“Focus is often a matter of deciding what things you’re not going to do.” - John Carmack
Distractions. Our world has become a constant feed of information and entertainment. We take our phones with us everywhere we go. We connect to the internet wirelessly from thousands of locations. We are fed messages relentlessly from advertisements on nearly every flat surface. And we are bombarded with a 24-hour news cycle. Each enter our mind with one goal: Gain control of our attention and resources.
With so much information battling for space in our mind, it’s no wonder our attention span has been steadily shrinking. In The Shallows: What The Internet Is Doing To Our Brains, Nicholas Carr points out that in 2000, the average amount of time we could stay focused on one task without our mind wandering to something new was 12 seconds. Today, it’s 8 seconds. The information age may be literally rewiring our brains.
Certainly these types of distractions are ones that we all relate to on some level. But I often wonder if these small diversions might not be nearly as harmful to our lives as the larger distractions that drive us away from accomplishing our most significant goals. The trivial-information-overload distractions may pull our attention from the work right in front of us, but the larger distractions in life may keep us from realizing the life we truly desire to live… and yet, these distractions go virtually unnoticed.
For example, the distraction of a lucrative and powerful career has the opportunity to distract us from using our talents to benefit our immediate community. The distraction of maintaining a large and perfect home may pull us from caring for the people living in it. The urge to check up on our Facebook friends steals more of our time than the friends right in front of us. And the opportunity to spend money on newer and trendier possessions may divert us from using it to accomplish a greater good in this world. In each case, the distraction keeps us from accomplishing a greater significance with our lives.
These are the distractions that can cause irreversible harm in our lives. But unfortunately, far too often, they go unnoticed. Our lives go unevaluated. As a result, we are lured by them away from true significance in our lives. And our greatest goals go unmet.
How then, do we recognize these large – yet subtle – distractions in our lives? How do we regularly assess the path of our lives to ensure that we are seeking and investing into the most significant? Perhaps it’s not as hard as we imagine… maybe it only requires a little intentionality and effort. And often times, realizing the need for it is the first step.
Additionally, consider committing time and effort to one of these helpful keys to identify the presence of significant distractions in our lives:
1. Be mindful of the culture we’re swimming in. All around us, nearly every moment of the day, messages are battling for space in our minds. They are promoting products, messages, and world-views. Often times, the urgent voices will be far louder than the significant ones. Identify both the messages and their source. And make intentional decisions because of it.
2. Pause and reflect. Next time you desire to make a purchase, check Facebook, work late, or engage in a habit that controls you… pause. Consider the urge and reflect upon it. Is it really the most effective use of your time/money? Or is there something more significant you can accomplish with your limited resources?
3. Review and record. Commit to journaling your time and/or financial outlay over the course of one week. Each evening, spend 5-10 minutes to make some rough notes on your day. How much time did I spend working? How much energy did I put towards my family, my friends, or my faith? To what end did I use my financial resources this week? The hard evidence of your life’s focus will become easy to diagnose and difficult to argue with when you see it on paper.
4. Get some outside perspective. Ask a trusted friend, a spouse, or family member to speak into your life. Consider asking this simple question, “Hey, I’ve been doing some life evaluation lately. Have you noticed any unhealthy habits in my life?” When they answer, don’t get defensive. Instead, search deeply for the truth in their response.
5. Find time alone. Begin to practice moments of solitude away from the distractions of this world. The more you cultivate this practice, the more comfortable you’ll become with it. And the more comfortable you become with it, the more you’ll allow the silence to reveal your true heart, desires, and intentions.
6. Seek some inspiration. Surround yourself with people who are living out your goals. Surround yourself with people who are accomplishing the greater goods with their lives. You’ll find numerous people online who can encourage you from a distance. But they’ll never replace the interpersonal interaction with a friend right in front of you. Seek them out.
7. Live with fewer possessions. Often times, the things we own become far more of a distraction to our lives than we realize. We spend time and money researching them, purchasing them, organizing them, cleaning them, fixing them, discarding them, and replacing them. Our possessions often add more burden to our life than benefit. And you’ll never fully realize the benefits of living with less, until you actually choose to pursue it.
There is little doubt our world is filled with distractions – it always has been. And there is little doubt that those who achieve the greatest significance in life learn to manage them effectively. It is certainly worth the investment to recognize them in our lives and make the necessary life adjustments… after all, we only get one shot at it.