Photo: by David Elikwu, in Ediba

30: How to Master Distraction

Newsletter 🗞 Apr 5, 2021

The inverse of distraction isn't focus it's traction. Both should be considered tools available for maximizing productivity.


Last week we started unraveling the complex relationship between our brains and the supercomputers in our pockets. I talked about the brain’s role as a prediction machine, how we learn, the impact of social interaction on metabolic balance, and the impact of mobile phones on attention. If you missed it, read Issue 29 here.

Nir Eyal has a great book about becoming indistractable. One key paradigm shift I pulled from it was that we often turn to our phones in order to alleviate discomfort. When we're waiting in queues, shopping, or commuting, our phones are a great way to escape from boredom, rumination, or uncomfortable eye contact with strangers. Nir explains that discomfort is a good thing and something we should aim to control rather than evade.

The opposite of distraction is not focus - that's the first misconception to disabuse ourselves of. The inverse of distraction is traction. Traction is anything pulling us towards our destination. Distraction is anything pulling us away. Focused thinking might be better seen as the inverse of diffused thinking, but both are simply means of transit.

Any action can be traction or distraction - don’t fall for the mistake of prioritizing easy work over important work. Doing easy work can make us feel better, but as Khe Hy would say, that's the fallacy of dwelling on $10 tasks instead of $10,000 tasks.

An easy step to prioritize activities that engage traction rather than a distraction is to plan your day. It's hard to realize when you’re distracted if you don't know what you were distracted from. Idle time can be put to use in a number of ways, and it's easy to retrospectively label distracted time as 'necessary rest'.

Planning your time

When planning your time, To-do lists are rarely as productive as they seem. In Issue 6 I wrote about how I'd switched to planning tasks using my calendar. I now do something similar through Notion. A run-of-the-mill To-do list fails to account for priority, context and commitment. You need a system that accounts for these in order to deploy your time and resources effectively.

You’re more likely to do what you said you’d do when you plan a time and place to do it. When we keep failing to complete tasks we fulfill a self-image of someone who doesn’t follow through and we learn to accept it. In the learning curve of productivity, remember that once it’s in your calendar the goal isn’t solely to finish (unless there’s a deadline), the aim should be working on it for as long as we said we would without distraction. This time is for this task. That’s all.

While you're doing that, remember that despite your best intentions, there are myriad industries that run based on capturing and monetizing your attention. Most of the apps and websites you interact with are designed to draw you in and ensure you sink time into them. This isn't necessarily nefarious, but when you have other objectives it's important to root out any external triggers of distraction and hack back.

Here are some tools I've stolen to combat distraction:

Build your muscle of attention

Whenever you find yourself descending into distraction, make note of the preceding emotion. You need to figure out what emotions typically make you pick up your phone, and look for other solutions to satiate those urges. This is building your active muscle of attention. When you feel something pulling you away from a scheduled activity, ask yourself three questions. What for, why now, and what else? Your triggers might be boredom, hunger, or satisfaction. It could be that every time you open youtube to watch one youtube video you find yourself watching 6 more. Build the muscle of checking in on yourself and self-appraising your attention. If you're finding this difficult, an easy hack is setting a reminder using Google Assistant/Siri at obscure times of the day to ask "what am I doing? Is this the task I was supposed to be doing?

Curiosity over contempt

The next step is exploring how these triggers make you feel. It's easy to amass self-loathing at how easily you meander to the cookie jar every time it catches your eye, but this only feeds the doom loop. Explore sensation with curiosity rather than contempt. To change habits, spend time focusing on them and being mindful of how it feels to do that thing - in one study researchers were able to change smoker’s habits using mindfulness - actively thinking about how it feels to smoke rather than your passive association with it. Thinking about how it tastes, etc. Very often we've told ourselves stories about how things make us feel and never pause to evaluate the truth of it at the moment. If your trigger was feeling down, and eating/doom-scrolling Instagram doesn't make you feel as good as you tell yourself it does, maybe you can find other outlets. Patients in the smoking study were 5x more successful in quitting using this method.

Just do it (later)

Surf the urge - don't snap at yourself for wanting to be distracted. Allow yourself to feel the urge, and dwell on it. Wait for the emotion to crest then subside. If the urge feels irresistible then give in to the distraction but not right now - wait 10 minutes. Abstinence as a tool typically doesn’t work because when you finally give in, your brain recognises that the only way to relieve the discomfort of telling yourself no is by telling yourself yes. That's why cigarettes, cookies, and Netflix binges always feel better when you said you weren't going to do it. It's also why you beat yourself up afterward. You don't want to rely on discipline alone - it's a muscle that can be easily eroded by over-use.

Make time for traction

If you don't intentionally set aside time to let your brain rest and recharge, you'll fall into a metabolic deficit and your productivity will deteriorate. Maybe some geniuses work best when locking themselves in a room for hours on end, but eventually, the marginal utility of each additional hour you force yourself to spend in faux focus will diminish. If you find yourself consistently tired, maybe you should just schedule a time to nap (speaking to myself here). By allowing these tasks to happen on your own terms, you are mastering them rather than letting them define you.

Don't let distraction define you

An interesting study I came across discussed how people who define themselves as having insomnia typically have their insomnia caused by excessive rumination - during the day you are continually affirming your identity as someone who won't be able to sleep, and then at night you're continually thinking about the fact you can’t fall asleep or thinking about lack of sleep and how it will affect you. I'm not promising any of the above as a cure for insomnia, but they’re great tools that will help you be intentional about how you deploy mental resources more effectively.


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If you have any nuggets to share about productivity and mastering distraction, I’d love to hear from you! Reply via email, leave a comment or send me a tweet!

Read on for this week’s recommendations >>

A young girl sitting on a chair staring blankly into space in Ediba: A photo by David Elikwu
Photo: by David Elikwu, in Ediba

Reading list

Books I’ve read/seen/will impulsively buy and add to my “to read” shelf on Goodreads. Recommendations from newsletter readers are always welcome:

  1. This is How you Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone - impulsively bought. Sometimes I come across award-winning books that are all prose and no substance (in my limited opinion), but my one-word review for this Hugo and Nebula award-winning book was: “wow”.
  2. The One Thing by Gary Keller - seen. I came across the author on a podcast not long ago and bought the book after a daisy-chain of recommendations. Well worth it.
  3. One Good Deed by David Baldacci - read. I had an itch for a good detective novel that hadn’t been scratched in a while, and One Good Deed hit the spot. Ironically the last one I really enjoyed was by the same author.

Things I’m loving

Films and shows:

  • Molly’s Game - The true story of Molly Bloom, an Olympic-class skier who ran the world's most exclusive high-stakes poker game and became an FBI target. I’m not sure why this film didn’t get more attention in 2017 but I loved it!
  • Bad Trip - A hilarious hidden-camera movie with a fun storyline held together by amazing actors. I was laughing from start to finish, especially when you realize the “supporting cast” is unsuspecting bystanders.

Resources:

The Ultimate Guide to Optimising your Phone for Productivity - A great, detailed resource shared by Idin, a reader. I was already making use of many of the tips listed, but there’s probably a few useful nuggets for most people.

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