Over the past six months, I’ve found myself dealing with a problem I’ve never really had to deal with before: the problem of distraction.
I was distracted by fighting.
I was distracted by talking.
I was distracted by ideas.
I was distracted by anything and anyone who could get a sliver of my time or peace of mind.
And what happened was my productivity fell lower and lower. I began to feel more and more frustrated. I started to think my time was not my own.
“Why am I spending every waking second resolving other people’s problems, dealing with friendship and relationship strife, and being asked to give, give, give without ever getting in return?” I wondered to myself desperately.
The answer, of course, as the answer always is with these sorts of things, was that I let it happen to myself. And the solution, you might surmise, was, simply put, to stop letting distraction happen.
Meditation and the Essenes
I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about distraction lately. I’ve been thinking about things like:
- What causes distraction?
- How does distraction take over normally productive people’s lives?
- How do you reign in distraction?
- How do you fight distraction without people around you, who are often the ones doing the distracting?
One of the things I keep coming back to is meditation, mind-clearing, and the Essenes.
A common practice in meditation is that of clearing your mind. There’s a very simple, yet very effective method in meditation you can use for this purpose that is, in effect, a breathing exercise. It works like this:
- First, sit somewhere quiet, and shut your eyes
- Then, inhale slowly, capturing a thought running through your mind as you do
- Next, exhale slowly, releasing the thought as you do so
- Repeat as many times as necessary to clear your mind
The first time you do this, you’re amazed at not just the intensity of the thoughts running through your mind, but how many of them there are. For me, I typically find somewhere between 6 and 12 thoughts running through my head when I do this, plus a song playing in the background.
Today I was walking down a city street, doing my best to keep my mind clear. As I walked, I encountered various sights, sounds, and smells. I’d have to pause as I crossed the street to let a car go by. A pretty girl would catch my attention and my eyes would wander. A scent would drift into my nose as I passed some coffee shop or bakery and I’d wonder what the food it came from tasted like.
Every time this happened, I could feel a shift mentally from the meditative focus I had. This made me think about the Essenes.
The Essenes were a religious offshoot of the Jewish. They lived celibate lives, avoided violence, followed leaders to whom they owed strict obedience, and lived largely monastic lives. In other words… they did everything they could to free themselves of distraction. Any distraction that could possibly pull them away from “the path.”
I realized as I walked today, yanked this way and that way by the distractions I encountered on the city street, that their beliefs had some degree of merit. It’d be impractical to implement them as extensively and absolutely as the Essenes did, but there’s something we can learn from them.
A World Filled with Distraction
We live in a world today that’s absolutely filled to the brim with distraction.
The news is on 24/7, updating you on the latest current events. Of course, each day this includes:
- A terrorist attack somewhere in the world
- A political intrigue by some well-known politician
- A new trade agreement signed or an old one threatened
- A celebrity scandal, marriage, death, or divorce
- A food or product recall of some sort
- A sports team that’s just won a tournament
The actors and location changes slightly, but not much. The dates are the main thing that changes; yesterday’s news happened yesterday; today’s, today.
Facebook calls the masses to post on its wall about their daily lives, and its adherents can no more pull themselves away from it than the news readers can the news. Your old high school classmate Lindsay has a new dog; your boss from two jobs ago just went on vacation to Miami. Browsing through his pictures doesn’t add very much to your life, but you feel compelled to do it nevertheless.
As you walk down the street, things call to you – the same things that called to me today: sights, sounds, scents, sensations. People jostle you to get by you or walk toward you, forcing you to slow as you get out of their way or they get out of yours. Someone’s looking at you; someone else is conspicuously not looking at you. A street vendor struggles to get your attention; a homeless person jabs her hands in front of you, begging for alms. Traffic lights tell you to stop or go; cars pull out in front of you.
All of this breaks your thought patterns, demands your attention, and focuses you on the here and now – instead of whatever else you might have been thinking of.
But stop for just a second and ask yourself – how important are these things, really?
Might they be little more than distractions, continually pulling you away from fulfilling whatever your purpose really is?
Stress Doesn’t Come from Work
Think of your most productive day in recent memory. Maybe you cleared all your email; maybe you finished those tasks you’ve been putting off for months; maybe you got caught up with a project you’ve been meaning to work on but haven’t gotten around to. Whatever the case, at the end of that day, how’d you feel?
