How to Distract Yourself from Distractions

The other day I got a call at 9:00 a.m. about an event I’m planning for my Toastmasters club. I felt I needed to take it. Soon afterwards I noticed an email from a fellow volunteer in another organization. It concerned a problematic situation, and I was lured into a quick back and forth.

I was supposed to be working on my book.

Those of you who read my newsletter regularly will recall that the best way to ensure you can concentrate on your top task is to insulate yourself from interruptions and distractions early in the morning. Keep the rest of the world at bay until after you finish the concentrated work. Otherwise, these other issues will kill your ability to concentrate.

Sure enough, when I tried to settle down to work, I was wildly distracted by thoughts about these two situations. As I noticed my difficulty concentrating, I felt incredibly frustrated. I know better than to permit distractions–and I generally do better. But I have recently taken on two volunteer positions, and I see that I’m having some difficulty maintaining my boundaries when there are urgent issues that need attention.

I will eventually sort out my boundaries, but at the moment, I was in trouble. Irrational thoughts like “she shouldn’t call me at 9:00 a.m.” or “she shouldn’t reply to my email so quickly” ran through my head. I got a hold of myself, reminded myself I was responsible for my state, and faced the fear underlying these: that I might not be able to get into the concentrated state I needed to work on the book.

Actually, what I wrote in my journal was:

“I need to get all of that out of my head.”
“That ship has sailed. Let’s do my morning routine.”

But I couldn’t! I couldn’t even plan the day without being distracted by the Toastmasters and other business. The ship was not just sailing, it was accelerating.

In the past, I might have just had one of those days where I did all sorts of things, but not the concentrated work I had planned. Fortunately, I have gotten pretty good at confronting the situation when I need to take decisive action.

I didn’t know what to do, but I refused to accept my apparent fate. I did a little thinking on paper (literally 93 words), and here’s what I came up with:

  1. Get the distraction off my mind by writing down the issues in abstract, general terms.
  2. Get the book on my mind by looking at concrete, specific issues.

(In case the terms are not clear, “Concrete” means available to direct observation by the senses of seeing, hearing, touching. “Abstract” means grasped by multiple steps of comparing and contrasting using concepts, not just directly observable similarities and differences.)

This worked beautifully. Let me elaborate.

My temptation was to make a list of “to do’s” related to the distractions. The Toastmasters list would have looked something like this:

  • Distribute flyer to everyone
  • Get phone numbers for presidents
  • Ask Anne about printing flyer
  • Set call with Lenore to discuss food, club visits
  • Ask Anne about “budget”

That’s just the first five concrete, specific tasks for this project. As I write them, I’m thinking of more–which I will save you from reading.

This is what happens when you get concrete and specific. As you become clearer on one concrete, you trigger associated concretes–and emotions about them. If there are urgent issues, the items will come bearing a sense of urgency.

For example, the sixth item that occurred to me was that I needed to contact someone who has missed his self-imposed deadline for making a video about the event. I need to nudge him. It’s getting urgent. Indeed, as I write this, I’m feeling a little concerned, and I’m wondering if I should stop writing this article and email him…

I have written that task on a post-it so I don’t forget. Fortunately, I am well into the article writing context so that just writing it down got it off my mind.

But writing down concrete tasks didn’t work the other day when I had not yet activated a writing context. I could see that getting concrete and specific about the Toastmasters event was drawing me in–multiplying the distracting thoughts, not getting them off my mind.

So, I tried a switcheroo. Instead, I tried writing down an abstract statement:

“There are a lot of details and I know I will get to them.”

This statement is useless as a “to do” item. It’s hopelessly vague. But it had the virtue of acknowledging the distraction without increasing the number or intensity of distracting ideas. And it set a reasonable intention for the future.

I then did the reverse on the book project.

I had been thinking in general terms that I needed to work on chapter 4. This formulation is abstract and general. I needed to get concrete and specific.

So, I re-read my notes from the previous day. This reminded me of some tricky issues involving how to introduce the next major topic. I spent about 5 minutes simply identifying concrete, specific issues I needed to think about. By the end of that time, I had activated the book context, and the distractions had floated away.

I’m sure some people reading this will draw only a narrow piece of advice: if you’re distracted, take five minutes to refresh your recollection of the work you need to do. This is helpful, as far as it goes.

But there is a deeper message here regarding how to distract yourself from distractions. Distractions get their power from their concreteness. Go abstract and you deprive them of their force. And that gives you some mental space to take a small step in the direction you want to concentrate.

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