Distraction

I often think of watching TV as a distraction.  

The word itself is important.  Distraction.  It seems like it comes unbidden from somewhere outside of the normal noise of my daily thoughts – below, above, I don’t know – but I don’t think about the activity, and decide on the world “distraction” – it’s already there.

I used to go through long, involved thought exercises, trying to distill out exactly why I was fixated on this idea – distraction – an idea that feels powerful and important to me, but also has been difficult to nail down, to keep in place long enough to actually understand and form an opinion worthy of action on.

Having had difficulty defining what I’m really talking about, all I can do to give it shape is to work backward from practical examples and hope something meaningful appears:

Playing video games?  Distraction.  Eating junk food?  Distraction.  Facebook?  Distraction.  Twitter?  Distraction.

Some things are less clear.  Cleaning the garage? Maybe a distraction.  Reading a book?  Harder to say, but probably not a distraction. Going for a walk?  Watching a good movie?  Somehow, in spite of my judgement of TV, watching a movie often, is not condemned as “distraction”.

Going for a run?  Writing? Working?  Decidedly not distractions.


What about the term I seem to have chosen to describe these things?

distraction

I was reminded of this thought a few days ago when my brother referred to something as “indulgence”.  Indulgence and distraction have something in common – both can only exist in the face of a larger goal.  You indulge in something as a respite from what you’ve identified to be your true goal, your true direction.

Distraction, similarly, can only exist against the backdrop of a larger goal, a greater purpose, or _something_ demanding our attention.


With this in mind, what is the common thread between the activities I deem “distraction”?  Does it even make sense, or is it just an unexamined artifact from youth, or popular culture?  Does it have any value as a concept?

My best guess is that I’ll deem anything a distraction that does not have any benefit beyond the moments that I’m engaged in the activity.  Watching a funny TV show can be enjoyable, but there’s rarely a lasting benefit.  Eating junk food is great in the moments when the food is in your mouth, and terrible immediately after. Facebook… Oh facebook.

On the other hand, cleaning the garage is valuable for a period of time, or at least until it’s messy again.  Going for a run is exercise, and much of the benefit comes after the period you spend in the activity.  Reading a good book can help you understand yourself, or the world, a bit better.  Working  earns money, to be used later.

Essentially, the common thread seems to be delayed gratification.  I’ve decided, on some level, that delayed gratification is good, and instant gratification, at least instant gratification without any lasting (positive) effect, is bad.


Back to the term.  distraction.  If the practical common thread is about lasting benefit, what can be extrapolated from the term _distraction_?  With this criteria, one would call these activities distractions from the _real goal_, which would have to be constant, incessant, improvement.  Or, to take values away, constant, inexorable movement, in _some_ direction.

Humans (or maybe just humans in a similar demographic to me) value constant movement, constant improvement, so deeply, that I don’t think we ever stop to examine it.  Why do we do that?  Is it even what we want?

What if constant movement, constant improvement is just distraction from something else? What if telling ourselves that we value forward motion above all else is a way of distracting from something more uncomfortable?

Forward, ever forward.

Social Media Does Not Count as a Break.

It’s Tuesday afternoon. 3:15. I’m at my desk, computer open, headphones on. I pull up Facebook. Then my email. Maybe there’s something new on Vimeo. Back to email.

I have things to do, of course. There’s always more work than there is time. I enjoy my work. I don’t loathe turning on my computer in the morning, or coming back from a vacation – in fact, I often look forward to it. So why am I checking Facebook again?

Like everyone (I hope), I sometimes just don’t have it in me. Maybe I didn’t sleep well the night before. Maybe I’ve been working on difficult problems all morning, and now I can’t face the thought of trying to create a new solution, or understand a new problem right at this moment.

So I type in F and let chrome autocomplete fill in acebook.com again. Nonsense. Scroll down. More nonsense. Check email again. Go get a snack.

Except, when I get back from that snack, or discover once again that there’s nothing interesting on Facebook, I still don’t want to work. The little break I took didn’t recharge me, it made me more bored, more desperate for distraction. So, in most cases, I immediately, unthinkingly, start the process again. Facebook. Email. Reddit. Repeat.

Somehow this feels even more sinister when you work from home, or in any environment where you’re not next to your coworkers. When you’re at an office, or a grocery store, or a ski shop, (all places I’ve worked in the past) you are proving your value to the company on a superficial level simply by physically being in the correct location. Even if you’re not doing anything productive, at least everybody knows you’re not enjoying yourself somewhere else. Suffering is almost as good as productivity.

At home, no one knows what I’m doing – so I feel a strange urge to sit at my desk. After all – even if I’m not being productive, at least Im in the right place, right? That’s what my employment history taught me was important.

At some point, spurred by the particularly progressive environment at Automattic, it occurred to me to just give up the charade. Nobody cares if I’m at my desk from 9 – 5. If I don’t feel like working at 3:15 on a Tuesday, I can just stop working. Play a game, watch a movie – or better yet, get up and walk away from the computer. Go for a walk, or a bike ride. Read a book. Work on the bench I’m building. Take the kids to the park. Do anything except sit at the desk and suffer.

Initially, this feels really wrong – the reason I allow myself to check Facebook is because I can do it quickly, and come back to work. 2 minute break, I tell myself. I can’t get the kids to the park and back in 2 minutes. A quick glance at Facebook won’t waste the afternoon – a trip to the park will. The responsible employee just glances at Facebook and then gets back to it.

Except that’s not how it works. A quick glance at Facebook won’t waste the afternoon in theory – but depending on my mood, I won’t be back to doing productive work in 2 minutes. Sometimes I won’t be back to productive work in 30 minutes, or an hour, or 2 hours. What’s worse, I’ll be enduring a potent mix of boredom, self loathing, and irritation the entire time. By choosing a distraction that

  • I don’t really like
  • Is very short

I’m guaranteed to finish it almost exactly as I started. My brain hasn’t had time to recharge and there hasn’t been time (or reason) for my mood to change, so I’ll just start again. Except this time I know that I’m once again choosing to take a break, piling on a second helping of the self loathing that comes from knowing that I’m making a decision not to work when I feel like I should.

I’I haven’t found a way to force myself to do things when I’m not in the mood (with occasional exceptions – like pending deadlines, broken production code, etc). I’ll keep working on that, although I’m not sure it’s possible in any sort of sustainable way. In the meantime, at least I can make the best of my downtime.

Choosing to sit at the computer and consume social media when I feel like I need a break under the guise of “getting back to work quickly”, or “staying at my desk” is not innocuous. It’s bad for me, and therefore my work (and my employer), as I almost end up in a worse mental state than when I started.


So, you know, lay off Facebook in the middle of the day.