It’s easy to say “no” when there’s a deeper “yes” burning within.Stephen Covey
About eight weeks ago, we added a new member to our family: a golden retriever who we named Edie after one of my wife’s favorite inspirations, Saint Edith Stein. Though we are still working on her saintliness, Edie’s energy and curiosity inspire lively conversations and occasional frustrations.
Recently, Edie provided plenty of frustration as I struggled to get her around the block one morning before leaving for the office. Though just a puppy, Edie is strong and willful. Like most of us, she wants to do what captures her imagination, or at least her attention. The simple act of walking down the sidewalk became an amazing adventure as every sight, sound, movement, or smell required keen investigation.
As I gripped her leash, straining against her persistent lunging after some incredibly fascinating leaves blowing across the sidewalk, I began to laugh out loud as she chased everything that moved in a frenzy of instinctive playfulness. Moving on from the leaves, every nut, branch, tuft of grass, rock, dirt clod, or insect we passed had to be licked, sniffed, or picked-up in her mouth. The walk became comical as she chased everything we encountered and I resisted her almost every step of the way. Eventually, we finished our walk and she collapsed on the floor in our house, exhausted from the exertion.
Driving into the office, I smiled as I thought about her fascination with all of the random things along the way. Imagine walking out into the world and finding it all new again. Then multiply that with senses that are many times more powerful than our own. I’m sure Edie is overwhelmed as she tries to process all of the new inputs.
As humans, we may not have a dog’s super senses, but we have minds that see, evaluate, and process incredible amounts of information alongside motivations that are far beyond the simply instinctive. Our complexity enables us to discern in different ways but does not guarantee an ability to focus. Often, our complexity serves to distract us even further as we become enamored with the new, fascinating, or alluring.
Driven to Distraction
How often in your day or week do you find yourself chasing the “shiny objects” that appear along the way? The distractions are endless: email, social media, TV, conversations, text messages, phone calls, or even the people we see outside of our windows doing the curious things that people do. As I write this post, I’m fighting the urge to watch the televisions in the hotel lobby showing scenes of destruction from a hurricane that hit years ago. Interesting, yes. Fascinating, yes. Keeping me from writing my post, yes.
The shiny objects in our lives range from the mundane leaves blowing across our path to the more significant diversions that appear in the guise of opportunities. Our work lives are littered with the wreckage of good ideas that later turned out to be just distractions. in addition, many of us are assailed every day by individuals whose job is to draw our attention to their product, service, or idea as they try to sell us on its merits. Are they bad people? Not usually. They are just trying to make a living. Alas, that living often requires interrupting us as we go about our own business of making a living.
The sheer volume of shiny objects in our lives can make focus very difficult. Everyone is competing for attention and we have gotten really good at grabbing it. For those of us trying to accomplish anything, the dangers of distraction are many as we get delayed or derailed on important objectives, often by far less important distractions. Meanwhile, the myriad diversions and interruptions conspire to wear us down; it takes a lot of energy to discern, evaluate, manage, reject, or accept so many possibilities. I shake my head as I think of all of the leaves blowing across our paths.
We all know the dangers of distractions, yet, we all continue to wrestle to discern and then focus on priorities. We also know the power of focus. Think of the last time you brought all of your powers of concentration to bear on a specific challenge. We are capable of astounding feats when we focus. Our effectiveness is dictated by our ability to manage the tension between our distractions on the priorities on which we need to be focused. How can we do better?
Here are some ideas for managing the shiny objects in your life:
- Clarify your priorities. A few years ago, I started a habit of writing my goals and objectives down at the beginning of every day. I break them up into daily, weekly, quarterly, and annual objectives. Some days have more tasks than others but I have found that just writing my priorities down helps keep them top-of-mind. I write them alongside notes from meetings and conversations. If I start to wander during the day, I reference my objectives. If something shifts, I look at it in the context of those priorities. Keeping the short and long term objectives side by side helps me frame my immediate actions in the context of broader goals.
