Summary: There are many distractions around us that make long stretches of work hard to attain. I noticed two non obvious things that keep me distracted from mental work: lingering emotions (like worry), and the urge to act on random objects in the environment. I consider it a skill to be able to work despite these more internal distractions.
I need a certain state of mind in order to be able to do creative work. There are many sources of distraction that can impede my ability to do that. Typical external sources are noise, cold, presence of other people, or technology features like incoming email notifications. I might also be in poor physical condition, tired, or after a heavy meal which leaves me feeling drowsy. But there are two other kinds of distractions that are perhaps less obvious, but just as harmful to productivity: shadows from my emotional life, and the urge to act on whatever it is I see. Let me explain in detail.
Let's start with emotional distraction. Last month I was moving from Switzerland to Poland. It was quite a complex operation: I had to find the next tenant for my apartment, give away or sell lots of stuff I no longer wanted, send my personal things to Poland cheaply and securely, deal with various government agencies. I tried blogging during that time, but I was unable to focus for more than half an hour, which makes writing very hard. My thoughts were dwelling on the move; I was stressed and worried that something might go wrong and I would need to stay longer than I wanted to. I had enough mental energy to write drafts, take notes and succesfully complete the move; I have come up with a couple new drafts for the blog, but editing was almost impossible.
Another example from a good friend, Helmut. When an employee doesn't feel comfortable with something in his life, for instance because he is having personal problems or has just moved to a new town or country and is making effort to adapt to the new environment, you just cannot expect him to work as well as he could when not under this kind of pressure. Concerns and worries ("Do I fit here? Is it going to be fine with my wife? Will I find a good apartment to rent on time? Why is my close friend resenting me?") drain energy from us, and unless we resolve them or at least put them away for a few hours a day, we cannot be fully effective. Yes, you can push yourself and try harder, but for me this is not an effective strategy to do good creative work. Here is a recent example from k's blog, great resource on marketing, relationships and project management. She writes how her weekend gets "ruined" because of anticipation of an emotionally charged event.
In my case, if I have something really important coming up in the afternoon, my thoughts tend to dwell on it unless I make conscious effort to convince myself that it's "handled" (e.g. I'm prepared for it and just need to wait). The more stressful the upcoming event, the harder it is for me to do quality, uniterrupted mental work immediately before that event. This effect is the strongest during the day of the event, and rarely affects me as much the day before or earlier.
It seems that the ability to focus on work when there are important, stressful upcoming events, is a skill - a skill one can learn, because I am definitely getting better at it over the years. I met people who seem to be able to work on anything nearly anytime, even if they are very stressed by personal issues.
When I realise that something is bothering me and prevents me from focusing on the task at hand, I do as much as possible to resolve the issue. I like being in control, but there are many situations when things don't really rely just on me, but also on other people. I can't possibly expect to positively resolve every single matter in my life on my own. Delegation needs to be practiced not only for effectiveness, but also from the perspective of trust. "Relax. It is going to be fine." I keep saying to myself. I am learning how to be more relaxed about things that come my way, especially those I can't really control. I had conversations with several people about this last month, and they all said that one of the skills they consciously practice is exactly this: letting go, getting more relaxed, not agonizing over small matters.
There is another tricky kind of distraction I am vulnerable to: the tendency to start thinking about any object I just happen to look at. There is some urge in me to act on whatever it is that my eyes see. No matter what my current task, I am likely to drop it and start acting upon another object or piece of information. It is a powerful phenomenon. It seems as if I am conditioned to treat *every* piece of information in the environment as potentially important, even if I had seen the very same thing many times before and had already decided to ignore it. Instead, when I look at it again, I am inclined to consider doing something about it, which causes me to drop whatever it was I actually wanted to do. The object can be an advertisement, a plate, a note, a book, a printout - virtually anything.
Here is an example. My mind recognizes the object and starts "producing" action items or questions related to it. "Should I do something about it? Is it important? What do I do with it now? Oh, perhaps I should read that article." Or "I should give it to that other guy." Or "I should remove this and all similar items from my to-do list. Oh, wait, I already killed that project, why is it here in the first place?" When asked, I do know that it is irrelevant, or has no real benefit to me. For instance, I believe that more than 90% of TV news content is junk. Yet, when I'm at the airport, news on a TV screen will attract my attention almost every time. Same with pretty much any place where I spend a lot of time and have stuff accumulated by myself (at home) or by other people (in the office, e.g. office "decorations", whiteboards filled with ideas by other people etc.)
This kind of distraction does not seem to depend on the type of object - virtually anything in my immediate environment is enough for my thoughts to go astray. If this happens too often, I get little work done. This is perhaps the most pervasive and brutal intrusion that happens to me every day. It does not seem to heed to any priorities that I set to myself whatsoever. My attention follows information regardless of its relation to my goals. It is as if my mind was a constantly running processor of incoming visual information and little more. Unless I direct my attention to a specific goal and I manage to keep it there, I am bound to wander off in a semi-random direction just by virtue of walking around and having my eyes open!
As you can imagine, I feel quite vulnerable to these two types of distractions. In order to contain that chaos, I plan ahead enough to not worry about the stressful events too much (i.e. handle them well in advance if possible). I also started practicing meditation. One effect of meditation is supposed to be improved control over those distracting thoughts or impulses, whether they are triggered by something I happen to look at or by something in my memory that keeps bugging me. I will write a bit more on meditation in another post.
Not all activities are affected by these kinds of distractions. I don't face the problem when I'm running errands in the city or doing the dishes.
Being sligthly forgetful is not a major life issue, but it can be annoying when I need several hours in a row to move a creative project forward. Projects I work on are increasingly of that nature, and I would like it to stay that way, so the ability to focus will be critical in my life going forward. I wonder to what extent other people have the same experience. Paul Graham's essay about maker's schedule and Lifehacker tips for managing distractions suggest that many people face the same challenge, and that technology is frequently an additional source of distractions.