I’ve given a lot of thought to how people think: what blocks them, how distraction plays havoc with attention, and generally what causes a train of thought to seriously derail.
Thinking hard about thinking hard, I’ve discovered a truth that may surprise you: Most of us unquestioningly believe that distraction is the culprit, without asking whether distraction might have value, might serve some purpose.
Believe me, I’ve had my share of run-ins with distraction. It’s not a friend to my time. But I believe the emotional attachment to “getting it right” is a heck of a lot worse for clear thinking than the occasional cat video or run to the refrigerator. I think shame kills our creativity faster than distraction.
Certainly, you can work on reducing distraction–especially by making your writing space more peaceful and attractive, and setting up writing time that’s sacred. But in terms of actually sitting down and getting to it, three simple shifts in practice can work wonders.
Ready for them? Here goes.
Your mind is a dog.
Think of the fairly standard allocation of time in a dog’s day. There’s roaming and sniffing, sometimes chasing and frolicking, a good amount of lying around, and of course the three important activities of eating, peeing and pooping, and loving. (Okay, technically that’s four, but you get the gist.)
My point is this: let your mind be itself. Love it. We know you need to keep it in or put it on a leash for a portion of its life, but don’t be a cruel human. Let your dog sniff and wander and even roll in something that smells good to a dog once in a while. When it’s tired, let it rest. Be kind when you bring it back to attention, and remember your mind is nothing without a little love.
Steer in the direction of the skid.
The old driving advice for dealing with a wet or icy patch is also true for distraction: Steer in the direction of the skid, don’t tighten up, and don’t resist. Go with it until you see your way through.
You may go off path a little. You may encounter other challenges. But you may also discover new information, or come back to your work with a refreshed perspective.
This is important: Cut a mind off from distraction and you risk killing the lifeblood of thought. Tim Urban of the wonderful blog Wait But Why has done a terrifically focused TED Talk on the infuriating, somehow weirdly necessary work of following one’s distractions, even when it delays progress.
Slow your roll. I repeat: Slow. Your. Roll.
It has taken me years to accurately predict the amount of time I needed to finish work. The more tough the work, the more enduring its value, the more likely I was to underestimate how long it’d take. Part of it was the Next-Day syndrome. It was often hard for me to envision all the small parts to even the simplest assignment, and a day seemed like enough time. A week or longer? An enormous amount of time.
I know you can’t control all your deadlines. But particularly for projects that mean a lot to you–the ambitious life’s work stuff–take your first guess on how long it’ll take and add 50 percent or 100 percent more time. Think of what that good dog, your mind, really needs in the way of reading, sifting, imagining, and yes, playing. Be good to your inner dog and put lots of play in the leash. Often, the “distractions” along the path are not interfering with the walk: They are the walk.
And in case you think that a dog can’t focus, I invite you to contemplate one of my favorite Internet inspirations, Dog With Stick.
Video by Glenn Smiles.