Why Are We so Distracted All the Time?
Instinctively, we divide sources of distraction into two categories. First, there are temptations: when you’re grappling with a tough creative challenge, the idea of a few relaxing minutes on Facebook—or clocking off for drinks with friends—can seem irresistibly alluring. Then there are interruptions: co-workers who won’t stop pestering with questions, emails you’d rather not deal with, or the construction site near my home office where workers compete, so far as I can tell, to hit pieces of metal with hammers as loudly as possible.
When we think in terms of temptations and interruptions, we’re defining the problem as coming from the outside—so it makes sense to try to shut them out with website blockers and noise-cancelling headphones, by snapping at bothersome colleagues, or by escaping to a cabin in the mountains. But there’s a reason such methods never seem to work very well, or for long. The real culprit isn’t external irritations, but rather an internal urge to be distracted, to avoid focusing on what matters most. The calls are coming from inside the house.
Nobody diagnosed this problem as brilliantly as Friedrich Nietzsche, the cantankerous 19th-century German philosopher who argued in Unmodern Observations that we seek out distractions in order to stay mentally busy, so we can avoid facing up to the big questions—like whether we’re living genuinely meaningful lives. We tweet and click and dive into angry online arguments because “when we are alone and quiet, we fear that something will be whispered into our ear.” Worse still, even work that feels productive can really be a form of distraction, if it keeps us from addressing what’s most important. “How we labor at our daily work more ardently and thoughtlessly than is necessary,” Nietzsche wrote, is because “it is even more necessary not to have leisure to stop and think. Haste is universal because everyone is in flight from himself.”
Why do we fight so hard not to focus on what matters? One explanation, underscored by psychological research, is that we’re desperate for a sense of autonomy, a feeling that we’re the ones in charge. As a result, we rail against anything we feel we’ve been ordered to do—even if it’s ourselves who gave that order. And so you decide in advance to spend Wednesday morning on your business plan, or the next chapter of your novel… but when Wednesday morning comes, you rise up against the taskmaster who gave that command, and start scrolling through Snapchat instead. Congratulations, you’re a rebel—but unfortunately it’s your own goals you’re undermining.
There’s an even deeper reason for seeking out distraction, though: facing up to life’s big questions is scary. You might believe you want to eliminate all distractions, so you can find deep focus. But what if, once you reach that quiet mental place, you realize the company you founded is no longer something you want to be part of? Or that the app you’re so proud of is probably making users’ lives slightly worse? Or that, in some other manner, your career trajectory has led you far from your most important values? Life is short, and such questions are painfully urgent. No wonder we’d rather slip away onto social media, or anything similarly numbing—who’d deliberately opt for an existential crisis?
The good news is that when you see distraction for what it really is, you’re much better equipped to fight it. By all means install web-blocking software like Freedom or SelfControl or Cold Turkey. Don’t cancel that booking for the isolated Airbnb in the hills. But watch out for the inner urge toward distraction, and when it arises, don’t beat yourself up, or try to squelch it. Just sit with it, breathe, and let it dissipate. Remember, too, that you don’t need to “feel motivated” in order to do important work. Instead, let yourself feel like you’d rather be doing something else, and at the same time, do the work: Open the laptop, make the phone call, type another sentence.
Above all, make time in your schedule for frequent journaling, which is a powerful, research-backed way to ensure you’re addressing those big questions. Once you’re regularly giving them an airing, you’ll find they lose their “radioactive” quality and that the urge to distract yourself in order to avoid them will fade accordingly. You might decide it’s time for some significant changes. But whether that happens or not, you’ll be far less likely to be dragged off course. You’ll probably find, also, that external temptations and interruptions bother you less. Distraction is an inside job, and thank goodness for that. It means there’s no need to eliminate every external annoyance before you can start to focus on what matters most.
More about Oliver Burkeman
Oliver Burkeman is the author of The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking, and writes a column on psychology for The Guardian. He lives in Brooklyn, New York. Follow him at @oliverburkeman.