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Getting strict, not restricted, with a distracted mind

As I sit here starting to write, I already feel my monkey mind trying to distract me. I have been distracted a lot recently. This lockdown has, at times, made me feel blocked in. In fact, sometimes, I find that even my own distractions are seeking a distraction. This, I know, is my own self-sabotage in the form of resistance, a common writers’ trait.

It’s at this stage, as I often do, when I reflect and really look at my habits, what is taking me away from my focus and, how I can change this. Yes, writing down habits really does shame the mind. I am aware of one distracting habit in particular and, this I call ‘the explorer loses the map.’ This is when I am writing and a thought pops up in my head, for example this blog post, and I want to know how often we spend reading, writing and responding to our emails each week (it’s 28 per cent of our work week or 2.5 hours a day according to a study by McKinsey Global Institute). But that little nugget of information does not stop there for me, it leads onto other things to read, more studies, more research, more enticing areas to explore on Google. Before I know it, I am deep into the rabbit hole exploring my fascination with distraction and what should have taken a few minutes has gone into…well, you don’t want to know, or rather I don’t want to admit to.

Active vs reactive work That’s the thing, the thirst for knowledge, to know straight away, it’s all so easy. I used to be an incredibly focused person (actually, I still am), but I do know that I am susceptible to distractions and in the past, I have simply changed my environment and gone to a café to work. Simple. But with all the cafes closed until mid-January (in Antwerp, Belgium where I live) it’s like my distractions have really turned on me.

One way to stop this habit of reacting straight away is to take a note of the things I want to look up, so maintaining my focus, staying in the present and making a commitment to look up further information later in the day i.e., keep the morning for active work and the afternoon for reactive work. I know I am at my best in the mornings, when I am most alert, my brain at its most creative. This, of course is a discipline, and I often find an incredible urge (similar to Smegal from Lord of the Rings) tempting me to go to Google, but like Frodo, I must resist. In fact, when I looked up quotes related to discipline, one that really resonated and which I have now pinned to my computer is by Abraham Lincoln who said; “Discipline is choosing between what you want now, and what you want most.” I just have to glance at that quote every time I feel my mind being distracted again.

Identifying habits leads to focus But there is also a book that has helped me over the years which I always refer to when I notice a pattern of behaviour emerging and need tips on reigning it in; Manage your day to day: Build your routine, find your focus and sharpen your creative mind by Scott Belsky. This book has advice from 20 leading creative minds giving their tips on four topics: Building a Solid Rock Routine, Finding Focus in a Distracted World, Taming Your Tools and, Sharpening Your Creative Mind. You see, another habit has emerged too, not taking enough breaks away from the screen and not unplugging my mind enough. So, these tips from the book are the equivalent, for me, of being back at school and being told things you already know, but just need reminding such as;

Pulse and pause - Move between spending and renewing your energy. Ninety-minute bursts and taking a break.

Defend your creative time - Book time on your calendar for uninterrupted, focused work – and respect those blocks of time as you would a client meeting

Give your brain a break – Alternate challenging creative work with more ‘mindless’ tasks to give your brain time to rest and refuel.

Be conscious of your band width – practice letting go of certain email and social media conversations. There will always be more opportunities than you can actually take on (I have decided to let go of the 7,068 emails which I have accumulated, thinking “I will read later.”)

Hit the reset button – make a ritual of unplugging on a regular basis. Turning everything off is like hitting the ‘reset’ button on your mind – it gives you a fresh start.

Love your limitations – Look at constraints as a benefit rather than an impediment. They activate our creative thinking by upping the ante. (Totally!)

So, these are the tips I am taking away with me, at this moment. Of course, my habits will likely change again but being aware of habits helps us deal with them and, to ensure they don’t limit our creativity and productivity. While technology has opened our minds, it has also led to a distracted mind and as filmmaker Tiffany Shlain, author of The Power of Unplugging One Day a Week’ (which I am currently reading and working towards doing what the title of the book suggests) says; “The real problem is not technology. I think we need to evolve to know when to turn it off.” I will be reporting back on how I get on with unplugging for one day a week…after I have broken the news to my children, I am not doing this on my own!

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