Don’t think about:
- That email right now
- Your next meeting right now
- The project that’s due on Monday right now
- Any other obvious thing that occupies your mind right now
The point is, it’s very difficult to clear our mind of the many present and urgent things so that we can get into deep thinking and deep work. Interruptions, mental and otherwise get in the way.
I’ve written a few blog posts about the technology and “always connected” habits that we’ve gotten into that deplete our ability to think deeply about important issues. But, even if we eliminate the technology of the day (our Russian lived over 100 years before an internet browser existed) we still have difficulty avoiding the distractions of the moment.
I’ve been working at understanding my own distractions and how I can avoid them long enough to do some deep thinking. One model that comes to mind is the Kubler-Ross stages of grief.
I’ve used these stages as a model for dealing with difficult feedback. Maybe they can help us with distractions as well.
Stage 1: Denial
- I can handle this.
- It will only take a minute.
- It doesn’t really distract me.
- I can get back to my thoughts immediately.
The first stage is to get real about the impact of the distraction. Study after study tells us that if we divert our mind to another topic, it takes a great deal of time to get reoriented and back on track. Don’t kid yourself. Distractions are costly.
Stage 2: Emotion
With the Kubler-Ross model, we’re usually thinking about anger. But it’s not just anger, it’s any emotion. I think the distracting emotion here is elation.
- It will be fun to just check Facebook for a minute.
- I just want to see what last night’s scores were.
- Connecting with my friend cheers me up.
Caving into your emotions is costly.
Stage 3: Bargaining
- It’s only a few seconds.
- This won’t take long.
- I need the fix to keep my energy up.
You can bargain all you want but it’s still a distraction. Even the time it takes to bargain is costly.
Stage 4: Depression
- What’s the point, I’ll never get good at this anyway.
- What makes me think I could generate a good result simply by avoiding distractions.
- I’m just not that good.
Avoiding time for deep thought for any reason is costly. Convincing yourself that you’re not good enough even if you give yourself the time becomes self-fulfilling.
Stage 5: Acceptance
- I can get better at this.
- I may stumble to start with but I’ll get better over time.
- Each time I avoid the distractions helps me get better at doing it again next time.
Believing that you can do this and accomplish it in small steps is rewarding and avoids the cost.
Stage 6: Action
Once you get into the habit of avoiding the distractions you’ll be amazed at the productivity and joy it provides.
Kubler-Ross tells us that we go through all of these stages when it comes to grief. It’s just that each person goes through them at a different pace.
You’ll never avoid them but if you get good at speeding through them you get better. Just to make myself clear, speeding through them doesn’t mean caving into the distractions quicker. It means to get beyond the temptation of each stage quicker.