In Defense of Distractions
An Essay on the problems with fetishizing focus, and the forgotten magic of things that pull us away from our tasks.
When I first got roped into the world of productivity and personal development literature, I became obsessed with an idea: distractions. If you were to make an analogy between that world and zealous religion, distractions would be the great Satan.
What’s keeping you from quitting your soul-sucking job to start your own billion-dollar business? Distractions. What’s keeping you from having six-pack abs and winning cross-fit competitions? Distractions. What’s keeping you from meeting the person of your dreams? Distractions.
And while distractions can certainly aggravate us sometimes — and they certainly pull us away from other things — do we need to be so contemptuous of them? What do we gain by eliminating distractions? I think that question has been answered time and again. But I propose a different one: what do we stand to lose by eliminating distractions?
After all, distractions are only problematic if there’s no possible way that what is pulling you away from what you’re doing won’t bring value to you. And how can we — in our infinitesimally small foreknowledge — know the full extent of what is and isn’t going to bring value to us? I don’t think we can.
Furthermore, when we fetishize focus in the way that we have come to do, we begin to construct minds that are more rigid and narrow. We train them to block out things other than what we are trying to focus on. What we end up with is a mind that is less receptive to things other than the task at hand. It is like a muscle always tensed and always doing the same exercise. It becomes very good at that one exercise, and at tensing up in that certain way, but because it gets no reprieve from that, it becomes much less flexible and agile.
Don’t Miss the Magic
Might I suggest this: perhaps an extreme aversion to distraction might just be a manifestation of a special kind of narcissism. It’s the kind of inflated sense of self that says no idea, no plan, no vision is worthy of my attention unless I say it is beforehand — no one can convince me to look elsewhere.
Okay, high-performer, I hear you: in order to achieve your goals, you need to stay focused on them and driven. But think about how you became so driven in the first place. You didn’t emerge onto this earth with a pre-installed sense of passion for something. You lived, you dilly-dallied, you stumbled upon something that moved you. By all accounts, that thing began as a distraction. And for billions of other people, that thing is a distraction — it’s not their thing. That’s a kind of magic, isn’t it?
Well that magic happens on a smaller scale every day — or at least it can, if you let it. That magic is distraction.
Distraction is a fantastic and magical way that the world reminds your mind and your heart that there are a myriad other things out there that can bring value to your life and work. But that magic goes away if we force ourselves into the narrow dark and sound-proof tunnel of focus. In the short term, it’s a tool that can get extraordinary short-term results. But in the long-term, that hyper-focus might just dim the light of creativity, innovation, and a broader vision.
My humble suggestion is this: work to focus on things that you need to do now, but don’t beat down that wandering, distractable mind. It might wander off now and then, and it might bring you back a bunch of dirty rocks. But every once in a while, if you polish a few of them — one could be pure gold.