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We all have these days where it’s hard to get anything done. We let all the pop-up push notifications pull us into other directions or we can find something else to do or think about at any given second, right? But maybe the distractions aren’t the problem. Maybe it is our willingness to be distracted.

What we may not realise is that most of us misunderstand what distraction really is; clearing up that misunderstanding is an important first step to any lasting solution.

Kyle Cease, the author of I Hope I Screw This Up: How Falling In Love With Your Fears Can Change the World,’ says: “Distractions are by-products of a problem. Something outside of you is pulling you away from yourself or a goal.”

Meaning, the distraction is actually on the inside, and what’s going on outside matches what’s going on inside. Now, be brutally honest with yourself. If you ask yourself why you’re so distracted, what would you answer?

 

The Two Categories

First, there are the well-known temptations: For example, when you’re facing a hard-creative challenge, the thought of a few relaxing minutes on Snapchat or going for a drink with friends can seem irresistibly appealing. Then there are interruptions: For example, co-workers who won’t stop asking questions, emails you’d rather not deal with.

When we think in terms of the two categories, temptations and interruptions, we’re defining the problem as external sources, so it makes sense to try to shut them out with noise-cancelling headphones, by snapping at troublesome co-workers or going for a coffee with friends. However, there’s a reason such methods never seem to work in the long-term. The real problem isn’t some external irritations, but rather an internal urge to be distracted.

 

In Order To Stay Mentally Busy

Friedrich Nietzsche, the 19th-century German philosopher, argued in his book Unmodern Observations that we seek out distractions in order to stay mentally busy so that we avoid facing up to the big questions such as whether we’re living genuinely meaningful lives.

Worse still, even work that feels productive can really be a form of distraction, when it keeps us from addressing what’s most important. Nietzsche wrote: “Haste is universal because everyone is in flight from himself.” He asked:

Why do we fight so hard not to focus on what matters?

According to one research in the ‘Journal of Personality and Social Psychology,’ we are desperate for a sense of independence, a feeling that we’re the ones in charge. However, as a result, we go against anything we feel we’ve been ordered to do, and sadly even if it is ourselves who gave that order.

 

An Even Deeper Reason

Facing up to life’s big questions is scary. You might believe you want to remove all distractions, so you can find your long-searched focus. But what if, once you reach that quiet mental state, you realise the company you co-founded is no longer something you want to be part of? Or that invention you’re so proud of is making users’ lives slightly worse? Or that your career path has led you far from your most important values?

As we may all know, life is short and such questions are urgent. No wonder we’d rather slip away onto social media, or anything else to numb ourselves. Who wouldn’t?

According to Cease, we invite distractions to handle three common internal struggles:

 

1. To Cover Fear

Distractions can help you avoid something that you’re afraid of, such as trying something new or achieving a big scary goal. According to Cease, many of us stay in a place of fear because it’s a way to seek connection. For example, you connect with your co-worker through complaining, and eventually, you may become scared to not complain because you’d lose the feeling of connection with that person.

Fear is a deception that comes from looking at something you’ve never done. It’s simply how your brain works – it believes anything could be death and everything you’ve already done has proven itself to be safe.

Cease suggests instead of creating distractions, embrace the fear, look at that fear as a thought passing through. “The problem isn’t having the thought, it’s being resistant to the thought and feeling that you need to fit the thought. Once you are okay with the problem, it goes away. All of a sudden, you’re not enslaved to it. Resistance to the problem keeps it there.”

 

2. You Are Insecure

When you’re insecure, the feeling of not being good enough keeps you from pursuing goals and seeking distractions could mean you’re unaware of who you are.

This sense of lacking is often formed in childhood, says Cease. “We grew up believing that who we are is what our parents think about us. We tap-danced, performed, or whatever we had to do to get love, and we end up becoming characters, thinking that love comes from avoiding something or moving something or chasing something.”

“Approval has to come from self-connection. Believing that connection is something outside of yourself causes you to be disconnected.”

 

3. A Sense Of Control

A big cause of stress comes from trying to control things that you can’t. Cease says: “You can control what you do. People pace around, using circumstances outside of themselves as excuses not to step into their own ambitions. There is a lie that things outside of you run you.”

What will happen is that a distraction due to lack of control turns into an excuse, guilt, and credit. This outward thinking only helps to avoid taking action and being vulnerable. “Right now, we live in a time where people are starting to see the bullshit in themselves and the world. People can see through manipulation and strategies and marketing. The number-one thing they’re looking for is authenticity, and that takes vulnerability,” says Cease.

What’s the opportunity here? Letting go of what you can’t control. Then, the doors to opportunity will open to you.

 

Be Brutally Honest With Yourself

The good news is that when you see distraction for what it really is, you’re much better equipped to face it. Pay attention to the inner need toward distraction, and when it arises, don’t beat yourself up, or try to squish it. Just sit with it, breathe, and let it dissolve.

Remember that you don’t need to “feel motivated” in order to do important work. Instead, let yourself feel like you’d rather be doing something else, while at the same time, do the work: Open the laptop, make the phone call, write the story, type another sentence, just like this one.

 

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  • Why are you distracted?
  • Are you facing one of the three internal struggles?
  • Are you brutally honest with yourself?

 

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