Beating distraction and the Push Away Impulse

One of the most surprising things I discovered about myself since taking up journaling last year is how prone I am to distraction. I’m aware of my tendency to engage in a lot of simultaneous projects and the intellectual stimulation that that creates for me. What surprised me though was how frequently I drift when it comes time to focus on a single one.

The journaling process I use requires about 45 minutes of concentrated time. It’s been one of the most transformative experiences I undertaken and it didn’t take long for me to discover how conditioned I am to self-distraction. I’d sit down to write and it wouldn’t be long before I’d push away from the desk to go get a glass of water, visit the restroom or just walk around the room. I began to label this disengaging behavior my Push Away Impulse, because it was very impulsive, almost instinctive. About the time when my task required more from me, I’d look for an escape hatch.

If, like me, you’re your own saboteur of focus, here’s a few suggestions that can help beat the Push Away Impulse (PAI).

  • Keep score. One morning during my journaling time, the PAIs got so bad I decided to keep count. Seven. And those were the ones I was aware of. Keeping score creates awareness of how often you disengage from a task. Once you become aware of it for one task you’ll begin to see it in others. For instance, while writing this blog post, I checked email three times. I know it’s largely because the new operating system I just installed on my Mac is more noisy than it’s predecessor. It alerts me with a “badge” for each new mail message I receive. Somehow, I’ve not been able to disable those and when they appear, it’s like offering me a piece of candy. Too often I bite.
  • Stay engaged. This suggestion is rather obvious as it’s the whole point of the post. But remaining engaged in an activity requires resolve and a specific commitment to stay focused. Sometimes that needs to be said out-loud before the task gets underway. I know that I’m much more succeptible to PAIs when I don’t resolve ahead of time to defeat them. Turning off sources of distraction help too. Technology, with it’s alerts, pings and vibrations, are one of the worst conspirators for our PAIs.
  • Schedule breaks. Being intentional about when you take breaks helps keep you focused on the task. One of the most effective tools I’ve used to stay engaged is to set a 20 minute timer, after which time I reward myself with that fresh glass of water I thought I so desperately needed before. I find that those break times are also a good time to evaluate whether it would be a better use of my energy to switch tasks or to remain on the one I am on.

Habits of distraction are trained. So are habits of focus. I am still prone to the PAI, but have found the frequency to be much less than before. What’s more, I’m more immediately aware of a PAI coming on and am more likely to stay on task. If you’re PAI prone as I am, let me know what’s worked for you.

Encourage another with your comment: What techniques have you used to stay focused on your tasks?

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