- Shorten Your Leash. In the case of Edie, I was able to help her focus by keeping her on a short leash. The more freely she could wander, the more intense was our struggle. A friend of mine uses the term “swim lanes.” When we narrow our ability to wander, we help ourselves focus by limiting distracting options. In your day, this could mean physical swim lanes like sitting in a specific place with limited tools to do specific work. You might also create unseen swim lanes by delegating specific tasks or responsibilities to someone else.
- Understand your internal clock. Our effectiveness ebbs and flows through the day. Right now, it is 6am and I’ve been working on this post for a while. I know that early morning is my prime time for writing and thinking and I work hard to protect that time for that purpose. We can help ourselves by bucketing activities into those times when we are better able to focus on them. Certain times of day may be better for phone calls or meetings. Certain times of day may be better for certain types of meetings. Some people like to schedule blocks of time to accommodate certain activities. By knowing ourselves and managing our peaks and valleys, we improve our ability to focus by aligning our activities with the times when we are most likely to be in the right “zone” for them.
- Avoid the near occasion of distraction. Growing up Catholic, one of the lines that sticks with me from early lessons in the Catechism is to “avoid the near occasion of sin.” The thought being that we often fail in the moment but we can help ourselves by intentionally staying away from the situations in which we may be tempted. We know what distracts us. Protect yourself by eliminating the temptation: put your phone away, close the social media tabs in your browser, turn off notifications, don’t turn the TV on, turn-off the ringer on the phone, shut your door, turn away from the window, etc. The notifications issue is a huge one – we have been conditioned to jump at the ringer, swoosh, or ding that alerts us to a new communication. Every notification is a near occasion. A complementary approach is to schedule time for your distractions and give them release in the appointed windows of time. Then, get back to your priorities.
- Start with “No”. I really have to qualify this point. I believe “yes” is a powerfully positive word. I also believe that, in general, we need to say “yes” to the universe in the sense of being open to possibilities. I spend my days trying to get other people to “yes,” primarily because I know we can help, so I am a huge believer in the affirmative. However, from a distraction perspective, “no” is good friend in the context of time. Sometimes, distractions are only distractions because of timing. This moment’s interruption could be next week’s big idea. When they were growing up, our kids would frequently come to us asking to do or get something. Invariably, their request was on their timing, not ours. We grew into a habit of saying “no” to the initial request and adjusting as we gathered more information or got to a point at which we actually had time to give it full consideration. In the world of shiny objects, starting with a “no” or “not now” might be a way to mitigate the timing issue as you give yourself space to discern – on your schedule.
On Being Opportunistic
As a proponent of a “follow the signs” approach to life, I fully embrace the notion that we have to be open to new opportunities and keep our eyes open for the indicators that appear along the way. New opportunities are great, until they aren’t. Alas, we never know until we know. How do you know when something is an opportunity or a distraction?
Look at it through the lens of your objectives. There are opportunities that gratify us, flatter us, capture our imagination, or appear as “game changers.” Most of the time, they will be distractions, yet, we still look because we all want the home run, the big one, the bold move that changes everything. Just because it looks like a “game changer” doesn’t mean that it’s not, just remember that most of your great moves are the ones that are small, intentional, daily, and sustained over time. Your focus and effort, sustained through adversity and resistance over time, is your surest path to achieving your goals. If the shiny object sits too far outside of your swim lanes or is a categorically new objective, tread carefully. To follow the signs is to be open to possibility but it also requires discernment.
The Slow Game
Regardless of how you define it, success is a slow game. We make progress in small steps with sustained effort. In contrast, shiny objects come at us rapidly. We often respond quickly because of the sense of urgency brought on by distractions. Being your best requires discipline through the slow, as you react to the fast. Begin by contemplating your priorities. Or, as Stephen Covey says it: begin with the end in mind. Once you can see that end clearly, then you can better resist the near occasions of distraction that will assail you along the way. From there, persist, knowing that small movements that often feel slow, are taking you where you are supposed to go.