“Click Here”, a phone call, thinking about another project, Facebook, what’s for lunch?, and an interesting article or website are all possible distractions to me when I sit down at my desk to work.
When I’m with clients or training others, my focus is absolute, yet when I’m aiming to write, to update, to administrate, my attention seems to shorten and it feels as though the things around me or on screen are all ‘shiny objects’ that need to be looked at.
My sister and I used to call this behavior “being a magpie” from the stories told about how this type bird is attracted to and collects bits that shimmer and things that shine.
Am I alone in my distraction? Is there any explanation to be found within the deeper parts of the mind? Is there any way ‘out’ of this pattern? The subconscious holds some answers and opportunities, so keep focused and read on…
You have a ‘Normal’ Brain… really.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again (because the subconscious mind loves repetition, loves repetition) – the subconscious mind isn’t necessarily linear, it doesn’t follow a ‘logical’ and rational path due to its strength in linking and associating so well.
It can connect disparate things together, so it does. Which means that it can jump from writing about birds (for example) to looking out the window to see birds, yes, to even thinking about dinner (fowl or fish?)… The ‘that reminds me’ of something you need to do or look up or find is the subconscious mind’s ability to lightly jump from thought thread to thought thread, like a cartoon of Tarzan travelling swiftly through the jungle.
Just like the magpie, your mind is curious, which is a very good thing when aiming to think creatively, work out problems, create out of ‘nothing’ or discover something new.
That said, while it can bridge divides that the conscious mind may not be able to so seamlessly, it can get off course, which sometimes leaves us with the ‘what was I working on in the first place?’ feeling sometimes. And sometimes the massive jumps we make tend to lead us right back to the place we’ve been so many times before, yet not necessarily where we’d prefer to be.
That’s because the subconscious also likes the familiar. Even if something isn’t working for us right now, there may have been some very important reasons for certain connections being made in the past, and so we tend to hop around yet return to customary or memorable points again. And just as the magpie does, we tend to stick with the same ‘gang’ (of thoughts/feelings/behaviours) we know throughout the years.
So while I haven’t solved the distraction issue yet, at least you can find comfort in knowing that your mind is naturally supposed to function in certain ways. You’re ‘normal’ just maybe not as efficient as you’d like.
The Weakest Link… and Muscle Memory
If you look under ‘distraction’ in search engines, you’ll have enough articles to read so you won’t do any work at all for several hours – not that I know this personally… 😉
Some suggest shorter blocks of focused activity – which may align with the way our focus and attention undulates like a wave throughout the day. Others suggest background noise, or no noise at all. Lock the door… turn your phone and email off… schedule back to back meetings instead of spacing them out… Some of the suggestions are common, others are contradictory. Some felt logical or possible, while others didn’t ‘feel’ right for my work and life.
Then I read an interview with Dr. Edward M. Hallowell, author of “Driven to Distraction at Work: How to Focus and Be More Productive” who brought up the idea of personal coping mechanisms and finding the root cause to mental interruptions. Which is something I can really sink my teeth into.
Some people end their day with only a few items done on their list because of the intrusion of or prioritization of others. It’s easy to blame the co-worker who fails to understand an implied closed door (yes, usually for these people, the door isn’t closed), or the many extra worthy yet needy causes and dealings that highjack time and energy. Yet looking into our own history and significant relations, we may see a necessity (or perceived obligation) to prioritize others over self. So our habitual distractions – while varied, actually have a common theme.
Others cope with dread or worry in a distracted way. While the ‘fight’ mechanism of fear might help us to do battle with our to-do list, ‘flight’ or ‘freeze’ align perfectly with going off topic and putting off an anticipated nerve-racking outcome. And there are lots of distractions that may actually amplify the apprehension even more.
None of these coping mechanisms are unnatural, yet they may not be helpful. And the dealing with the deeper root or subconscious need might be the fastest way to surmount the challenge of distraction.
The perpetual ‘pleaser’ may learn to create boundaries and priorities (and actually close the door) to promote a more personal agenda. Or the ‘worrier’ can recognise the trepidation patterns from earlier times (with less experience, insight and understanding) and learn to feel a deeper assurance in the outcomes. These have been practiced over and over and we’ve become ‘good’ at them, so practice in another way, while at first unfamiliar, will become more and more natural over time.
