and I turn to something that numbs my mind. All the while, there is a nagging feeling that the to-do list is still there.
One thing that we often try to do to turn ourselves into indistractable people is to try to come up with elaborate rewards. Have you ever discovered that even when you set up a reward system, it doesn’t always work. Instead, making new habits that make the distraction less accessible is the key.
So if social media will keep me from doing my work, I can use tools to make it inconvenient (blocked during certain hours on device) or I can remove the app from my device altogether. It might mean closing email and turning off notifications. It might mean moving my work space to an area where I don’t have access to TV and people don’t have access to me. It might mean blocking out time in the calendar.
So changing our level of distraction has two actions.
- Know your triggers.
- Reduce access to whatever distracts you.
Wow! That sounds simple. Not.
It’s going to be different for every one of us. But the one thing that makes a difference for me is acknowledging my triggers. It helps me to be able to plan and know what I’m likely to do when I am overwhelmed.
I’m also working at learning more about my emotions. Sometimes I can’t identify what they are. And one of my distractions happens to be getting a snack. Have you ever done that? You aren’t sure of your next step, so you head to the pantry to see what’s there.
I did learn in Nir Eyal’s book that trying to suppress a negative emotion isn’t the way to change it. He cited some evidence that it can backfire. There is a rebound effect that can make what he calls “mental abstinence” have the opposite effect if we try to stuff the thoughts or feelings (p. 34).
So as you think about your goals and how you get distracted from achieving them, if you don’t know your triggers that’s the place to start. If you can pause to identify what you’re feeling, then you can begin to make changes.
- Pause when you’re about to step into a distraction.
- Identify the negative emotion.
- Identify what it is that you need to get done.
- Remove the ability to carry out the distraction.
Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life.
I'll be honest, I got distracted a lot of times while trying to finish the book. Which is probably a good indication I needed it! Time management was one of the topics that spoke to me. Also the idea that we don't make time for our values, even though we say something is important to us. This could apply to all sorts of challenges, including weight loss, health, goals, and more.
This book talks about the emotions behind distraction, which is helpful. It also involves looking at what triggers us. There are practical tips for how to manage time and assign tasks in a way that help to keep us focused. It also addresses boundaries.
The author gives a link in the book for some resources on the website. There are worksheets and a discussion guide.
From the book cover:
What would be possible if you followed through on your best intentions? What could you accomplish if you could stay focused? What if you had the power to become “indistractable?”
In Indistractable, Eyal reveals the hidden psychology driving us to distraction. He describes why solving the problem is not as simple as swearing off our devices: Abstinence is impractical and often makes us want more.
Eyal lays bare the secret of finally doing what you say you will do with a four-step, research-backed model. Indistractable reveals the key to getting the best out of technology, without letting it get the best of us.
The author explains his four steps in an article about internal triggers and how to overcome distraction (they are different from mine).
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Michelle Rayburn is the author of The Repurposed and Upcycled Life: When God Turns Trash to Treasure, as well as a small group Bible study to accompany the book. Learn more about these and her other books here. A sample chapter of the book and Bible study are available for free download.
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This post contains affiliate links, meaning, at no additional cost to you, if you click through and make a purchase, I may receive a commission. I sell my ebook via Amazon but I’m also a part of their “Associates” (i.e. affiliate) program which pays a commission on books and any other Amazon products people purchase via my links.