The Modern Battle

Your attention is your most valuable possession. Give it as a gift to the people you love most, not a bunch of clowns on the Internet. Give it to the work that matters most, not distractions.
— Leo Babauta

The Problem

Much has been written about how distracted we are all becoming in our daily lives. Nothing new there.

What surprises me is just how submissive and accepting we, myself included, all are to this.

I’ve been listening to Tim Ferriss’ excellent podcast recently, and was blown away by an interview with ex-chess prodigy Joshua Waitzkin in which he shares some of his thoughts and techniques he now uses in his current role as a performance coach.

A stand-out quote from the interview which really hit home with me, was that for many people today, “the creative process is dominated by external noise as opposed to internal music”. Much of the focus of his teaching (which is frequently to extremely successful fund managers and CEOs) is on “creating rhythms in life that are based on feeding the unconscious mind - the wellspring of creativity - and then tapping it”.

Joshua talks about techniques for systematically training yourself to foster this behaviour, many of which relate to getting out of your own way and unlearning “mental additions” (like compulsive email checking) we perhaps aren’t even aware we have. When we break these down, we are able to harness our true potential.

To me, many of these mental additions are being Trojan-horse’d little by little into our lives through technology.

As an example, it seems like every app we now install on our phones wants a piece of us before we’ve even had chance to evaluate it. We’re used to seeing “App X wants to send you push notifications” almost daily. Now websites are getting in on the action as browsers themselves are starting to support push notifications. We’re all getting a barrage of email and other digital pokes on the shoulder all requiring attention, however momentarily, of some sort.

A tweet by Jordan Crawford struck a chord recently on this very subject:

Most of my life is spent clearing near-useless notifications on my phone. Everyone is #growthhacking me.

Someone else’s objectives, not ours. No bueno.

Research is telling us that we are getting distracted on average every 11 minutes, and that it takes us up to 25 minutes to regain the focus we had. Clearly that maths doesn’t add up.

There’s something about this behaviour which appeals to our need for personal attention and to feel connected in an ever connected digital world, but an increasingly disconnected emotional one.

Possible Solutions - YMMV

So, what to do?

Firstly, I believe a structure in which to at least control distractions is necessary. I started reading Mason Currey’s Daily Rituals: How Artists Work recently, and whilst I’m not all the way through yet, what has already become very apparent, is that many prolific creative types have built structure, almost unforgivingly, into their daily habits. Rising, sleeping, eating (even repeatedly the eating the same foods) and performing mundane rituals at the same time each day. On the surface it seems boring, slightly crazy and contrary to creativity, but it’s evident it’s that framework and baseline that allows the creativity to flow. Essentially, getting out of their own way and removing the need to think about the mundane and rely solely on willpower or mood.

Were any of these great artists putting themselves in a position to be interrupted during their most important work? I would very much doubt it.

Taking it into the business world, 37signals have written a lot about the benefits of constraints being advantages in disguise, and I fundamentally believe that when the possibilities are limitless (like the blank page, or a project that could be anything), results you are proud of are that much harder to come by.

A key technique that Joshua Waitzkin advocates is meditation — some of his clients attributing it to be the single most important contributor to their success. This is not away-with-the-fairies, new agey stuff - it’s “as deep and as powerful a tool as I could possibly describe” — which is precicely why he has many of the most powerful financial players meditating deeply.

I recently started learning meditation from Los Angeles-based Light Watkins. Almost as soon as I heard Light talking about his experiences and the benefits of meditation, I wanted what he has. A rooted calmness, connection to self, and a body and mind operating in balance. Surely a key to successful living.

If you look, you can find a meditation coach locally, or sign up for Light’s online course. I haven’t been doing it long, but I can already feel benefits beginning.

We’re all born with practically limitless potential, but whether that is truly tapped depends on the direction we choose to set sail and how much the waters buffer us en route to the next shore. You don’t need to control those waters (in fact, it’s insanity to think you can), but you can control your reaction to them, and I suspect that’s something that meditation can dramatically help with. As Bill Bowerman said, “Everything you need is already inside.

One other technique I am trying to use is to build willpower by trying to break or create one new habit a month. It could be as simple or difficult as you like - floss each day, no screen time after 10pm, etc. The service Lift is helping a lot with this - you can join or add a habit within the app, and then check-in once completed each day. Other people working on the same goal are there for solace or discussion and make you realise that your own pain points in any given task are typically very common and you’re not struggling alone.

The latest research suggests it takes 66 days to install a new habit, but from what I’ve found, two weeks is enough to make it feel at least natural to me. The rest seems to be enforcement.

Finally, some more advice from that Waitkins interview: do not soak in input after restoration periods. The peak of your creativity comes after any form of restoration (sleep, exercise, doing anything remotely inspiring), so harness that feeling rather than wasting it on something reactionary (email, reading mostly irrelevant “news” etc).


So, if you take anything from this excessively long post — which I’m really writing to myself to reinforce my own beliefs and to help walk my own talk, I’m certainly no expert — it’s that the distractions of modern life have their place (I’m not advocating becoming a dinosaur - well, unless it’s a T-Rex, but they need to be batched and taken complete control of before they begin to control you, meditation is a key cornerstone of tapping your own potential and internal peace, and if you are fortunate enough to have the freedom to choose what you work or spend your time on, you should look closely at your routines and build a daily architecture which is based around understanding your own completely unique creative or productive process.

Those chumps on the internet will still be there when you’re done.

If you have any relevant thoughts, I’d love to hear them.


Photo: Downtown Los Angeles