Some say they aren’t bothered by distractions, other say they are a nusence but they work around them, and many others say they can’t get anything done when there are distractions. I am one of the middle group.
Distractions have been my enemy ever since I was in grade school.
How To Conquer The Curse of Self-Distraction
The biggest barrier to your success isn’t lack of opportunity, it’s perpetual distraction. I’m not talking about the advertising fire hose that blasts pressurized jets of “buy now” BS at your head all day long. That’s easy to plug—dump cable and add ad-blocking software to your internet browser; piece of cake!
And I’m not even talking about information overload; the ever-increasing stack of websites, books and DVDs you “should” study if you’re to have any chance(?) of being an effective executive or a good parent.
This message is about self-distraction. I had the rare (and wonderful) privilege of hearing John Williams conduct the Fort Worth Symphony on Tuesday night. It was an amazing experience to hear a range of instantly recognizable movie themes (Harry Potter, Indiana Jones, Star Wars, ET, Jaws, Close Encounters) conducted by the creative genius who composed them.
As much as I absolutely loved the concert, I caught myself thinking intrusive thoughts—I wonder if I’ll get to hear Jurassic Park?—from time to time. For most of the evening I listened to the orchestra, but occasionally—could they play Jurassic Park on the fly?—my mind wandered. And the more I tried to focus—should yell out a request?—the more distracting my intrusive thoughts became.
Rethinking Tired Thoughts
Here’s the thing: Whenever you try to take positive steps in a new and valued direction there are inevitably problems to solve, decisions to make, some frustration and anxiety. These problems, decisions and emotions can be attention-grabbing distractions and—when they intrude upon your attempts to stay focused—hinder every attempt you make to work towards your high-priority goals.
We are frequently distracted by our own thoughts, reliving unpleasant situations (plotting revenge?) worrying about the future, and rethinking tired thoughts that invariably lead to the same conclusions. Not only does this waste a ton of valuable time and pump our stress levels through the roof, it distracts us from completing the high-priority tasks that really make a difference. Imagine if you were able to stay hyper-focused, on task and simply let these self-distractions come and go as they please. How much more productive would you be?
The Self-Distraction Exercise
The solution to this problem is to learn how to unhook yourself from your own distracting thoughts. Here’s how: Find a quiet place and a block of 10 minutes in your schedule where you won’t be disturbed. Sit back in the chair, with your feet flat on the floor and close your eyes. You can also do this exercise lying on a bed (although you might get a few stares from the other customers in Mattress Warehouse) your head supported by a pillow and your arms relaxed by your side.
Take a deep breath in. Then, as you breath out, relax and feel the tension leaving your body. Then allow your breath to find it’s own rhythm, don’t make any attempt to control it.
Your objective for the next 10 minutes is simply to focus on your breathing, allow your thoughts to come and go as they please and not get hooked into ruminating over them. Every time a thought pops into your mind, label it “thought” and then let it go. That’s the goal, very simple…but not easy.
As you try this exercise, here’s what you’ll find: The very moment you sit still and quiet your mind, thoughts will begin bubbling up from your unconscious. And, believe me, mentally pushing them away won’t help. You can’t stop the voice in your head. You can’t stop making up stuff. And so, rather than trying to suppress your thoughts, label them and let them go. (By the way, if you’ve got multiple voices in your head that’s a problem way beyond the scope of this blog post!)
Leaves on a Stream
Here’s an alternative to focusing on your breathing. It’s a visualization I find immensely helpful in unhooking myself from thoughts and letting them go. (This “Leaves on a Stream” metaphor was suggested by psychologist Steve Hayes—the founder of Acceptance & Commitment Therapy—the cheesy jokes are all mine.) Imagine you’re sitting in front of a clear mountain stream. The sunlight is glistening off a steady flow of trickling water. (FYI: It’s a good idea to pee before beginning this exercise.)
In your mind’s eye, visualize leaves gently bobbing as they flow past on the surface of the water. Now, whenever you notice a thought—and you will, I promise—rather than bounce around inside your head, label it “thought,” place it on a leaf and let it go. Whatever the thought, pleasurable or otherwise (even if your thought is “this exercise is dumb,”) label, leaf, let go. Each and every time, label, leaf, let go.
Staying On Task
Every time you try this exercise, you’re getting practice at gently unhooking yourself from your own distracting thoughts. If you commit to developing this vital mental skill (I would suggest once a day, 10 minutes maximum) guess what’s going to happen next time you’re trying to meet a deadline, reply to a string of emails or listen to a John Williams concert. That’s right, because you’ve been practicing (and you are going to practice, right?) you’ll be far more skilled at letting disruptive thoughts go and staying on task; even if that task is simply living in the moment and having more fun.
Most people find visualization exercises easier if they’re guided through them. I’m preparing a 10 minute recording (an MP3 file that you can listen to on an iPod or computer) to help you guys master The Self-Distraction Exercise. It’s available for free to anyone who leaves an idea, question or comment in the “speak your mind” box below…