Making Peace With Distraction

On finding flow and reclaiming time amidst constant distraction.

“The instructions contained in our genes, the pull of gravity, the pollen in the air, the historical period into which we are born — these and innumerable other conditions determine what we see, how we feel, what we do. It is not surprising that we should believe that our fate is primarily ordained by outside agencies. Yet we have all experienced times when, instead of being buffeted by anonymous forces, we do feel in control of our actions, masters of our own fate.”
—From “Flow,” by Mihaly Csikszenthmihalyi

I am old enough to remember a time when a printed newspaper landed with a thud at my door each morning. I would take it with me to work and sit and read it during my lunch break. (My lunch break! How quaint it sounds already.) Today I catch snippets of NPR while I rush around the house in the mornings, coordinating schedules and shopping lists with my husband, getting myself and my daughter ready for the day. I skim an article or two on my phone in the morning, and another over coffee in the afternoon, perhaps another few bits before bed. The result is the same. I’ve read the day’s news. More news, perhaps, than I ever read while eating a sandwich. But what was once a relaxing ritual has come to feel more like a distraction. Or maybe everything preventing me from reading the news in one sitting is a distraction. It’s impossible anymore to tell the distractions from the things I’m trying to focus on. They all feel the same.

In a New York Times essay titled “No Time to Think”, Kate Murphy depicts a society unable to focus. “If there is ever a still moment for reflective thought — say, while waiting in line at the grocery store or sitting in traffic — out comes the mobile device.” And we get it; we’re all guilty of that. She points out that most people today are physically uncomfortable being alone with their thoughts for more than 6 minutes, 15 max. What, we wonder, is the world coming to?

An article in Psychology Today attributes this discomfort to a “Cultural/Biological Mismatch.”

“Relentless cultural innovation, while promising to give us more power and freedom, is also pressing our hardware to its limits. We have only so much attention to give, only so many neurotransmitters and stress hormones to burn through in a day, and only so much memory available to manage different relationships and contexts. And the demands on those systems have been increasing.”

And so it goes. On and on. Blah blah blah. Our overly informed state is the source of even more information with which to shamefully overload our fragile ape minds. The pace of life seems to be outpacing our ability to live it fully. What a shame. What a loss. What I want to know is, what to do about it.

Time to Flow
In Mihaly Csikszenthmihalyi’s book “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience,” he posits that life has always been full of distractions. Prehistoric people might have had less to “accomplish” in a day, but they also constantly had to be on the lookout for the natural forces and predators that we’ve managed to insulate ourselves against in modern times.

Happiness, Csikszenthmihalyi tells us, is achieved not by changing the environment we live in, but “through control of one’s inner life.” Which sounds super terrific, right? But the types of activities that contribute to this “optimal experience” are ones that require things short in supply in today’s world: steadfast commitment and focus. Wonderful, open-ended things you can lose yourself in, until the doer and the doing become one. Things like chess, yoga, music, dance, sailing.

I can’t disagree. I am never happier than when I, fully rested and assured of creature comforts, have several hours of uninterrupted time to write whatever is on my mind. When I’m playing music and singing. When I’m able to give mind and body over fully to yoga or walking. I also experience flow when I’m giving good advice, or engaging in deep conversation with my spouse or daughter or an old friend.

It’s common sense that we humans would gain more satisfaction from these types of activities rather than, say, answering yet another email or posting an altered photo that attracts 28 whole ❤s on Instagram. But even following the latest good advice to “power off” for periods of the day, to know and stick to boundaries when it comes to work, cut cable, get rid of 1/3 of the stuff that’s lying around, and so on, sustained periods of uninterrupted time are rare.

If, as reported, it takes on average a whole 23 minutes to get back on track after being interrupted, then the obvious solution is to reduce the number of interruptions. But good luck with that. Another possible “cure” is to create continuity amidst distraction.

