Saturday, February 26, 2011

How to Fight Distraction

Even famous actors succumb to distraction

As with all battles within which I am both the hero and the villain, I often find the fight against distraction to be extremely difficult. By distraction I mean any activity or thing that detracts from my ability or willingness to engage in tasks that are a more productive use of time or that are more urgently pressing. At this point in history the sources of distraction surround us entirely, entice us irresistibly and are able to grab hold of our attention for obscene amounts of time.

The most invidious aspect of distraction is that many times it's easy not to realize that you're being distracted. Some forms of distraction are obvious, such as image boards or YouTube. However, some activities, such as reading news sites or tech boards (Slashdot, Reddit, Digg anyone?) or sorting e-mail may seem productive while you're doing them; but on closer inspection, you may realize the contrary.

Of course, distraction isn't always bad. You can't focus your efforts entirely on work, all the time - adopting the lifestyle of a crazed workaholic leads to burnout and, well, the lack of a life. However, at some point the distraction becomes counter to your best interests, and perhaps even unhealthy. When I notice this happening I feel guilty for squandering time and energy that could be spent much more wisely. As a college student, succumbing to such a level of distraction often means sub-par grades or many long nights spent catching up on work that should have been completed long ago. To help myself, as well as others (but mostly myself, of course), I've decided to compile this humble list of tips to fight distraction that I've found to be helpful in the past.

If you watch this instead of doing homework,
then (like me) you may have a problem
1. Continuity Mentality
If you have a task that requires several hours to complete, such as completing a programming assignment or studying for an exam, it is essential to devote large, continuous blocks of time rather than small segments interspersed by distractions such as checking message boards or chatting with friends. When faced with such tasks, make an effort to put all other things on hold so that you may concentrate your focus for the length of time demanded. The reason for this is that being interrupted by a distraction takes your mind off of the work, and putting yourself back in the right mindset requires a start-up time penalty that adds up quickly.

2. The Judging Eye
When I'm having trouble getting out of bed in the morning, or if I'm engaged in a particularly egregious act of procrastination (such as watching anime or other television shows), I find it helpful to imagine my conduct being witnessed by a parental figure or someone whom I look up to - maybe a coach or a professor, or a particularly over-achieving peer. What would they think if they saw me watching Jersey Shore instead of working on my assignment? Or if they saw me having difficulty getting out of bed after a solid nine hours of sleep? Often times, such self-talk and visualization is extremely effective.

Women: one of the many, most fatal
sources of distraction
3. Location and Rewards System
Obviously, when you need to get work done it's important to situate yourself in a place where distraction will have a hard time finding you. I find it very difficult to study in my room. Libraries, however, are perfect, because they are filled with people who are also doing work, and being the odd-one-out (e.g., watching Hulu in a computer lab) will make you feel guilty if you have any iota of conscience. In addition, if your case of distraction is particularly severe, you may find it helpful to use a second computer as your "work" computer - perhaps a netbook would suit the purpose - while reserving your main computer for leisure and distraction.

I find also sometimes find it helpful to make deals with myself - e.g., two hours of serious studying will earn me one hour of serious video gaming. However, your mileage may vary - that one hour of video games may easily transform into several.