How to live

On Distractions

This is an essay that was inspired by my seemingly endless ability to get distracted, no matter where I am, or what I am doing, or how important the thing that I should be working on is.

Dog-not-working

While I am have been in a privileged position of owning my own company, and I’ve been able to hire enough people to make up for my own inability to accomplish almost anything, it is worth taking the time to investigate the mechanisms for distractions, and how one can combat them.

Why We Get Distracted

If you've read Deep Work by Carl Newport (and if you haven't, stop reading this and go and read that), you know that Deep Work is hugely advantegous in a modern society, and that is because the problems we solve are getting harder, and we're now in an exponential return world, where the winner takes it all.

However, this begs the question, why are we not, by default, geared towards deep work, and instead are so easily distracted? Well, I think that is may be something to do that we are actually this:

caveman

But we are trying really hard to be this:

office-worker

And what actually ends up happening is this:

stressed-worker

And to try and combat the stress, we try and do many things at once to be as productive as possible...

multi-tasking-worker

When in reality our brains are only wired to pay attention to one thing at a time.

Of course, there is also the fact that being easily distracted was an incredibly useful trait to have for the first few hundred thousand years of existence as Homo Sapiens, because you want to be distracted by the noise in the bushes, in case it is a rather large cat trying to make you its next dinner.

Those humans who were in too deep thinking about how fire worked or why stars are in the sky would end up becoming dinner to a large cat. And so, we are trying to run a modern operating system (21st century capitalism) on hardware that is hundreds of thousands, and in some cases, like our limbic brains, millions of years old, and so it does not quite work as seamlessly as we imagine it should.

However, we are fortunate that we have a semblance of rationality, and so we can consciously decide to combat our distractions, and create an environment where deep work can flourish, and we can achieve some of the rather abstract tasks that we now dedicate our lives to.

What is really incredible is that over the last ten to twenty years, the main source of distractions are no longer in the world, but they are virtual constructs such as television, videos games and, of course, social media.

There are entire business models that are built on ensuring that they can capture as much of your attention as possible, and social media companies do this better than anyone else, and so it's worth exploring further.

Social Media

distracted-dog

I’ve written before how Social Media plays an incredible role in ensuring that we stay distracted, and it’s worth reviewing the discussion again, because it is now one of the primary promoters of distraction.

What most people don’t fully understand, is that Facebook and Google are not selling products to you (their services, after all, are mostly free to the consumer).

YOU are the product that Facebook and Google are selling to their customers, which are businesses of all shapes and sizes. They take your data of what you like and don’t like, and aggregate it so that your can be advertised to.

So, the logical point here is that for Facebook and Google to flourish, they need to capture as much time and attention from you as possible, for two main reasons:

  1. More time and attention mean that they will have a larger set of higher quality data about you, which means they can serve advertising which is more relevant.
  2. More time and attention also means that you spend more time looking at this advertisement that they are serving to you.

While this may appear farfetched, it is indeed true. Once accepted, it sheds light on why these companies are doing all the other stuff they are doing.

Why do you think that Google wants to build a self-driving car? That would free up billions of hours each year that drivers are “wasting” keeping their eyes on the road, and would mean a lot more time spent on products and services from Google.

Why do you think that Facebook wants to try and get as many people online as possible? It’s not because they believe in the freedom and accessibility of information, it’s because a lot of these people will then use Facebook, where they can be served the latest cat video, and some advertising on the side.

Of course, it is possible to use willpower alone to ensure that you don’t use Facebook or Instagram or whatever-the-latest-social-network-is too much, but the probably is that these applications are specifically engineered to captivate attention, and to motivate you to spend more and more time using them.

What most people will inevitably find is that their social media consumption will slowly grow over time, and they will end up checking Facebook forty times per day without having given it a second thought.

This is actually a far bigger problem that we realize, because what you pay attention to actually becomes your understanding of your life. We will discuss this in depth a little later on.

My opinion is that to live a good life where you can flourish and minimize the number of regrets, it is advisable to get off social media completely.

You are what you pay attention to

The incredible thing about attention is that it shapes the experience of lives, regardless of the things that we are not paying attention to.

There have been studies that have shown that lottery winners and people who lose the ability to walk both end up at their original level of happiness after about six to twelve months.

This flies in the face of conventional wisdom, because we would expect the lottery winner to have a permanent large increase in happiness, and vice-versa for those who are involved in an accident that denies them the ability to walk.

And yet, they both end up back to where they started.

The same phenomenon that causes this, Hedonic Adaptation, is also why many of us remain unfulfilled regardless of how much we advance forwards with our goals.

You are likely to be living, at least in some aspects, a life that you were once dreaming about. Perhaps you got that pretty girl you were after, or the job, or the house, or the car, and yet, you’re still not done. You still want more.

That’s because you stop paying attention to the things that you already have, and stop feeling lucky to already have them, and you focus your attention on the things you don’t yet have or have not yet experienced.

Of course, a lot of these desires come into our heads now because we see the highlights of other people’s live through social media. While you may see a couple you knew at university on holiday having a wonderful time sailing on a tropical island, you are not privy to the terrible fights they have once they get back to their hotel room, or the fact that they mostly ignore each other and spend time on their phones instead of engaging in meaningful conversation.

That’s the stuff that doesn’t get shown on social media.

Certain studies have linked an increased use of social media to higher rates of depression, and it is likely that this affect of comparing your full knowledge of your own life, warts and all, to a sanitized “highlight reel” version of other people’s lives.

Building Your Own Eudaimonia Machine

There is this great concept called the Eudaimonia Machine, which is a special type of working environment that promotes deep work and concentration, and it's made up of five areas:

  1. The Gallery - a place where examples are shown of the work that has been created deeper in the machine.
  2. The Salon - essentially a Starbucks-like place to hang out and enjoy coffee and drinks with others, and bounce around ideas.
  3. The Library - a quiet place that hold all the reference materials you need, and a good place to gather research and think.
  4. The Office - a collaborative working space, useful for brainstorming and collaborative meetings.
  5. The Chambers - where you go to do the deep work required to create something meaningful. It has total isolation and zero distractions.

I'm currently moving offices, and I am planning for my new company office to be somewhat modeled on the Eudaimonia Machine, as I absolutely believe that open offices are quite terrible places to work in. I only tend to go to the current office a couple of times a week because I am simply not able to work in such an environment.

Obviously, not all of us are able to work in offices to match the above specifications, but we can still take the principal ideas and use them to shape our own working environments. So for instance, don't try and do deep work in a coffee shop.

I'll leave you with a final thought:

"All of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone." Blaise Pascal

dog-alone-in-a-room