Why It’s Harder Than Ever to Stay Focused and Do Our Best Work

A Game of Ideas

“Sitting on a throne is a thousand times harder than winning one.” ― George R.R. Martin

I love good ideas. Especially new ones.

I love exploring ideas-twisting and turning them around in my mind, inspecting them from different angles, asking them questions, poking them, throwing them around a bit. And if they stands up to all my jostling and prodding, I love incorporating new ideas into my life, into how how I view the world.

Because when I get to incorporate new ideas into my life, I get to grow. And there’s no greater high than growth, no more powerful and intoxicating drug than personal expansion. I live for it.

I also love making stuff.

For me, making usually takes the form of writing. As much as I love discovering new ideas, I also love creating ideas and putting them out into the world.

A lot of people talk about the anxiety of hitting PUBLISH, and watching their writing go out into the world. I can’t relate; I just get excited. I can’t wait to see what people think of it, what sorts of questions they come up with, what worked and what didn’t.

It’s a game to me—a big, wild game of ideas. And I love to play both sides of it—input and oputput, consumption and production.

But it’s not all fun and games.

Of course these two sides of the game of ideas are inextricably linked and dependent on each other-you can’t produce good ideas of your own without consuming those of others first.

But these two sides can sabotage each other. Specifically, the urge to consume and revel in new ideas often prevents me from doing the hard work of producing my own ideas. Ranging over the vast wildernesses of ideas can be so pleasurable that I get lost out there. So much so that I neglect my other responsibilities and loves.

As much as I love publishing new work, producing it can be tortuous.And when faced with the often times tortuous task of producing my own ideas, going exploring for other people’s ideas sounds a lot more appealing.

As I sit here right now writing this piece, I’ve probably deleted five times as many paragraphs as I’ve written. And each one is a little blow that makes me sad and frustrated and has me questioning this whole writing project.

It’s rough, this writing thing–this making thing.

And because we’re human, we tend to resist what’s rough, and hard, and difficult. Especially when exciting alternatives are so close at hand.

Wired for New

“We keep moving forward, opening new doors, and doing new things, because we’re curious and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.” - Walt Disney

As human beings, we’re wired for novelty. I’ll spare you a long diversion into evolutionary psychology, except to say that it’s baked into our nature to be constantly on the lookout for shiny new stuff and to chase after it as quickly as we can.

And this isn’t a bad thing in and of itself. It played an integral role in our survival as a species, and continues to contribute to our tendency to be inquisitive, curious, and creative. Good stuff.

The problem is that like so many of our strengths, this craving for novelty can be hijacked and, ultimately, turned against us. And the smartphone is a hijacker like none we’ve ever encountered.

We’re not prepared for curiosity without constraints, for knowledge without limits.

Because of its hyper-connected, ever-present nature, our smartphones have removed most of the natural (and useful) constraints on our curiosity.Increasingly, we have unfettered access to the best, newest, most compelling ideas in the world. Right there in our pockets!

This is something we’re deeply unprepared for.

Culturally, psychological, and biologically we’re just not ready for a world of unlimited good ideas. We’re not prepared for curiosity without constraints, for knowledge without limits.

And while there’s an important discussion beginning to pick up steam about the larger cultural consequences of our hyperconnected digital world, I want to focus on specific and much more personal aspect of that larger question:

How is is a hyperconnected world and our increasing smartphone-enabled addiction to novelty getting in the way of our personal productivity and values?

How is the never ending stream of genuinely interesting ideas and stories our phones give us access to making it harder to do the work that really matters to us, especially the utterly un-sexy and tedious parts of that work?

The Subtle Threat of ‘High-Quality’ Distractions

“This new epidemic of distraction is our civilization’s specific weakness.” -Andrew Sullivan

Suppose you’re thinking about starting a new business or side project.

You found a killer idea, have the beginnings of a strategy in place, and you’re getting down to work: Writing code, starting a blog, hand-crafting 18th century colonial furniture, etc.

While the initial excitement of starting a new project probably carried you through the first week or two with lots of motivation and focus, some of the novelty and therefore motivation is beginning to wear off. Which is really just another way of saying, other things are starting to look more enticing.

Each day when you sit down at your desk/workbench, there’s a little less motivation to start working and a little more motivation to check your email, open Facebook, fiddle with broken the garage door opener, etc.

So many distractions.

Don’t blame the cat videos!

In some cases, these distractions are completely trivial–the proverbial cat videos on YouTube. But the more dangerous distractions are the opposite of trivial–they’re significant, substantial, meaningful, and useful.

The most devastating distractions to our work are genuinely good ideas and stories out there:

These aren’t trivial things. They’re often wonderful things that could have important positive effects that other people have poured their careers into. They’re what I call high quality distractions because they’re genuinely good and interesting ideas but distractions nonetheless.