Naturally All Over the Place
As anyone who has tried to meditate quickly learns, our brains are wired to roam. Of those endless workplace distractions, 23% may be caused by email, but according to at least one study, 44% are caused by the individuals themselves. “They simply moved on to other tasks, whether the first one was finished or not.” It can take years of intense training, and no small amount of good fortune, to teach yourself how to stop your attention from darting all over the place all the time. Like the Olympics, it’s a sport for the chosen few to play. The rest of us can just look on in awe, clapping with delight.

But while many distractions are beyond the average person’s control, distraction also can be a choice, and there are good reasons for choosing it. One of the things I love most about writing is, in fact, staring out the window and letting my thoughts wander, before landing on something I want to capture on the page. In that case, distraction is a requisite for finding focus. (This behavior is , I’ve found, wholly unacceptable; people witnessing these moments always feel compelled ask, “Hey, are you ok?”)

Distraction can also be a powerful form of release. In yoga, you learn that relaxing a tight muscle comes more naturally after flexing it as hard as you can. Conversely, after pressing my mind to come up with a solution, it often comes to me while I’m taking a break. Aha! All that checking Facebook, those open-ended IM conversations, useless notifications, and (yes) peeing can potentially bring things into focus precisely by relaxing our attention.

A lasting interruption is considered a disruption, a word that’s been celebrated, backlashed, and re-celebrated in today’s reigning business culture. Routine grows boring and counterproductive, eventually opening itself up to schism. Variation from the norm is how progress happens. But what does it mean when variation is the norm?

Warp and Weft
To get through my morning commute from Brooklyn to Manhattan, I often tell myself I am water, streaming through an obstacle course made of people. I speed up and slow down according to how many commuters stumble in front of me or cut me off. With no one ahead I can zip up or down stairs, beeline across subway platforms, or slide into an empty seat on the train. This ease of movement never lasts for long. Inevitably I run up against someone walking slowly, lost or, more often, staring into some distant world made possible by their screen. The more fluid my movement, the greater my sense of progress and ease, even though I’m not moving any slower or faster than I would be if I kept pushing to maintain a steady pace. Can my attention work in the same way?

I’ve practiced yoga regularly for 15 years. For the first decade, I went to slow-moving, dimly lit 90-minute classes without music or mirrors as often as four or five times a week. Then I became a mother, lucky to squeeze in 20 minutes at the start of the day, or in the early evening, while my daughter watches cartoons. Yet my yoga practice is continuous, the effects over time cumulative, even if the experience of practicing 90 minutes differs from the experience of practicing for 20. Both have merit, and they are forever connected.

I have picked up piano after breaks of 10 years, to find some things familar and other things completely new. I have written almost every kind of writing over the years, dropping one form to pick up another, returning and then digressing again, each form informing the next.

On an hour-by-hour, minute-by-minute basis, I run my fingers along various threads, feeling for them whenever something gets in the way, picking them up here and there, following them however quickly or slowly life allows. How deftly can I draw the weft of my chosen focus through the warp of daily life? How long can I sustain this? Time may be the only thing that doesn’t bend.

“Control of one’s inner life.”
There is a solution to every problem. Often they are one and the same. The same technology that conspires to distract can also help us stay connected to life beyond the momentary click—like a notebook, only less bulky and obvious. In the same way that I now latch onto the news in bits and bobs, I can also store thoughts and inklings in the metaphorical cloud, finding and building on them whenever a breeze of consciousness carries me their way. It’s more than a breeze. It is a choice, one we all have.

Amidst fits and spurts of time, to seek out something still and permanent within ourselves and try to replicate it in the world through practice and creative acts. To build upon what was there before. And to hope that over time it won’t matter how choppy or smooth its coming into being.

It isn’t a perfect way. It’s certainly disjointed. Momentum depends on long, easy stretches; mine, and likely yours, are far and few between. But there is flow to be tapped into in every place throughout history if you’re willing to make the effort. No time like the present. No time but the present.