Traction, Distraction, and Tetris!

Breakfast Anxiety

On Sunday mornings, I sometimes attempt a stressful activity.

I make eggs, hash browns, and bacon for breakfast.

The eggs stress me out.

If they’re fried, my partner  E. likes them with a soft yoke. If they’re scrambled, she doesn’t like them rubbery. Neither of us like the eggs cold.

To cope with the discomfort of Goldilocks eggs and hash browns and bacon that are at least warm, I could theoretically pay  attention to the relative cooking times and plan accordingly. Nah!

What I do instead is listen to a podcast or audiobook to take my mind off things as I wing it.

Escaping Discomfort

One Sunday breakfast, my podcast of choice is an episode of The One You Feed: “Becoming Indistractible with Nir Eyal,” and the first words I hear are:

“Time management is pain management. Everything we do is about a desire to escape discomfort.”

And I break out laughing because I’m not sure whether this statement is always true, but it’s certainly true at the moment I hear it.

Pulling Me In

Eyal continues saying things that might be true. Both the word traction and distraction come from the Latin root trahere,  which means to pull. I think of a tractor, which pulls farm equipment and a bad skiing accident that might land me in traction.

So it only makes sense that in order to get distracted, you must first be performing an action that is pulling you in an intended direction.

The subtitle to Eyal’s book Indistractible is How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life, so where I pull is up to me.

Right now, setting the table, putting the bacon in the microwave, watching the hashbrowns, and waiting to start the eggs are all pulling me toward  breakfast. Traction.

Right now, any activity that isn’t pulling in this direction would be distraction.

I wonder for a moment whether the podcast episode I’m listening to is a distraction. It’s not pulling me away from anything that I’m doing to get breakfast on the table, so I determine that it  isn’t.

Turning My Values into Time

In order to know what traction and distraction look like at any given moment, I need to start by turning my values into time.

My current tool of choice for this is the Love/Play/Work/Health dashboard from Designing Your Life.

Example:

Love: Loosely defined as human connection. I block out an hour from 12:30-1:30 pm each Wednesday for a “Connection Hour” Zoom Meetup.

Play: Community member Sam currently hosts a Game Night on Tuesdays and I block out 6:30-8:30 pm just for the fun of it.

Work: Monday-Friday, I use the Pomodoro Technique so that I can block out 25-minute chunks of time (interspersed with  5-minute breaks) to pull in the direction of specific, defined tasks, which I write down at the beginning of each period.

Health: I block out time for meditation, light exercise, gratitude journaling, and reframing things that don’t go my way before starting work.

When I catch myself doing something else during these times, I know I’m distracted.

Internal and External Triggers and Problems

According to Eyal, there are only three sources of distraction: internal triggers, external triggers, and problems.

I’ve never been to an AA meeting, but I like the HALT acronym as a starting point for internal discomfort signals. Hungry  Angry Lonely and Tired. Others might include Boredom, Frustration, Uncertainty.

External triggers might include ping notifications from phones and computers informing me my urgent attention is required. It might also include having too many apps open, too many things on my desk vying for my attention, etc. Eyal says the most common external trigger in many workplaces is a side effect of the open office floor plan: people stopping by to talk.

Problems include tools and unanticipated events. Right now, my work is dependent on my Scrivener app, monitor, electricity, and keyboard working. If the tools or information I need to continue with a given task for the designated period of time aren’t available, I can get distracted by a problem. If the smoke alarm goes off or I notice water on the floor, I’ll probably stop for that too. 

Example: I caught myself (playing Tetris).

Instead of doing what I had planned, which was (initial edits of the rough draft of this blog post).

The trigger was (internal).

I was feeling a little (afternoon fatigue).

Possible solution: ______________.

Note: The same afternoon fatigue that lured me into  playing Tetris prevents me from coming up with a good solution right now. But that’s okay. Every distraction that I track gives me insight into how, when, and why I get distracted. By blocking out a few minutes each week (after I review my Love/Play/Work/Health dashboard), I can begin making baby steps toward becoming indistractible.

Is Tetris Traction or Distraction?

What I like about this time management tool is that it’s not about maximizing productivity. It’s about maximizing choice. If I schedule time to play Tetris (or watch Netflix or any other activity) just for the fun of it, or to stop thinking about work at the end of the day, it can be my traction.

As a bonus, by blocking out time for it, I’ll actually enjoy it more because I won’t feel guilty thinking about all the other things I could be doing. And if I do, I’ll just enter them in my distraction tracker.

Explore the Distraction Tracker Well-Being Habit

1. Block out a small chunk of time once a week. Maybe 5 minutes for starters?

Example: 

After my 11:00 a.m. Secular Buddhism Zoom Call on Sunday.

I will spend 5 minutes blocking out time for a specific Love/Play/Work/Health activity.

Then I will celebrate, “Yay me!” for building some traction into my life.

2. After the designated time has passed for something I have planned , if I…

a. Performed the intended activity for the intended period, I will celebrate.

b. Got distracted, I will run the distraction tracker, then I will celebrate.

3. After I block out next week’s traction, I will review my distraction tracker for possible insights.

Author: Bruce Cantwell

Writer, journalist and long-time mindfulness practitioner.