It is 7:00 AM. I am all set to write today’s article. The house is quiet. I have two hours to myself. I certainly can knock it out in two hours. The topic is “distractions,” and I definitely will not get distracted while writing about distractions.
The phone shudders!
I ignore it. Some notification, it can wait.
Messages that I have notifications. I ignore them all. Great! I am successful in ignoring external triggers.
I write three paragraphs. They are crap. Maybe I need to read what others have written about distractions. Since Cal Newport’s Deep Work and Nir Eyal’s Indistractable have been published, it has been a hot topic.
I own both books, so I get up to get them. Luckily I have underlined the interesting bits. I read them. But they are taking me in different directions. Maybe it will be quicker if I go online.
I hop on to google and read Cal Newport’s blog and Nir Eyal’s articles on Medium. There was an email by Oliver Burkeman last week, who also talked about distractions. Maybe I should read that one too.
I open my email. Over 50 unread emails stare at me? I should quickly scan them, in case there is something important. Or uplifting.
9:00 AM. I have gone through my emails, still haven’t found Burkeman’s email, checked and responded to earlier notifications, and my article hasn’t gone beyond the three initial paragraphs.
Nir Eyal would say I gave in to internal triggers.
The external triggers are all the things in our outside environment that can lead us off track. They are all the pings, dings, and rings that can derail a well-planned day.
They are less of a problem.
It is the internal triggers that more prevalent and hard to control.
An internal trigger is an uncomfortable emotional state you seek to escape. For example, if you slipped off track because you felt bored, lonely, stressed, or anxious, you succumbed to an internal trigger.
According to Nir Eyal, we can master internal triggers by following a four steps process:
- Identify the emotion preceding the urge.
- Write what it is.
- Explore the negative sensations that accompany it with curiosity instead of contempt.
- Be extra cautious during moments when you transition from one task to another.
And for an extra measure, play a game with yourself, challenge yourself to find variability in routine, add a dimension of fun to the task, and you will stay focused on the task.
But the problem with all these techniques is that they don’t work when you need them to.
Cal Newport refers to an article in The New York Times, sharing his frustration with the contemporary advice.
“And, like everyone else, I’ve nodded along with the prohibition sermons imploring me to limit my information diet. Stop multitasking! Turn off the devices at least once a week! And, like everyone else, these sermons have had no effect.” — David Brooks, The Art of Focus
There is a reason for that.
When we can control distractions for a period, we think we can do that all the time.
We think we can control our brains all the time. But that is not true.
Distractions are the way our brain tells us it had enough. It needs a break.
Instead of giving it a break, we keep on giving it more concentration-needing work. A few months ago, I would have been over the moon if I could write 2 articles a week. Now I am writing 7. Of course, I have got better with time, but rather than being satisfied, I am targeting to write two articles a day. That too within two hours.
No wonder my brain is rebelling.
I am expecting too much from it.
Our brains need time to process information.
When we research and find new information, our brain needs time to assimilate it. Just like computers, it needs processing time.
The processing comprises connecting new information with old one and coming up with something brand new. That can’t happen in a matter of minutes.
In fact, it happens when we are doing mundane, low energy consuming tasks such as washing dishes, cleaning the house, going for a walk, or even checking emails.
Distractions are not the cause of the problem but are a solution.
Our brains want us to do something mundane to do what it needs to — to develop a new angle for the article.
Our problem is not the distractions but expecting too much from our brains.
We get distracted because we are constantly expecting our brains to be productive.
In our quest to tick everything off our To-Do lists, we forget we are creatures of nature, just like cats, dogs, horses, and birds. None of them have To-Do lists.
Not so long ago, we too were wandering in woods, living in caves, singing, dancing, and telling stories around a fire.
We are designed to be lazy.
When we are lazy, we are most productive because creativity springs out of boredom.
I am more productive when I am rested. I don’t get distracted, then. Whereas I constantly demand too much from myself, my productivity drops, and distractions are hard to control.
How do you rest your brain?
By incorporating rest into your schedule.
We writers regularly take in large amounts of information, think it through from different angles, anticipate objections, consider opposing views, and then come up with our own unique perspectives.
While experience and research can provide us with some leverage, we still need to schedule some time in our days (and weeks) to do nothing but think.
Otherwise, either our productivity will drop, or the quality of our work will degrade.
Nir Eyal suggests Timeboxing as a technique to plan spontaneity in our schedule.
“If you schedule thinking time and you stick to your schedule, you can use that time spontaneously and creatively. If you don’t, you’re going to end up having no time to think, because you didn’t deliberately set aside time for it.
If you’re anything like I was, you’ll waste unscheduled time scrolling social media or reading the news, instead of using time thoughtfully.
But note that it’s fine to watch a video, scroll social media, daydream, or take a nap — as long as that’s what you intended to do ahead of time. If you’re not spending your time doing what you’d planned, then you’re distracted.” — Nir Eyal
Lower your productivity expectations.
“Productivity is a slippery term,” says Cal Newport, “I like to think it as the intentional allocation of your time and attention toward things that matter to you and away from diversions that don’t.”
By continuity bombarding your brain with heavy-duty work and giving it unrealistic deadlines backfires pretty quickly.
Identify the most important thing for the day and how long it will take for you to do that. Do it. Then allow your mind to roam freely. It will be much less distracted when it comes back to a heavy-duty task later.
Elizabeth Gilbert only writes for forty minutes each day. No more. Because from experience, she knows that her mind will rebel the next day.
Shrink your To-Do list.
We have finite energy and finite time.
Each day we only have 3–4 productive hours. Of course, on certain days, you might work longer hours under certain compelling conditions. But those days are limited.
Plan your schedule to only allocate what could be realistically done in 3–4 hours and make peace with that. That will have an added benefit of reduced stress and a heightened sense of achievement.
- Distractions are caused by external triggers and internal triggers.
- External triggers (rings, pings, and dings) are easier to control than internal triggers (boredom, anxiety, and stress).
- Our brain gives in to distractions more easily when it is tired and needs a rest or processing time.
- Schedule regular rest periods in your schedule, in fact, increase productivity.
- Lower your productivity expectations and shirt your To-Do lists. There is only so much you can do in a day.