Driven to distraction? Don’t just play defense

(Note: This column ran today at The Huffington Post)

We live in a distracted world. Perhaps, for instance, you are reading this at work. Maybe you followed a link to The Huffington Post from Facebook or Twitter. Why were you on Facebook? Well, you were checking your email when you saw someone posted a reply to a thread you’d been on, and next thing you knew, you were reading the feed, and now you’re here and, hey! Is it 5:00 already?

I’ve been talking with a lot of people lately about how we spend our time, and in almost every group, someone asks “How can I keep my focus?” It’s a good question. At work, that shiny bauble called the Internet is always just a click away, and at home it’s easy to flip on the TV, start puttering through the Pottery Barn catalog, or sneak a quick iPhone check. We feel bad, because we know there are more important things we should be doing. Like, um, our jobs. Yet something comes up — I will admit that I wandered over to the L.L. Bean website while typing this — and here we are.

Since I recently wrote a book, 168 Hours, about time, people usually expect me to have an answer, so for a while I was researching various tricks for taming distractions. I learned about tools that block your Internet access. I learned about highly productive people who set timers and then rewarded themselves with Internet breaks. Others hid their email programs in difficult-to-access files, or only returned emails at certain times.

I’m sure these are all good ideas, but as I’ve been pondering the question of how we spend our time, I’ve realized that timers and web-blocking tools and the like are all defensive strategies. It’s hard to win a football game based on defense. It also wears you out to be constantly guarding your end zone.

A good offense, on the other hand, means your defense doesn’t have to be quite so tight.

What does playing offense mean when it comes to distractions? Here’s the key: when you build an interesting life, one filled with things you enjoy, all those meaningless distractions look a lot less shiny. If I’m having coffee with a real friend to talk about the non-profit she’s launching, I’m not over at Facebook reading about how various “friends” really need some more coffee (right now!).

Or consider two hypothetical days. During the first, I’ve set goals for a particularly challenging workout in the morning. I spend the rest of the A.M. hours interviewing two fascinating sources, then grab lunch with some colleagues, during which we share strategies for our most important projects. In the afternoon I polish an essay I’m really proud of, then hit the playground and the bookstore with my kids before my husband and I attempt a new dinner recipe we’ve been meaning to try.

During the second, I have nothing in particular going on, except a work project that I never wanted to take on in the first place.

Which day do you think will involve more web wandering?

The distractions of modern life can easily expand to fill the available space. We can set timers and hide our email programs in an attempt to beat back the hordes. Or we can fill our lives with so many wonderful things that there’s just not a whole lot of room left for distractions.

The latter takes more effort, but if you think about it, sounds like a lot more fun.

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4 thoughts on “Driven to distraction? Don’t just play defense

  1. I am wrestling with the same issue right now, and it seems to boil down to discipline–to plan great things for my day, and to stick with them, despite the mind wandering and the temporary losses of focus. At the end of the day it is much more satisfying to realize you had fun with your family and real people, than virtual people. A computer really should be a tool, a means to an end, rather than the goal itself. (as my husband is calling me to talk, I will leave this world, and join the real one again)

    1. @Denise – I am also finding it is helpful to plan limited numbers of things for each day. If I only have 5 things on my to-do list, they get done, and then I don’t feel guilty about doing a little web wandering. If I have 15 things, i don’t make it through, and feel bad, and then still wind up wandering around…

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