Just as the amazing magpie can recognize himself in a mirror (one of the only birds to be able to do so), a deeper look into ourselves may be the first step in discovering the slightly different path we personally (great advice columns aside) need to take.
Taking Ownership and Supporting Yourself
With great power comes great responsibility. When we become accountable for our past and present patterns, we need to release our excuses and blame, and have to get to work on ourselves. Re-learning or re-training of the mind is a process (made easier with hypnosis) and can create some stress (think Newton’s First Law) in doing so.
However, would you rather be an active participant in your own day, or a pawn in a sea of external influences?
Understandably, we aren’t going to get rid of all external stimuli (nor would we necessarily want to) but to take baby steps which shift the direction of our day to become more ‘in control’ of what happens to us (if only for now, a small percentage).
A few questions to ask might be: can we retrain others and their expectations of us? Who’s in charge of my technology and are there ways to be ‘master’ over my phone or email? What am I getting out of this? What am I avoiding (the feeling, thought, behaviour) when I do this? When did this blueprint start and what was the situation and the players that may have advocated this pattern?
Surprisingly, one of the ways to stop getting sidetracked from what you’re doing is to take a break from what you’re doing to refocus. Whether it is a quick relaxation technique, self-hypnosis to give suggestions for positive change, meditation, stretching or other physical practices like yoga or qi gong, many of these have been found to reduce stress, increase focus and extend attention. It may seem counter-intuitive to slow down to speed up, but it’s like chamomile in ‘focus’ tea blends – we are most open to moving forward when we are calm and clear.
Taking the moments when you get off track to get back on track requires a deeper look into yourself, which can be daunting. Yet, the answers you may find can give you a new focus and bearing that can change your day-to-day functioning. As you take ownership of your time and your life, you’ll tend to discover more energy and abilities to support yourself even more.
There will Always be Shiny Things…
“The great benefit of modern life is that you can do so much. The great curse is that you can do so much.” Hallowell is quoted. I know that my inbox is full of “this offer ends tonight”, sent every week for the past few months. The “click me” buttons are the same as the “watch mes” of children (but ones you don’t know, on a screen, who aren’t really children anyway) – they attract and tempt us to drop what we’re doing and shift here, there and everywhere. That you can now go to a website without opening it (?) reveals an attention splitting that may leave us in pieces.
It may seem to go against our natural construction, or patterned development, but it is possible to reduce the ‘white noise’ that sets us off-course in our daily lives. I’m working on mine with self-hypnosis, yet even a note on a computer saying “there are always shiny things” or “ask yourself – is this really important to me and my goals” or something short and sweet can be a repeated reminder to the mind of priorities and a shift in patterns, breaking a state you may have been in for some time.
The magpie holds a complex death ritual within its parliament (a bunch of them) and you could do the same for emails sent to your inbox (except for this one!) or other interrupters. When I removed solitaire or other games from my phone, or unsubscribed from store lists I’m on, I’ve done so without malice, thinking a few words about how it was good, but now I’m opening up space in my life for more important things. May sound silly, but the subconscious mind loves ritual (and pays attention to it). Mentioning benefits of change tends to make change easier and more secure.
Remember you have choices – if not always in what you do, but in how you feel about it. The magpie can be looked at as a common black&white (or more colourful in other countries) noisy nuisance, or you can notice its iridescence and stately long tail and their beauty. The bird doesn’t change, just your feeling about it. It’s nice to have a little bling now and again, so aim to look at remaining distractions more lightly after you’ve taken back control on the ones you do have power over. If you need any support in harnessing your habits or focus, let me know and we can work together on helping you in ways that work for you right now.
As I’m finishing this writing, I can see a beautiful day outside – time for a ‘distracted’ walk that works for me!
Post Script: Maybe being a Magpie isn’t such a bad thing…
I’ve learned a lot about magpies since I started writing this – they are curious, intelligent, resilient, community-minded creatures (that are part of the crow/raven family). Their reputation of stealing shiny things was reinforced through plays and operas in the early 1800s: La Pie Voleuse & La gazza ladra – about a servant who was sentenced to death for stealing, even though it was his pet magpie who took the objects. See how long stereotypes can last even when they are wrong? While their intellect might make them inquisitive, they are no more thieves than other birds. Just so you know…