I actually don’t think most of us would have nearly the same difficulty getting our work done and avoiding distractions if the internet was simply full of cat videos and middle school sports fails.

While these trivial distractions may pull us away from our work initially, what keeps us distracted is the high quality stuff. The ideas and stories that really resonate with and inspire us are the ones that are most pernicious when it comes to getting our work done.

“Enough with the cat videos!” is a much easier and compelling argument to make to ourselves than “Stop reading that fascinating, well-researched New Yorker piece on how Facebook is ripping apart the fabric of civilized society.”

When we have increasingly easy access to the best ideas in the world, it’s that much harder to get back to work.

We All Need Boundaries on Good Ideas

“Discipline is the bridge between goals and accomplishment.” - Jim Rohn

It’s the great irony of our time that in an age where we have more good ideas and advice for how to work productively, it’s actually harder to do our work because we’re bombarded by so many high quality distractions.

While objectively good ideas, these new and exciting high quality distractions make persevering through the inevitable boring and tedious stages of our work more and more intolerable. Which leads us to increasingly give up on projects and work, always flitting from one good idea to another without ever seeing any of them through.

As the availability of good ideas increases, our tolerance for boredom decreases - and with it, our ability to just put our heads down and get to work.

To fight back and persevere in doing our best work, we need to learn how to intentionally set limits and boundaries on the good ideas we all have access to all day long. We need to cultivate a kind of discipline and fortitude that says, “I have access to everything, and yet, I choose this one thing, even when it’s boring and hard.”

I think it’s an open question as to how best to do this - something we as a society are going to have to work out in the years and decades to come: How exactly should be meet and manage the most pressing challenge of the Information Age?

Frankly, I don’t know.

But I do have a couple suggestions for getting started. Strategies that have helped me in my own small ways draw a line in the sand and decide that one good idea seen through to the end is worth dozens of good ideas casually skimmed.

Here they are:

1. Try a Digital Declutter Experiment

In early 2018, I participated in a 30-day digital declutter challenge created by Cal Newport. The idea was to remove all “optional digital technology” from my life for 30 days and then only add back in those that genuinely “added value” to my life.

For a month I stopped reading all my regular blogs and newsletters, didn’t read the news or check social media, I didn’t even use my phone for jotting down notes or ideas.

There were a lot of beneficial effects, some of the productivity oriented ones I wrote about here.

But maybe the most important effect of this experiment was to learn on a deep, experiential level that life is actually pretty okay without a constant stream of new and exciting ideas.

Deep down, I think a lot of us are resistant to giving up our digital lives because we’re afraid. Of what? Well, it’s hard to say.

For me it was a kind of intellectual FOMO, Fear of Missing Out on Good Ideas. For you it may be something else.

But in any case, simply thinking more about or reading more about our fear of letting go of all the new and shiny ideas on the internet won’t budge us out of that fear. Only real experience can do that. Which is why I recommend some sort of challenge or experiment like this.

To get started, try reading a little about how other have done one of these “digital detoxes”:

2. Practice Being Bored

While long stretches of boredom are probably not something to aspire to, we all need to be more okay with short bursts of boredom if we want to avoid chronic distraction and procrastination.

Here’s an example:

I often procrastinate on finishing drafts of articles because there’s no excitement left in them. All that’s left is the tedium of correcting typos, cropping images, and selecting pull quotes. Boring.

Because I have such a thin skin for boredom, I tend to avoid these tasks, getting lost in the thrill of someones breathtaking account of going viral on Medium or how they published their first book with only 100 followers.

But if I could have tolerated that little surge of boredom that popped up when I considered editing my draft, I would have just gotten it done and been able to move on to something else more without the nagging guilt of procrastination.

The cost of avoiding even small doses of boredom is that we end up spending surprisingly large chunks of time lost in exciting but ultimately unproductive procrastination spirals.

A little trick I’ve developed for beefing up my tolerance for boredom is something I call The 2 Minute Drill.

Whenever I feel that aversive boredom feeling, I set a little timer on my phone for 2 minutes and tell myself, “Okay, just do it for 2 minutes. If, after that, you still feel bored, you have permission to do something else.”

Inevitably the momentum of just getting stuff done ends up overriding that small burst of boredom, which has the twin beneficial effects of A) increasing my tolerance for boredom, and B) avoiding procrastination.

Summary & Conclusion

The rise of smartphone has enabled a near-constant torrent of high quality distractions-good, useful, and compelling ideas that are nonetheless distractions. And it’s these high quality distractions that are most likely to interfere with our ability to accomplish our goals and do our best work, especially the boring and difficult parts.

It’s time to recognize and call out this flood of distraction as a legitimate threat to doing the work we love and, ultimately, living a satisfying life. We must learn to set effective and lasting boundaries on these distractions and the technologies that enable them. This will be difficult, but it will be worth it.

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