I’ll give you two choices:
- Stressed out and anxious, or
- Relieved and empowered
Not a tough choice there, I’d imagine.
That’s right – at the end of that highly productive day, you felt relieved to be finished, and empowered at how much you accomplished, didn’t you? You probably felt less stress and anxiety that day than you had in a long time.
Now think of the most anxiety-laden, stressed-out day you carry in recent memory. How much did you get done that day?
I’m guessing your answer is: not a whole lot.
That’s because stress and anxiety don’t come from work or being productive.
They come from not being productive. They come from having a lot on your plate… and letting it just sit there.
But if you have a lot on your plate, why are you letting it sit there?
Distraction in the Way
Imagine what you could do if every day you had 3 or 4 hours of a high degree of productivity on a variety of important things to you. Your life would change completely.
Except, in this world we live in today, it can be downright impossible at times to get our productivity up.
The prime reason why?
- Pull your attention away from big things that don’t have a strict deadline but often are in the long term the most important things you’re working on
- Force you to turn your attention to immediate things that often have little to no significance to your life in the grand scheme of things
- Eat up your mental cycles and willpower and focus you on high stress, low reward “fires” instead of low stress, high reward activities like building your business or learning a new skill
Distractions make you start running in place and feeling like time is flying when it’s not. They get you feeling overwhelmed and feeling like you have too many things to do, too many demands on your time, and too many strains on your (limited) resources.
What do I mean by distractions? Here’s a sample:
- People who want your time for things that don’t add anything to your life, including:
- People who want to talk to you on the phone but aren’t making your life better in any noticeable way
- People who want you to meet up with them or hang out but are taking up time and energy and not replacing it with anything of value
- People who want you to help them on business projects at work or independently that don’t help you learn any skills you need, expand a network you want, or move you toward your own business or career goals
- Business projects that don’t advance you toward your goals, including:
- Projects that take too much time for too little reward
- Projects that move too slow for what you want to do
- Projects that won’t challenge you or develop you in any way
- Distractions like news, social media, TV shows, or video games that, while they’re great for unwinding, in excess can seriously derail you from being productive
All these things are major time-eaters and willpower-eaters that will suck up your day and your energy and leave you feeling stressed out because the things you need to do still aren’t done.
And what’s worst of all is that the more distracted you get, the more daunting the tasks you have piled up to do seem to be, and the more you want to bury yourself in distraction to forget them.
Life becomes one big carousel ride of ongoing distraction and lost productivity.
Reclaiming Your Life
As I began waking up to the problem distraction had become in my life, I realized I had to make changes. Some of these changes were drastic changes; some of them not so drastic. I’ll detail them here so you know what I’m talking about:
- I was running three businesses, one of which took little time to run and made good money, another of which took little time to run and was cash neutral, and the third of which took ALL of my time and willpower to run and required large, continuous investments of capital with no clear path to sales. I shut the third business down, despite the amount of time invested in creating it and money invested in building it, and focused my efforts instead on businesses that were working and required less time, less money, and less stress to run and expand.
- I had a friend and business partner who had brought a lot to my life over a period of time, but also was very caught up in his own plans and ideas and dragging everyone else along with him. The more I worked with him, the less in control of my own time and money I became, and the more I lost to him, and the worse my situation became. Eventually I cut ties with this friend, and did everything in my power to exit graciously, in fact even giving him what was left over of the company I’d put far more time and money into than anyone else, that was built on my own ideas and market research, and that I’d even paid him for his shares of. In the short term I lost, but I was then free of a person who served as a major and continuing distraction, and was able to really focus on working and building businesses again.
- I had a number of people asking for my time for free: email correspondents, friends and acquaintances I hardly spoke with, people who wanted to pick my brain for ideas or advice about this or that, people who saw me as an authority figure but preferred to ask me to answer questions of their for free rather than purchase the products I had available answering their questions already. Before I’d grudgingly agree to this, but I began to say “no, sorry” to these people and let them know I was too busy. In truth, if I was perfectly productive, I could easily fit these people into my schedule; it wasn’t the time I was losing to these people so much as it was the distraction they were costing me and the lost focus I was getting.
- I had a number of phone consultations set up with paying clients that I was having increasing trouble fitting into my schedule. I started missing phone calls, and taking weeks to get people scheduled. I started apologizing to people and giving them refunds, but the consultations kept getting scheduled. I raised my prices by a LOT, but calls kept getting scheduled. Finally, I found someone I could outsource these calls to that the folks seem happy with. That’s taking a lot off my plate that wasn’t time consuming but I just didn’t like doing (I’ve never liked the phone much; I prefer face-to-face).
