Distractions seem to be one of the defining topics of this decade; with the culprits being the hub of information: the internet and the hub of connection: social media. All so recent inventions that within the largescale timeline of human development they will not consume more than a pinhead of needle on the time scale, if that. And it appears that distractions were also an invention of the last decade. But far from it. I recall that my primary school teacher was reminding us to stay focused, when we were distracted (dreaming, looking outside the window, writing little paper notes etc.). And for example, and maybe even more interesting to know, the Greek Philosopher Plato (approx. 427 – 348 BC) already complained that his students were too distracted. I can’t help myself to smile and ask: with what were they distracted?
The good old distraction cops a lot of blame specifically in absence of progress. But is it really all bad? Should we not have enough will power to stay focused on one topic at a time until the work is completed? If you look at our human evolution our brain needed to be good at redirecting its focus at the drop of a hat to either scan for predators and be ready to run away or scan for something edible and run toward it. Getting lost in some deep contemplation and losing the awareness for the environment wasn’t very helpful for survival. Our brain is wired to be distracted. Using modern terminology, the ability to be distracted easily is a feature of the brain.
So, how can we then put this feature on idle and learn to stay focused without being distracted? In this case what we refer to is our friend ‘willpower’ - which seems to be a mythical construct, that can never be found when needed – and willpower is not doing its job. Many people believe they could improve their lives if only they had more of that elusive quality known as willpower. With more self-control, we would all eat right, exercise regularly, spend more time with our kids, stop procrastinating and achieve all sorts of noble goals.
To kick off the process of avoiding distractions you can start by measuring your susceptibility of distractions. And you can do that by looking at the following criteria:
How good is your time management?
Do you have habits and routines that keep you on track?
How good do you rate yourself by overcoming the urge of being distracted?
Ask yourself what could you do when not being distracted as frequently and long in duration?
Could you spend more time with your kids? Could you write a book? Just one page a day over one year will get to complete a book. That looks quite achievable. Could you learn something new? Something that really excites you and has been put on the back burner?
Roy Baumeister, PhD, a psychologist at Florida State University refers to willpower as a muscle that can get trained and can get fatigued from overuse. His research shows that resisting repeated temptations takes a mental toll. A good method to avoid distractions and not fatigue the muscle of willpower is to not even get close to distractions. Let me explain, if you wish to lose weight and for that purpose avoid certain foods, just the thought of wanting to eat a piece of chocolate means you have already lost the game. Best not to even thinking about it. But how can you manage this? If willpower is truly a limited resource, as the research suggests, what can be done to conserve or even strengthen it? To be able to tone the muscle of willpower and stay on track with your goals you need a strategy; and it can look like this:
1) Establish the motivation for change and setting a clear goal. Make a list of what it is costing you to be distracted from your goal? What is the impact on your life experience?
2) Monitor your behaviour toward that goal and learn about your internal triggers that keep you off track. Make a list of these triggers, so you know what to avoid.