Finding Focus and Minimizing Distraction

May 24, 2013 2 Comments

How often do you hear people saying they wish they were better at multitasking? And what percentage of the people surrounding you on the subway or on the sidewalk or waiting in line for something are peering into their smartphones?

We live in an era of an overwhelming amount of things to do and stuff to read, and I think it’s safe to say that many of us are finding it hard to focus and easy to get distracted. Well, the research actually shows that multitasking is NOT something we should be striving to master and attempts to multitask (or really “rapid toggling between tasks” because our brains literally cannot do two things at once) likely make us LESS productive rather than more.

A close friend turned me onto this incredibly refreshing and free ebook, Focus: A Simplicity Manifesto in the Age of Distraction by Leo Babauta. Babauta points out that addiction to checking email, surfing the web, and checking social media works the same way as addiction to drugs or junk food – “you do the activity, and right away, you’re rewarded with something pleasurable but don’t feel the negative consequences until much later.” Yikes. I know I am guilty. Are you? Babauta makes a really insightful distinction between three different modes that our minds need to process separately –creating, communicating, and consuming. Every time we switch between these modes, we’re taking away from the time we are actually hurting our creative process. Babauta makes this suggestion: “separate your day: a time for creating, and a time for consuming and communicating. And never the twain shall meet.” I have set the intention for myself to move towards this separation in my life. I wonder how many people doing social justice work are practicing this? How many of us are absolutely not? We simply must learn to make room for creating and being creative individually and together – the challenges we face are too great to continue giving our creative time the short shrift. Babauta offers some really powerful strategies to make this shift and I’m going to see what I can learn from trying some of them out over the course of the coming months.

Along with a couple of my friends and colleagues, Gibrán Rivera and Andrea Nagel, I have begun an experiment to this end. Gibrán always reminds me that we only set ourselves up for disappointment if we try to bite off more than we can chew (for example, setting a goal that’s far from my current reality like going from exercise once/week to five times/week all at once). We can actually change our habits in a sustained way when we take BABY STEPS. So, I’m experimenting with what a new baby step looks like for me each week (as I strive ultimately to spend more of my time in a focused and creative space, and less time in my inbox and on social media).

My first baby step was no smart phone in bed (embarrassing, but true). I was moderately successful at this over the course of one week. My next baby step was no smart phone 30 minutes before bed and I dismally failed. So for the third week, I tried again to put that same baby step into practice. Experimenting in this way along with a couple of friends keeps me accountable for my successes and failures each week, and helps me be compassionate with myself as I realize I am not alone in the Age of Distraction. Taking one baby step at a time, I have confidence that I and we can make this shift! Because we must.


  • Charles Jones says:

    Really enjoyed this post, Jen. Good luck with your baby steps.

  • Jen Willsea says:

    Thanks, Charlie!

    On a related note, my dentist tells me that teeth grinding and jaw clenching are an epidemic. To me this is just one more piece of evidence of how off track we are as a society. We have so much work to do rediscover balance and wholeness and for all of us to live there. By “there” I mean in that place of balance and wholeness.

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