Clearing Away Distraction

Every single person reading this article has a bunch of different influences and demands pulling on their lives. Financial plans. Family responsibilities. Friendships. Romantic relationships. Careers. Community responsibilities. Personal interests. Health concerns. Ethical dilemmas. The list goes on and on and on and on.

Our days are littered with little distractions. We hear an interesting story on the radio that sticks in our mind. A toddler spills a cup of milk all over the floor. One of our parents is in poor health.

Our minds are pulled in seven directions at once. Our busy lives lead to constant distraction, and we often find ourselves making mistakes. We fail at the goals we set for ourselves and we don’t live up to the standards we set for ourselves.

I find myself doing this kind of thing all the time. I’ll be distracted by a crying child and a short-term frustration and a phone call and a radio story from which I’m trying to remember the name of a politician and I’ll wind up buying something or forgetting something just because I’m overloaded. I’m not alone in this. Virtually every parent I know winds up in situations like this regularly, and even my single friends sometimes wind up mentally frazzled.

We’re perpetually distracted, and distracted people often don’t make the optimal choice.

If you’re distracted, you can value financial independence as highly as possible and still make ludicrous spending mistakes. You can value your career incredibly highly and still make a mess in the workplace.

Our varied lives might make us more efficient in the short term, but mistakes eventually creep in that cost us over the long term. We might be able to juggle parenting and career-building and friendships and romance and personal interests and countless other things for a while, but eventually we drop a ball and hope (at best) to catch that dropped ball on the bounce and hope it isn’t too damaged.

I’ve found, over and over again, that the best way to solve distraction isn’t to simply get better at multitasking. The best way to solve distraction is to block off time and refocus on what really matters.

This isn’t just some “feel better about yourself” talk, either. It’s really easy to drop a line like “refocus on what really matters” and not have it really mean anything at all other than to just take a few days off to relax.

Relaxation doesn’t cut it. You need to stop and intensely focus on your goals once in a while, or else your goals will sink into the medley of distractions that make up your day to day life.

A few times a year, I plan a “personal retreat” for myself. I actually take a work day and devote it to this.

I usually go somewhere where there are no distractions at all. I filter out all cell phone calls except for one number (which would alert me to a child-related emergency) and send the rest to voice mail. I go to an environment with no electronic or personal interference – usually a walk into the woods suffices. I usually pack a sack lunch for the day.

On that trip, I focus on nothing but asking myself what I genuinely want out of life. What is it that I actually want?

There’s no right or wrong answer to that question. For me, what I want is to raise my children in a way that gives them the best chance to develop into functionally independent and successful adults. What I want is for the material that I write or create to mean something and have some sort of positive impact on the lives of others. What I want is a marriage that is strong enough to last until the end of our natural lives. Those are really the core goals in my life.

Then, I think about what parts of my life bring me closer to those goals – and what parts do not. I just spend time thinking about what I do in a typical day and ask myself whether or not those things really bring me anything that contributes to a greater goal.

If it doesn’t contribute to the life that I want, I seriously consider tossing that element of my life to the curb – or at least drastically downsizing it. I’ll step back from overbearing commitments when I can, or drop time-consuming hobbies. Then, I look for useful ways to fill that “found” time and energy.

When I reach a point when I feel like much of my life is filled with distraction, I can usually step back from it and realize that an awful lot of my time and energy is mis-spent. Fixing that one thing often gets rid of the sense of being distracted and helps me to stay on track with the things that actually matter.

Take a day and reflect on what it is you actually want from your life. Then, look at your life using those things that actually matter as a filter. How much of your life is filled with stuff that doesn’t actually matter all that much? Start cutting that stuff and you’ll find that the more you cut, the less distraction there is.