Avoiding Distraction

Right now, I'm looking at a stack of stamped, sealed envelopes stuffed with checks to cover gas, electricity, sewer and water, and garbage/recycling service. Last Saturday, the checks were signed, the envelopes sealed and stamps applied. Since then, they've sat exactly where they are now and I've glanced at them at least a dozen times and thought, "Hey, I've got to mail those!"

But I get distracted. A new email comes in, the phone rings, new job notifications arrive for my LinkedIn profile, iTunes plays a song I don't like, the cat pukes on the just-folded laundry, and the envelopes approach a state of permanent accessory. Gradually, the fourteen second task of running my bills out to the mailbox is indefinitely prolonged, late fees are automatically applied, a guttural laugh slowly erupts from deep in the once-occupied-by-a-heart-but-now-devoid-of-all-but-malice thorax of a sub-comptroller in the accounts receivable department at Nicor, the cat pukes on the new area rug, and I look at the envelopes and think, "Oh yeah, I've got to mail those!"

Distraction is a monster. Insidious and ever-present, it's the hardest enemy to escape. Even just sitting down to write this blog, I've allowed myself to be interrupted eight times. That's the crux in writing a blog: it's on the Internet, which happens to be the source of every major time suck in my life. I finally managed to click the "new post" button after responding to three Facebook messages, addressing two Facebook notifications, clicking on a Stella Artois ad and falling in a deep and profound love with Audrey and the 9 Step Pouring Ritual. I mean, gosh and golly, how lovely is her draught technique? And the accent...

What the hell was I talking about? Distraction! Right. You've got to fight it, and it takes every ounce of strength in your discipline thermos to do it. I'm so weak to distraction that the simple act of adding the links in the previous paragraph caused another twelve minute lapse in finishing this post. I'm sure this played into losing my job, as my productivity wasn't anywhere near my potential. Maintaining focus on the job at hand is difficult when that job is uninteresting or in conflict with expectations. Even in a job that's a good fit, it's easy to get distracted.

I personally like to think it's not Facebook or YouTube or iTunes or cat puke that's distracting. It's the work you don't want to deal with that's distracting. The negative emotions tied to paying bills or routing drafts for approvals or submitting daily reports to your supervisor are the distraction. That's why those other things own your focus in the moment.

How can distraction be eliminated? The best way I've found is to avoid the idea of multitasking. Historically, I've been a multitasking fiend; twenty different windows open, eight tabs in Chrome, carrying on a phone conversation while responding to an email. It's something I used to pride myself on. Multitasking, though, is just a sanctioned form of distraction. "I know we've got you working on X, Y, and Z right now, but please take a look at A, B, and C immediately. Then get back to X, Y, and Z. But not before we toss γ, λ, and β at you just for fun."  Lately, I'm coming around to the idea that results all around are better when every ounce of attention is focused on one project at a time, and short-term deadlines throughout the day are adhered to. This not only achieves better quality on each project, but also helps to set expectations for coworkers.

Multitasking, in my opinion, has become one of the worst evils unleashed on employees by the corporate model. There's an ideal posited by business culture that a productive employee needs to consistently juggle multiple projects, be available 24/7 via email and telephone, and have an accurate answer to any work-related question instantaneously. That's a model that leads to otherwise easily avoidable errors. It seeks quantity not quality and trades efficiency for mindless yield, and what's the point in that? The pressures created by that kind of atmosphere lead to self destruction and poor oversight. Under the strain to keep all those balls in the air, be available constantly, and be ready at a moment's notice to expound upon the details and status of each project, people will fail. What's more, in my experience, the business world isn't the least bit forgiving. Mistakes are not tolerated. Do one thousand things right, and no one notices. Screw one thing up, and everyone calls for your termination. What a horrific combination for a healthy society.

Distraction isn't limited to daily duties. It happens in a macro sense, too. It's easy to get distracted from long term goals by short term successes or failures. In the past month, I've reacquainted myself with goals I set for myself years ago but abandoned through attrition in the intervening time. Some simple, some complex, but all of which I've finally been able to clarify for myself. All this "how did I get here" and "what do I want out of life" evaluation stuff hasn't just been for shits and giggles, and it's revealed to me that I let myself get off the track almost as soon as I got on. At least I've been able to backtrack to a point that now makes sense as a new starting line, and I'm off and running. No more detours, no more diversions, no more distractions.

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