The week of the election was one of the outstanding weeks of my life.
No, it was not outstanding because I felt calm about the election. I didn’t.
And it was not outstanding because I felt a sense of certainty that the world was becoming a better place or that our society was becoming less polarized and more enlightened. I did not.
It was also not outstanding because the people I cared about were so happy. They were not. Many of them, from multiple political perspectives, were down right freaked out.
In fact, I personally experienced the same uncertainty and anxiety that approximately 150 million other Americans experienced.
So why was it outstanding?
Because it was a major test of my ability to focus. And I passed with high marks.
Each day I reminded myself that I could only control my own life. I checked the news in the morning and then refused to look at the news until the end of the day. All day long I simply did my work. That week was a real confidence builder for me, because it proved to me that regardless of what was happening outside what Stephen Covey calls the “Circle of Control”-I am capable of working without distraction.
Yes, despite the chaos in the world, it felt amazing to feel that there was one thing I could depend on–my ability to do what I planned.
But I want you to know that I haven’t always been so successful in focusing. In fact, I’ve lost countless hours over my 52 years going down wormholes of news and outraged commentary or time-wasting videos of people falling of bicycles. I’ve also escaped anxiety and/or my higher purpose via junk food, over-planning, navel gazing, and stupid busy work that didn’t actually change anything in my life or business.
To be clear, I’m not talking about blissful hours of listening to music, doodling, reading or watching great movies which left me energized and peaceful. I’m talking about actively fleeing from what I hypothetically wanted to do, avoiding depression or stress through distraction–and sometimes ending up even more stressed, depressed or anxious.
But now, after years of working on myself, I can honestly say that on most days (not all!) I am in among that small percent of humans who repeatedly do what they say they are going to do. And over the years that “most days” has grown from “some days” or “sometimes” into a habit that I can depend on over months and years.
That makes me feel proud. Proud–but not complacent. I’ve written six books, started a multi-million dollar business, and have good relationships with my wife and children. But it’s not over! I will never “arrive” at a perfect, focused life. Each day is a new opportunity to live life right–or to waste the day. I love this quote:
“Success is never owned. It is only rented, and the rent is due every day.”
So, dear reader, please understand that I still struggle with distractions at times, especially when I feel anxious, afraid, or bored. I’m not speaking from “the mountain” — I’m speaking from “the trenches”. But I seem to be way more effective and centered in those trenches than I used to, and the view is better!
That means that if the insights and advice I’m offering in this blog post work for a real actual imperfect human–me–they might work for you to.
Struggles With Distraction Are Common
I’m not the only one who has gotten distracted. Usually when I do research for an article or a presentation I have to hunt around a bit on the internet..but there is a mind-boggling amount of research showing links between distraction and stress and anxiety.
This is especially true of the internet and even more especially true of smart phones–just type “effect of smartphones on distraction” or “effect of smartphones on mental health” into google and you will see literally hundreds of articles about peer reviewed research showing that as a people we are NOT faring well with owning our own attention.
Today I’m going to share a little bit of what I’ve learned about distraction over the years and some key insights and action steps that I and others have used to dramatically increase my own personal power over my own attention. This material comes from my own experience and from many articles and books and podcasts–however one essential book which I’ve drawn on from the most is “Indistractable: How To Control Your Attention And Choose Your Life” by Nir Eyal.
Let’s get started with some basic concepts about distraction.
Let’s Talk About Distrac–Oh, Look, Something Shiny!
We have evolved over millions of years to pay attention to novelty–to avoid pain, to pay attention to things that other people are paying attention to, to look for threats, to be triggered by food, sex, status, and stories, and to scan our environment for anything unusal.
Imagine being back on the savannah with our ancestors. If a plant or a rock looked unusual, it was worth checking out. If there was a noise in the bushes, it was worth checking out. And if someone ran over the hill with a story, it was a novel and unusual event and listening to that story would help us bond with one of the few other humans we knew, and probably get some good information on food, or danger or something else important.
NOW in our densely populated society with smartphones in our pockets, instead of one strange noise in the bushes a day, we have literally thousands of notifications, news articles, badges, banners, icons and colors. Instead of one person running over the hill with a story, we have literally hundreds of thousands of new tiktok, Instagram and YouTube posts each day vying for our attention. All these inputs, unsurprisingly, can trigger our human instincts for checking out the novel or the alarming.
Luckily, we also have an average lifespan of over 70, and are rarely attacked by cave bears.
Important Distraction Point: Our attention is being packaged and sold by giant companies full of expert engineers, who are working full time to hijack our human brains.
That’s because our attention is worth big money to them.
How much is your time worth to you? Think to yourself a dollar amount.
OK, now here’s how much it is worth to Facebook. Facebook has 2.7 billion users. The average user spends 38 minutes on Facebook–or about 240 hours per year. And in 2019 their revenue per user was $69.70. That means that for every hour you spend on Facebook, they make 29 cents.
Think about that–the way the math works out is that it is more than worth it for Facebook–or any other internet company–to interrupt our day or hijack our own plans in return for a few cents.
There’s the famous saying “if you’re not paying for the product, you are the product.” And we are a product that is in demand–the companies are in fierce competition with each other not to serve us, but to capture us so they can sell us.
And there is no shame in going up against all this tech and losing, because our human instincts against their tech is like bringing stones to a gunfight. We are outmanned and outgunned. It is a game in which the house always wins.
Energize vs Enervate
An activity that gives us a feeling of energy and vitality is energizing. An activity that drains us is enervating. This is a better lens for figuring out what is actually working for us than what the activity actually is.
Part Of Owning Your Own Attention Giving Yourself Time To NOT Pay Attention
Paying attention takes energy. Even if we are vegging out doom-scrolling, if we are paying active attention we are not taking a break. We are expending mental energy and often experiencing unhealthy stress and increasing cortisol. To be healthy we need time spent totally not paying attention. Giving our attention to a place that enervates us makes it harder to put our attention in a place that energizes us.
Nir Eyal’s Model of Distraction
As previously mentioned, Nir Eyal’s book “Indistractable: How To Control Your Attention And Choose Your Life” is a great primer for how to conceive of what is happening to you when you realize that you’ve just spent an hour looking at music lyrics when you had intended to just get the address of your dentist’s office. I found his model of how distraction works to be very helpful.
In Eyal’s model, an action can either be distraction (action that leads you away from what you want) or traction (action that is aligned with what you want.)
But–and this is key—an action is always preceded by a trigger. This trigger can be external, like a friend calling us, a bear attacking us, or a Snapchat notification, or internal, like feeling anxious, bored–or focused and motivated.
The best way to handle action and distraction isn’t when you’re in the middle of them–it’s upstream in the feelings, environments and cues that influence you.
I read about an experiment where subjects were left alone in a room with no reading material or cell phone. There was nothing but a table, a chair–and a machine which could be used to give yourself a painful electric shock. Remarkably, over half the subjects chose to give themselves painful shocks rather than sit with their own selves.
But actually noticing what is going on with ourselves is the most important way to productively deal with emotions and internal states that lead us to distraction. For example, when you start to doom scroll, try to identify your underlying feeling. Are you anxious? Afraid? Bored? Accept this trigger–and then choose to do something else with it. For me, alternative behaviors include playing guitar, doing jumping jacks, or going for a short walk.
Two important points here:
- Be nice to yourself. Do NOT get mad at yourself. You are NOT a bad person because you are doom scrolling. You are a person trying to deal with an uncomfortable feeling. Perhaps there is a better way of recognizing and processing this feeling 🙂
- The more upstream you can make this process the better–for example, instead of identifying your underlying feeling while you are doomscrolling, identify that feeling beforehand! Then you can say, for example, “oh, wow, I’m really feeling anxious. I think I’ll take a few deep breaths.”
This idea of recognizing internal triggers is so important, it really deserves it’s own blog post–or book. But not today, today we’re going to focus more on external triggers.
External triggers come in many forms, from smart phone notifications to upset relatives. Identify and “hack back” these external triggers. Don’t feel bad about it! The New York Times is not your friend. Neither is Twitter or Facebook or Snapchat. But external triggers don’t always come from a screen–they could come from kids, friends or even bosses. They might even come from me! NYC Guitar School Director Martin just asked me if I could move some of my requests for him into our weekly meeting or to email instead of constantly calling with requests or complicated problems. That’s right, Martin just “hacked back” me. That’s awesome– I’m glad he brought this up, because I can help him be more productive and focused by chunking my communication with him.
There are endless distractions available in our lives–and endless improvements to make. But now you have an overview of a different way of thinking about them. If there is one thing to take away from this article, it is this: don’t feel bad about yourself for being distracted. But do take responsibility. You really can be more focused when think less about the distracting activity and more about how you feel about it. If you don’t feel so good, ask “why did I do that?” It will either be internal or external trigger–or both. And those triggers are where to make changes!