Each of us at one stage or another have succumbed to a distraction or two.
Let’s face it. We all do it. Personally, when I’m at home, I find I would make excuses not to sit at my desk. I’ll be flicking through some catalogue, turning on the tv or playing on the Xbox. When I’m in the office, I’ll gravitate towards social bookmarking sites like Digg, Delicious and Reddit. Unfortunately, some of us tend to be weaker than others and indulge in our desires more often than we really should!
Distractions as a whole are a huge drain on every aspect of who we are. It takes our focus away from what we should be doing – our tasks, goals and purpose. This is why we have to eliminate them from our lives if possible! Personally, I find if I was to indulge in a distraction, a hour could go by and before I know it, I’d blow away an entire time box. Generally, this makes me feel drained and disappointed, not just in myself for having been weak but also about the lost opportunities and productive time I could have spent working on an article or researching a business venture.
So what can we do about it? If you haven’t done so yet, take a look at two articles I wrote about how to stay focused – 18 ways to stay focused at work and the more generic 11 ways to staying focused. These tips are great, but inevitably distractions will happen. When they do, how can we reduce our urge and tendency to indulge in them?
Here’s something very simple I do in my head whenever I feel the urge to indulge in a distraction. I don’t know who came up with it originally or even if it is unique to me, so for now, I call this technique Diminishing Distractions. This is how it works.
Essentially, a distraction is attactive because of two reasons:
- It gives us pleasure.
- It takes pain away.
When we indulge in a distraction, we focus our time and energy on something that is inherently more pleasurable than what we are currently doing. Solving that problem is hard, so I’ll just surf on Digg instead. Finishing this document is going to take some time, so let me squeeze in 30mins on the Xbox. Making that call to the customer will be challenging, so let me read the news first. Now, tell me if you’ve never felt this way before. The reason these things are attactive is because they either give us pleasure or take some pain away.
So in order for us to minimise the time we indulge in our distractions, what we need to do is either decrease the pleasure we get or the pain they take away. The trick to doing this is by quantifying our experiences. That is, measure how much enjoyment we hope to get by indulging in our distraction and then diminish that enjoyment in our minds to a level low enough that it is no longer appealing.
To do this:
1. Rate the experience on a scale of -10 to +10. What the scale means: -10 being something I really hate doing and there’s nothing in the world to make me like it and +10 being something that gives me ultimate pleasure and utter enjoyment. For example, at any given moment, playing on the Xbox may rate +6 on my scale (I have fun and it gives me pleasure but it’s not the best thing since slice bread).
2. Think of things to lower the rating by one or two points. Once you have the rating, try to think of things to make the experience less enjoyable. This doesn’t mean a massive jump from +6 to a -10. It means lowering the enjoyment in a small way. For example, I might associate the discomfort of sitting on the floor with playing on the Xbox. After 30mins in this posture, it’s going to hurt. This will lower the experience for me to a +4 on my scale (It’s still fun, but less so now than before).
3. Repeat until the experience is neutral (ie a rating of 0). Keep thinking of things to diminish the experience (either the pleasure or pain) until you don’t really care either way whether you do it or not. Once you are indifferent, you stand a better chance of resisting the distraction. Here are some of the things I think will make the Xbox experience less enjoyable – lengthy wait times when saving, small tv with bad colours, tired shoulders and a sore neck.
4. Consider what you should be doing instead. At this point, look at what you’re currently doing or plan to do. Ask yourself would you rather be doing this or indulge in your distraction? For me, I ask myself “Would I rather finish this document I am in the middle of or play on the Xbox?”. I find most of the time, because the distraction’s experience is neutral, I’d rather continue what I’m doing. If this isn’t the case, move on to the next step.
5. Make the experience unappealing and undesirable. If you still rather indulge in the distraction, then repeat Step 2 and make the experience unappealing and undesirable. The trick to this is you don’t have to come up with completely realistic things. All you need to do is convince your mind about what you want it to feel regarding the distraction. For example, what would make the Xbox unappealing for me are – melting ice cream on the controller (I hate getting my hands dirty), not wearing my glasses (what’s the point of playing when I can’t see what’s going on), ear plugs (I can’t hear a thing) etc. Keep doing this until you take the experience to a -10.
Once you hit -10, this being a level which you associate with things you absolutely hate doing and nothing can make you do it, it becomes really easy to resist the distraction. You don’t even have to put up a fight. As far as your mind is concerned, you don’t want to do it.
I call this technique Diminishing Distractions – that is we are diminishing the experience we hope to get by indulging in the distraction. Simple isn’t it? It is. But that’s the beauty of it. When faced with a particular undesirable urge, what we need is a simple technique we can use and rely on to suppress that urge. What we don’t want is a technique that has 50 checklist items for us to go through, because in most cases we either won’t bother or it’ll take too long to work! With some practise, you will find you can associate a 0 or a -10 to any distraction and make them less desirable than what we should be doing.
Here’s the other beautiful part of this technique. Not only can you apply it to the distraction, you can also apply it to the task you should be working on. All you have to do is apply the technique in the steps I’ve outlined above but in a positive way and try to make the experience a +10 instead. By doing this, you will increase the gap between the experience you will get from this task and the distraction. For example, let’s say I really wanted to focus on writing. To make writing a +10 experience, I could visualise myself writing a top notch Diggable article (hint, hint), having lots of positive comments from my readers and earning lots of money from Adsense! If this doesn’t make this a +10 experience, I don’t know what will!
I’ve written in the past that we can be happy if we choose to. I just want to take a moment to reiterate a particular point in that article because I think the repetition will help the message sink in. If you rely on external events to determine your happiness, than you relinquish control about when you will be happy. By using the technique I’ve outlined above, you take control of the way you feel about a particular experience. If you apply it to other aspects of your life, you will be able to control whether you have a -10 experience or a +10 experience irrespective of what happens. Sometimes we cannot prevent bad things from happening, but what we can control is how we react and respond to them.
That’s food for thought.
If you choose to employ this technique in your daily lives, drop me a comment or message. I would like to hear whatever feedback you may have on this. Good luck with your battle against distractions!