Getting to Know Your Internal Distraction Triggers

As much as we’d like to think that ADHD and procrastination are 20th century inventions made worse by the 21st century expansion of the internet…

Putting work off is a tale as old as time.

From Oscar Wilde – “I will never put off till tomorrow what I can possibly do – the day after”…

To Leonardo da Vinci – ”It is easier to resist at the beginning than at the end”…

To Seneca, a Roman stoic philosopher – “It is not because things are difficult that we do not dare, it is because we do not dare that they are difficult.”

We have to face it: Everyone knows procrastination and distraction are the natural enemies of production and success. But we all struggle with it.

Distractions in Seneca’s day might have been a bunch of senators heading to a forum, or the urge to go try some of the olives in an olive orchard, or to take a stroll through the marketplace around lunch time… 

But they’re much more numerous and pervasive today. We have not only ourselves to contend with, but the constant availability of television, music, phone conversations, the thrill of driving wherever we want whenever we want, and myriad other options.

Here’s the root of the root, though. The truth that was as true for Seneca as it was for da Vinci and as it is for you: Until we learn to speak to our own internal triggers, no amount of external restricting will change our focus.

We need to address the cause. 

What to Do First

Distraction can feel like such an idle, unconscious pull that we may not realize there’s a pattern. 

But when you know you’re meant to be working on a project, cleaning your bedroom, or starting dinner, and instead you start scrolling on your phone…

Something happens that takes only an instant.

Your brain registers that you’re about to do something “required.” And before you even choose not to, it changes tracks.

More often than not, it’s a feeling of anxiety.

Sometimes we don’t want to start something because we’re not sure where it will lead. Or we have low confidence in our ability to do it. Or we think it’ll take much longer than it realistically will, because we won’t let the final outcome be less-than-perfect.

It can be painful to really address those intrusive thoughts, and so instead, we open the fridge and look for a snack.

THAT’S where we need to stop – and write it down. 

Have you been trying to write a report all morning, and pausing to look something up every few minutes? The next time your fingers move to open a new tab, stop.

Think. Why don’t I want to see this report through? 

You don’t have to know the exact answer – brainstorm a few ideas! Imagine what you would say to a friend if they told you they were having this problem. You’d probably be a veritable fount of helpful ideas and theories.

You do all this so that next time…

When You Notice the Trigger

If what you’re really afraid of, in this case, is that you’ll write something incorrect and you’ll have to go back and change it, pay close attention to the feeling in your body that you get right before you open a new tab.

Does your chest feel tight? Does your face tingle a little bit? Do you get itchy?

If there’s a physical sensation that accompanies your anxiety, it can be easier to catch yourself in the moment.

When you feel the feeling, don’t do the thing that you think will make it go away. Stay with it. Be uncomfortable. Allow yourself to have the “I’m no good, I’m not enough, I’m going to do this wrong” thoughts. 

And then…

Wait. Tell yourself that the thing you wanted to do to distract yourself is perfectly permissible – in a little while. You can check your phone in 10 minutes, when you go upstairs to get a snack. You can fold your laundry at the top of the hour. You can go wash your face the next time you get up to go to the bathroom.

By specifically sectioning off time to do what you would’ve just allowed yourself to do before, you:

  • Remove the “forbidden” film making that distraction all shiny and desirable. It’s not “bad”, you just don’t have the time for it right now, 
  • Give yourself a reward for doing the work you really ought to be doing anyway,
  • And you clear the path for an uninterrupted, distraction-free stretch of time.

Distractions are tricky for everyone, no matter how enlightened they are.

The next time you realize you’re having a hard time focusing, shine a light on the moment right before you lose focus.

You’ll probably be surprised at what you find there.

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Dr. Pedram Shojai

NY Times Best Selling author and film maker. Taoist Abbot and Qigong master. Husband and dad. I’m here to help you find your way and be healthy and happy. I don’t want to be your guru…just someone who’ll help point the way. If you’re looking for a real person who’s done the work, I’m your guy. I can light the path and walk along it with you but can’t walk for you.