If you notice the trend there, it’s cutting. In some cases, the cutting is to cut losses, but in other cases it’s simply cutting things out of my life that were bogging me down and distracting me from real work.
There’s one hard part about this though: it’s shutting out the din of the people and things that don’t want to be cut.
Think Facebook wants you to close your account? Nuh-uh. And they’ve made it as difficult to do – and as addictive a site and hard to leave – as possible to keep it that way.
Think your friend who you’ve been spending all your time or money on and who isn’t repaying that wants you to give them the boot? Guess again. Many of them are going to whine, complain, cajole, and threaten until you shut the door – or give up and open it back up again. Don’t give up. Real friends will understand you need more time to get the things done you need to get done – it’s only your fake friends who will try to persuade you not to do what you want and need to do.
This is a great way to find out who’s really on your side, in fact – does this person listen and respect you when you tell them you can’t spend as much time with them, or do they scratch and claw to maintain the status quo, or pay lip service but not change their behavior or demands?
One of the craziest things you’ll find is with people who want your time for free. Your real customers – the ones paying you money for your services – always tend to be respectful of your time and energy. The ones who aren’t paying but want your time for free, however, tend to be rude, demanding, and entitled – it’s bizarre. You’ll get these people who want and expect you to just do stuff for them… and if you say sorry, your plate’s too full, many of them get nasty. Even though they’re doing absolutely squat for you, they expect you to clear your schedule for them!
The best way of dealing with people like this – non-customers, or legitimate mooches – is to completely ignore them. Don’t engage them, don’t respond to them, don’t give them any rope to pull on at all.
The analogy I use for people like this is, if a cow came up and butted you with its head, would you take the time to fight the cow? Probably not, right – you’d just walk away instead.
What You Can Learn from Distraction
There are a few things still that you can learn from distractions. Here’re a handful of lessons:
- The more you have to offer, the better you need to be at beating back distraction. That’s because people will come knocking down your door to get at whatever it is you have to your name – be that time, money, knowhow, advice, or inspiration, if you have it and people know you have it, they’ll start coming out of the woodwork to get it. Therefore, you’re going to need to be vigilant about not giving it to them.
- Defense doesn’t work in the long run. Play offense. Back in high school I had a history teacher point out that over the course of history, offense always finds a way to beat defense. Offense always wins. Case in point: the walls of Constantinople. Those walls held invaders at bay for a millennium, but then came the Turks. Nowadays we call Constantinople Istanbul and the peoples who used to live there have been totally replaced. Application here? Don’t just hope people will go away – be proactive in telling them to skedaddle. Learn to tell them, “Sorry, my plate’s full,” and walk away. Sticking around and trying to wait people out only gives them time to figure out how best to crack through your walls.
- Don’t multitask. Recent studies have shown that multitasking leads to decreased levels of productivity (though, workers tend to feel more productive, oddly enough). The primary reason for this is the cognitive load of mental task switching – basically, the act of “getting in gear” for a specific task takes time and effort, and when you’re continually switching most of your energy goes to the switching instead of the tasks themselves. They found that it takes, on average, 40 minutes of being in a task before people reach their most productive. If you’re switching tasks every few minutes, you’ll never even get there.
- Watch your emotions. If you start feeling anything other than “focused” – if, say, you feel anxious, or excited, or angry, or frustrated – you’re getting distracted and being pulled off track. Figure out why you’re feeling that way, and then use this simple exercise: sit down and write out the steps you need to take next for the remainder of the day. Keep referring to that list until you’re back on track. Works nearly every time.
Distraction holds most of its power in not being recognized as distraction. The moment you see it for what it is though, you can make it shrink and go away. Taking away that biggest strength of meditation and the Essenes – the ability to free yourself from distraction – and applying it to your life can lead to substantial, and very rewarding, results.
And once you’ve made up your mind to clear away distraction and get focused on what’s truly important, you need to check out Yamjac. It’s not running just yet, but it’s only a few months away – you can head here and get on the waiting list to be among the first people to get invited in. It’s going to change the way the world does business, shares ideas, forms teams, and interacts – this is one boat you’re not going to want to miss. Check it out here if you haven’t already: