Comment: Defining distractions, gaining traction
In this edition’s Psychological PPE column, James Rychard writes about the mental state of flow and how this can bring more meaning and happiness to a firefighter’s personal and professional life. A flow state is often referred to as being “in the zone”. When you’re in a flow state, you’re focus is completely absorbed in the activity and you reap all the enjoyment that comes with this present-oriented ego-less experience. Being in the zone is the antithesis of distraction. To experience more of this pleasurable and effective flow state infers reigning in the innumerable daily tugs at our focus. Sometimes attention is an unruly state. Attention has a wandering eye; we can cheat ourselves out of the full scope of meaningful experiences by constantly turning our heads. Why is our attention such a commitment-phobe? It seems we may be hard-wired to default into contemplation. A Harvard study involving over 2,000 subjects showed that people spent 47 per cent of their waking hours thinking about things that weren’t going on and doing so contributed to unhappiness. The authors, psychologists Matthew A. Killingsworth and Daniel T. Gilbert, concluded that there is an emotional cost to the human ability to mentally time travel, projecting back and imagining forward in our lives. They suggest that this contemplative nature is a default setting, and where your mind wanders to matters in terms of happiness.
Attaining flow can feel elusive in this combo-existence of thinking elsewhere and being distracted. One day, annoyed by this conundrum, I impulsively bought a bestselling book off Amazon called Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life by Nir Eyal. Eyal is a guru in this field. It was a useful read with concrete takeaways, one of which was understanding how to define your own distractions.
Eyal writes that the opposite of distraction is traction. Traction is what pulls you towards your goals and intentions, rather than away. This means if you have set time aside to relax by indulging in TV binge, go ahead and enjoy as you have set aside this intention. It is only a distraction if it is pulling you away from something else you want to be doing. There are also the typical distractions many of us face, namely a dinging, pinging, ringing smartphone. Eyal offers many tips for managing the phone, such as hiding from view all the little-used apps, turning off notifications for almost all, and learning to use do not disturb features.
Perhaps the most striking thought Eyal offers in his book is the notion that time management is pain management. What he means by that is that we reach for and respond to distrations when we are uncomfortable. Distractions soothe this discomfort. Recognizing this unease or pain and choosing to respond differently is a powerful idea for improving control over our attention and how we use our finite commodity of time. In doing so, perhaps we are on our way to experiencing more “flow” states.
The mind wanders and life is full of distractions. Good luck to us all in not joining the rubber-neckers slowing down the highway on the other side of the crash — it’s all but impossible not to look, isn’t it? But, as you’ll read in Rychard’s column, attaining flow and having peak experiences through through this state is a goal worth getting some traction on, starting with our distractions.
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