The War Against Distractions
As I sit here writing, I am fighting the urge to pick up my phone and scroll or wander to my bedroom to watch Netflix. At the beginning of this writing session, I took several minutes to search Amazon for wedding shoes before finally tearing myself away. Distractions are a real thing. And as it turns out, our minds are wired for distraction. We spend almost half of our waking hours in a state Harvard psychologists Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert refer to as ‘mind wandering.’ Our brains like mindless activities because it gives our thoughts a chance to float freely without any effort or work.
Half of our waking hours is a long time to spend in this state, especially if we have things to do. Add to this phenomenon the fact that many people are also battling distractions in the form of chores, children, spouses, phone calls, and text messages, and it can feel like an uphill battle.
Luckily, after the science of identifying a problem usually comes the science of offering solutions for our problems. While the Harvard psychologists offer their tool for overcoming the distraction of our wandering minds, there are several other options for some more commonly identified distractions.
If you’ve ever taken a meditation class, you’re likely familiar with the concept of returning to your breath. During meditation, your only job is to release your mind from thought attachment – to truly let your thoughts scroll by, unattended and with little attention. Your focus should remain on your breath.
Breathe in to a steady count of five.
Breathe out to a steady count of five.
Should your mind start to wander away, your job is to take notice of the thoughts leading you astray, then return to your breath.
This is very similar to Killingsworth and Gilbert’s tool they’ve coined “Notice-Shift-Rewire.” Essentially, it is the practice of noticing when our minds wander away. Are you fully present right now as you’re reading this? What about the last time you were waiting for your coffee order? As with most things in life, the first step is identification – or noticing – that your mind has wandered off in the first place.
The second step is to shift your focus back into the now. Much like in meditation, when you return to your breath, the ‘shift’ aspect of this tool requires that your attention return to the task right in front of you. Immerse yourself in your writing. Fully engage with your spouse. Be present.
The third and final step is to rewire your brain so the first two steps become more of a habit. To do this, it’s important to stay in the ‘now’ state for as long as possible. It’s okay to start small, twenty to thirty seconds, but work your way up to a few minutes, and your brain will begin to focus more on the present moment.
We’ve all heard that knowing you have a problem is the first step to overcoming said problem. And with so many distractions at our fingertips, identifying what kind of distractions get in our way may not be quite as easy as we anticipate. Sure, social media is an obvious one, but what about your pets? Do you find yourself reaching to pet them when you lack inspiration or motivation to finish a task? How about your uncomfortable desk chair or your messy desk? Understanding all of the things that distract us, not just the obvious ones, is the first step to overcoming these distractions.
Consider writing down everything you feel distracted by for a full day. At the end of the day, you’ll have a robust snapshot of your distraction enemies, and you’ll have a much better sense of the battle plans you’ll need to defeat them.
Lock Your Phone
While most of us write using our laptops, we have still been programmed to reach for our phones to scroll through social media apps. There are two simple solutions here:
1) Lock your phone. There are tons of great apps for this that will help keep you focused. Personally, I use Flipd. I love it because once I set my timer, there is no going back. It completely locks me out of every app until the time is up. The last time I set my timer, I researched and wrote an entire blog in one forty-minute sitting.
2) Remove your phone. If you’re not interested in putting yet another app on your phone, consider removing the distraction altogether. Place your phone in another room until you’re finished writing. Your text messages can wait.
I know what you’re thinking, but what about the internet?
Turn Off Your Wifi
If you’re working on a writing project that doesn’t currently require internet access, turn it off. While you can turn it back on at any moment, the Internet Not Available message will be a reminder to head back to your Word document and keep typing.
Another quick hack: If your writing project does require research from the internet, do the research first. Pull everything up on multiple tabs, then turn off your Wifi. You’ll have everything you need without the distraction.
Keep a Distraction Log
Just realized you forgot to change the laundry? Write it down on a piece of paper in front of you, then turn your attention back to your work. Need to thaw that chicken out for dinner? Write it down on that same piece of paper, and turn your attention back to your work. Much like the Notice-Shift-Rewire tool, this kind of list-making will help you release your attachment to a potential distraction and return your attention to the present task.
Take A Break
Sometimes our minds wander and find distractions because they are overwhelmed or overworked. Taking breaks to go for a walk, listen to music, or even read will give your brain the space it needs to unwind and refocus.
 Killingsworth, M. A. & Gilbert, D. T. (2010). A wandering mind is an unhappy mind. Science Magazine, 330.