Our love of distraction is stealing our time

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We are all terrified of silence. Not just the sort of silence that is the absence of sound, but the sort of silence that takes shape when we sit in front of a blank screen, ready to write something from scratch. Or when we shut off the TV, and try to settle in front of a textbook to revise for an exam. Or when we sit down to work out which pension plan to get. We get an itchy, twitchy feeling at such times. Our minds start throwing out helpful thoughts like, “did you remember to turn the dryer on?” and “oh, isn’t this experience hard? I should tweet about it!”

Deep work has never been easy. If it were easy to dedicate ourselves to a task like learning a language, developing a new skill in playing a musical instrument, or writing a profound book, then we’d all be polymaths and the entire world would look like Venice in the quattrocento.

Because deep work is hard and uncomfortable, we seem to have got together as a culture and given ourselves an excuse. We needed an excuse that was compatible with the protestant work ethic, of course. We couldn’t have an excuse like “it’s OK to just relax and enjoy life.” No, no, no. We needed an excuse that allowed us to believe we were busy, so busy in fact, that our inability to do the emotionally demanding deep work of life was prevented by our circumstances. Not our fault at all. Modern life is just so busy.

It’s time to call bullshit on this self-defeating culturally approved excuse. I’m not the first person to notice that we now, more than ever before, behave like butterflies, flitting from flower to flower, garden to field to garden, sipping shallowly from this or that piece of entertainment, rarely stopping long enough to take our fill. Tim Krieder’s essay, Lazy — a manifesto, is an especially delightful take on this phenomenon.

We keep ourselves busy, even to the point of being stressed and burnt out, partly because it gives us an excuse for not doing things we believe matter more, but also because it allows us to avoid that nagging feeling deep in our being. Those questions that children ask, out of the blue during a walk in the woods — “why was I born?” or “when will I die?” — still pull at us. And as adults these questions have greater weight. If we sit with them, they spiral off into other questions like, “will my life have mattered?”

Hold on. I have a text message. Can you pick up some milk, please? x OK, what was I saying? Yeah, deep questions and all that.

We like to tell ourselves that our lives are busy because our culture is doing it to us. Guess what, we are culture. We are doing it to ourselves. We don’t just react to external interruptions, we invite them. We turn on the TV because the house is uncomfortably quiet. We check social media because we feel lonely. We get wrapped up in the web because we’re bored. We answer fifty pointless emails to give ourselves a false sense of productivity. We set up our phones and tablets and laptops so that they ping and whoosh and vibrate whenever anything remotely interesting might be happening, so that we have an excuse to break away from the emotionally demanding task we might otherwise be doing.

Perhaps you want to get something done. Maybe you imagine yourself as the next Tolstoy or Rowling. Perchance you’ve been meaning for three years to replace the garden shed. Virtually any project, of any size, can fall victim to the Great Excuse that there’s not enough time, that life’s just so busy nowadays.

Here are some concrete things you might try. Pick one and try it. Start with one day but carry on for a week if you can. It will feel uncomfortable. It’s supposed to.

  1. Go on a media diet. Stop watching TV, reading newspapers, checking social media, and surfing the web. Read a book for up to an hour before bed. If you really have to do one of these things for work, make sure you do it in a strictly task-oriented way. If you need to look up the phone number for a business on the web, but then get tempted to start flicking through that company’s product catalogue, you’ve fallen of the media diet wagon.
  2. Turn off all buzzing and pinging and flashing notifications. If you need to, leave your phone so that it tells you about incoming phone calls and tell people to call you if they need you urgently. You’ll still be checking email and text messages but you’ll be doing so once or thrice a day. You won’t be reacting immediately to such interruptions because you’ll be getting on with important things.
  3. Carve out two hours in your daily schedule when you’re at your most awake and alert, and commit to spending that time on a project that really matters. During those two hours, ignore any interruptions you can safely ignore. Explain nicely to anyone who interrupts that you’re working hard right now and you’ll get back to them in just two hours. This is your golden time. This is the time when you’ll do the work that gives you a sense of pride in what you do. It’s valuable. Protect it.

Try one of these things for a day or two and then see whether you still believe so strongly in the Grand Excuse that life’s busy and there’s nothing we can do about it.

Image care of Flickr.