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The truth about distraction

The way we talk about distraction, especially digital distraction, has changed a lot in recent years. Before, most people thought of resisting distraction as a matter of willpower – of training your brain to focus, setting personal rules for when to check your phone, and so on, with the implication that if you failed, you were an ill-disciplined loser.


Now that more of us understand how the attention economy works, we see things differently. There’s a vast global industry dedicated to distracting us, because our attention is the resource they’re exploiting. And it’s not a fair fight. Every time you click on a major site or social media platform, the tech critic Tristan Harris likes to say, there are “a thousand people on the other side of the screen,” paid to try to keep you there. No wonder your paltry willpower can’t compete.


All of which is true. But…


The problem with this framing is that it characterises distraction as a war between the individual and nefarious outside forces: there you are, longing to concentrate on your work or your family, when along comes Mark Zuckerberg and his evil social media platform, to lure you away against your will. To me, that ignores something crucial about the experience of distraction, which is that you don’t get dragged away against your will. You surrender willingly. It’s a relief to turn from the unpleasantness of a challenging work task, or a moment of boredom while caring for a child, to scroll through your phone instead.


If there’s a “war for our attention” – as we’re often told – our role often seems to be that of collaborators with the enemy.


At first glance, that’s really odd: why would it feel so unpleasant to do something you do care about that you’d prefer to seek out distractions, which by definition are things you don’t care about? The answer, at the most general level, is that you’re fleeing a disturbing emotional experience – some kind of unwelcome reminder of your status as a limited and finite human. (I explore this in detail in a chapter of my forthcoming book – of which plenty more here in the coming weeks, don’t you worry…)


Meaningful work stretches you, bringing you up against the edge of your talent. Difficult conversations are difficult because you don’t get to control how they’ll unfold. Boredom descends whenever you wish something was happening other than what’s happening now, and can’t do anything about it. In all such cases, the mysterious entity Mary Oliver calls “the intimate interrupter” – that “self within the self, that whistles and pounds on the door panels” – is urging you to distract yourself as a way to escape a negative feeling. Mark Zuckerberg just found an especially cunning way to take advantage when you do so.


This is why most anti-distraction hacks – web-blocking apps, noise-canceling headphones, personal rules – never seem to work very well. They involve denying yourself access to the places you usually go for relief from emotional unpleasantness. But they don’t address the unpleasantness itself. They’re not entirely useless. But if you can’t bear the fact that a given activity causes discomfort, shutting down Twitter won’t solve that problem. You’ll just find something else to do (stare out of the window, go and get a snack) to avoid the unpleasantness instead.


Stop expecting it to be easy

All of which points to a more fundamental solution to distraction, one that’s incredibly simple, but not at all easy: just stop expecting hard, important, meaningful things to feel constantly comfortable and pleasant. Consider the possibility that mild discomfort – butterflies in the stomach, a sense of difficulty, a moment of boredom – might simply be the price of doing things you care about.


And I do mean mild. I’m constantly amazed at how low the threshold is, for me – how just a tiny feeling of being challenged or tired or bored, while doing something I really want to do, is enough for me to leap eagerly away to fritter an hour on social media instead. (Severe discomfort, on the other hand, may be a sign you’re engaged in the wrong task.)


Whenever I’m able to recall that the urge to distract myself can be observed without being acted upon, the effect is quasi-magical: “Oh, right! I remember now! Important stuff sometimes just feels difficult!” Of course it does. That shouldn’t come as a surprise, really. And it isn’t a problem, either.

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