Dis-Traction

by Tom Swift

I keep coming back to a draft of a post on the topic of distraction but I guess I am, um, struggling to focus on it long enough to form a coherent utterance. Let me try again. Sometimes bullets help:

  • I have been thinking a lot about distraction because I want to know I am making good use of my time. Not perfect use of my time. But good — very good — use of my time.
  • Few are the days when I feel I have wasted no amount of time. This despite the fact that few are the days when I get everything done I would like to.
  • Time: we only get so much of it.
  • We are human: the goal is not to be a robot. Very good use of time is when I feel productive while still experiencing pleasure; there is stress but a manageable level. My soul is happy because enough of the time I am doing what I am meant to do and need to do.
  • I took some time off work this past week. This means I have of late had greater control over my time than is usually the case. During this time I have had writing goals, a not-small domestic to-do list, and I have wanted to have some fun/relaxation. I am maybe thinking more about distraction because I have during this week been very productive. The to-list is in great shape and I have written a lot. I did not have maybe as much fun/relaxation as I hoped. (A couple of times I made the conscious choice to engage in writing or housework over fun.)
  • “A distraction is something we do that moves us away from what we really want.” That is how Nir Eyal, who wrote a book on the topic of distraction, defined the word during a recent appearance on the Mind Pump podcast. The opposite of distraction, Eyal says, and here I am borrowing language from his blog, is traction: “Traction is something we do that moves us towards what we really want.” These definitions tell me: You can’t know how distracted you are — can’t know if you are distracted in a given minute — if you don’t know when you are not. If you don’t, in other words, know what you want. I find the frame useful because, as strange as this may be to say, it is sometimes hard to know when I am engaged in activity that is, in fact, a distraction. As a writer, you are, in a way, always doing research.
  • They say Einstein used to stare out the window for hours. Was he distracted or was in he in traction?
  • My morning coffee conversation group this week took up a related topic: laziness. We read a provocative article by a social psychologist and psychology professor who argues that laziness does not exist. When we procrastinate on an essay, say, it really is a sign that we lack competence. What we think of as laziness is really suboptimal functioning. No one would long neglect a task that is important to her or him if she or he knew how to properly and efficiently execute that task. Laziness, it follows, is an invitation to learning.
  • The argument appeals to me. It also heightens awareness over my approach and/or avoidance of certain tasks. Yet I remain unconvinced that laziness does not exist. I wonder if it is more a matter of acceptance. In some moments, in some areas of life, I am more lazy than in others. When my functioning increases in the lazy areas I am less likely to put off the associated tasks. Yet we cannot do all things, perform all tasks, any more than we can be smart at all things. What if we took judgement out of the word? I am lazy at lawn care. See, that wasn’t so hard.
  • Our culture seems to encourage the notion that we are lazy if we do not work or vigorously play round the clock. It is heartening to encounter others, as I did in my group, who admit they feel lazy. Or do lazy things. Or have been told they are lazy. I think this is a common self-view. On the lazy scale, we are all below average.
  • Our culture also seems to be a landmine of distraction. It is so easy to slip into laziness.
  • Since it is inevitable that, even if we are clear on what we want, we are going to get distracted (and probably should), and so it seems important to choose the quality of one’s distractions. I can’t write all day. I can’t write really even more than a couple hours without a break. I could distract myself on apps or television or books or my dog or sorting the mail or dog videos on Twitter or watching Trump news on YouTube. Some of these forms of distraction are more constructive than others. Some of these forms of distraction actually help me get what I want. Others, let’s be clear, do not.
  • Eyal says technology is not to blame. We can always turn it off. Technology is just a common current culprit but, he says, we have always, for generations before the first flip phone, actively engaged in distractions. True, we can set controls for our phones, tablets, and televisions. But, I would argue, that is different than saying all distractions are the same. Technology has a unique capacity to arouse us — to keep us distracted. Distract yourself with a printed book and see how (a) hard it is to pry yourself away and (b) how you feel after you do. Technology sucks us in and scatters our minds. It doesn’t mean we should destroy our smartphones. Technology certainly can be used to foster what we want — connection, knowledge, and so forth — yet our devices are uniquely built to absorb more of our time than we mean to give them.
  • Rather than grand conclusions, thinking about distraction, I have found, has me thinking more usefully in the moment-to-moment about my decisions. As with most things, good questions are better than settled answers. I feel more attuned with what I want. This thinking has also helped me identify that I want to be able to focus longer on those things that I want, the things that most matter to me. It takes effort to make very good use of one’s time.