The Big Three Distractions (1 of 3)
Out of the cerebral blue // Are there female orcs?
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Are there female orcs?*, I once wondered.
We get distracted from the task in hand hundreds of times each day. Social media, emails, texts, WhatsApp, news alerts, games, daydreams, noise, people, thoughts, and much, much more pierce our consciousness unbidden and we’re derailed. Distractions are a problem. They hinder progress and cause distress.
But it’s confusing to think about as there are just so many distractions and we’re all affected by them in such different ways. To draw some signal from all this noise, I think we can look at just three especially potent distractions: our internal thoughts, the inbox and our phones. For the vast majority of us, I strongly suspect that these Big Three grab our attention and scramble our minds the most, by a long way.
This newsletter is called One Thing at a Time. In keeping with that theme and because each of these three distractions deserves plenty of…focused attention, I’ll cover one each week.
*Distraction 1: thoughts that just occur, out of the cerebral blue*
Some studies suggest we have over six thousand thoughts each day. Some are promoted by our external environment. Some are prompted by the preceding thought (a thought process). And some just arrive, seemingly unprompted.
One just arrived, unprompted, for me.
I was sitting here with my laptop typing away. Then the thought occurred to me that I might need a heavyweight hoodie for the winter (I don’t). The next thought was ‘how many hoodies do I have?’ (a lot). I then wondered what a good number of hoodies for a middle-aged man might be (probably two will do). Then I noticed that I was wearing a hoodie at that very moment (which happens to be pink) and that at last brought me back to my body, my arms, my hands, my typing fingers, and the work I was supposed to be doing.
Thoughts that just occur, just occur. Sam Harris has talked a lot about this: ‘you just don’t know what you’re going to think next’. We can’t entirely block them out and we wouldn’t want to — these impromptu mental concoctions are one of life’s joys, yielding surprise, creativity and epiphanies. But there are times when we could do without them. Unbidden thoughts are more likely to manifest when (to draw on an aspect of Csikszentmihalyi’s work on flow states) the task in hand is either too easy or too hard. If it’s too easy, we get bored and our brain looks to get its kicks elsewhere. When a task is too hard, our brains rebel in a similar way, conjuring up some memory, idea or other mental diversion. The brain likes tasks to be neither too easy, nor too hard; we are Goldilocks.
What to do about them
We can help ourselves by dialling the difficulty of tasks up and down. For easy tasks, we might add a constraint (get these 20 lines of data entry done in 15 minutes) or do something else in parallel (listen to a podcast — yes, there are situations where multitasking can actually increase productivity). For difficult tasks there are also multiple means of changing the difficulty: break them down into manageable chunks, ask someone for help, get some online help, redefine it, etc.
If you’re lucky enough to have the luxury and responsibility of delegating tasks to others, consider more carefully whether it’s appropriate for the skill level of the person you’re asking to do it. It matters.
One of our biggest distractions will always be the thoughts that wander, unbidden, into our minds. We can’t completely control them. But we can reduce their frequency and potency by getting the difficulty level just right.
Next week: the inbox.
*Mrs Munby (or her son) wondered this too, 55 years ago.