Distraction isn't anything new. It is just taking on new forms. And is becoming easier and easier because those of us who are designing products and media and everything else are getting better and better at grabbing attention.
When the radio first came out, many parents were worried it would be too much of a distraction for kids. I remember my mom worrying about our TV being too much of a distraction in our home. So much so that she threatened, on multiple occasions, to throw it away. And we only owned a single TV. And didn't even have cable. Now we have phones and tablets and smartwatches and all sorts of other devices to distract us.
So it's not so much about the device, but more about the fact that we can be distracted if we're not careful with our attention and deliberate with our focus.
So what can we do?
In the book Deep Work, Cal Newport gives the example of Nobel prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman:
"To do real good physics work, you do need absolute solid lengths of time...it needs a lot of concentration, if you have a job administrating anything, you don’t have the time. So I have invented another myth for myself: that I’m irresponsible. I’m actively irresponsible. I tell everyone I don’t do anything. If anyone asks me to be on a committee for admissions, 'no' I tell them: I’m irresponsible.
"Feynman was adamant in avoiding administrative duties because he knew they would only decrease his ability to do the one thing that mattered most in his professional life: to do real good physics work."
We have to prioritize what is most important and really block out the things that aren't. That means actually saying no.
In another book about the subject called Indistractible, Nir Eyal relates the story of Tantalus from Greek mythology:
"The ancient Greeks immortalized the story of a man who was perpetually distracted. We call something that is desirable but just out of reach “tantalizing” after his name. The story goes that Tantalus was banished to the underworld by his father, Zeus, as a punishment. There he found himself wading in a pool of water while a tree dangled ripe fruit above his head. The curse seems benign, but when Tantalus tried to pluck the fruit, the branch moved away from him, always just out of reach. When he bent down to drink the cool water, it receded so that he could never quench his thirst. Tantalus’s punishment was to yearn for things he desired but could never grasp.
"The curse is not that Tantalus spends all eternity reaching for things just out of reach but rather his obliviousness to the greater folly of his actions. Tantalus’s curse was his blindness to the fact he didn’t need those things in the first place.
"That’s the real moral of the story. Tantalus’s curse is also our curse. We are compelled to reach for things we supposedly need but really don’t. We don’t need to check our email right this second or need to see the latest trending news, no matter how much we feel we must."
Ultimately, we have to make up our minds as to what is most important. We only have so much time each day. We can either use that time on what is most important or we can waste it on things of lesser importance. It is easier and easier to become distracted. And I fear that it is a trend that will only increase. So we have to decide now, and take the necessary steps to safeguard our time and attention.
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