The Habit of Distraction

by Wayne Ren-Cheng

Appropriate Concentration is last on the list of the Eightfold Path, yet it arises in a committed practice of the other seven: view, intent, speech, action, livelihood, effort and mindfulness. At the beginning of a Buddhist practice, and in those instances when practice falters due to distractions or vexations it is a renewed focus on the goal that is needed. The modern world offers a multitude of distractions whether we are at home or at work. Email accounts, texting, devices that start with the letter ‘i’, Twitter, phones, magazines, and looking out the window to check the weather seem to actively seek to draw attention away from creating and maintaining an engaged, responsive and productive state of being. Discovering a new show on Netflix or seeing what funny-business Gwyneth Paltrow is up to can be an entertaining diversion, more enticing than whatever task currently needs to be accomplished. We can find ourselves reacting out of habit and allowing these diversions to sap concentration, or we can transform habitual reactivity into appropriate concentration.

Along with distractions, multi-tasking is a hindrance to appropriate concentration. Multi-tasking creates the opposite state of being from one that is focused on whatever the important task is necessary in that moment. Focus is safer . . . think of driving a car. Loss of awareness of traffic patterns, the actions of other motorists, road signs, and pedestrians will eventually lead to a crash that will cause discontent and anguish at the very least, death and injury at the very worst. Anyone who believes that multi-tasking by eating, texting or holding a phone to their ear while driving is an appropriate action is deluding themselves.

Focus is more effective . . . think of what you haven’t gotten done yet because of distractions.

Focus is more satisfying . . . think of how you felt the last time you fully completed a task.

Distraction arises in two forms. There are multiple tasks that are calling out to us to be done simultaneously, and the attraction of mental relaxation in the midst of concentrated tasks. In the first it is highly unlikely that simultaneous tasks will each be accomplished well; the other can be turned to our advantage.

The modern world is not only full of distractions but it is equally full of things that must be done. Chores, work assignments, scheduled activities for the kids, appointments of all kinds and the dreaded “this needs to done right now . . . not later . . . now” situations vie for attention alongside the entertaining and the diverting. With so much that needs to be done and the distractions in our contemporary society it is no wonder that the glories of multitasking are touted as an antidote to anxiety and confusion. Yet, more often than not multi-tasking results in the very bodymind conditions it purports to lessen.

Multitasking is touted as a positive aspect of the American work ethic. It is a misnomer and a major distraction when pursuing a complicated task or engaging a deep practice. In Less: Accomplishing More by Doing Less, Marc Lesser writes, “There are two primary types of distractions: those that draw us in multiple directions at once, resulting in confusion and an inability to complete a thought or action, and those that provide mental relaxation, offering small “breaks” that support intense focus and effort. Clearly we want less of the former and more of the latter.”

You might ask here, what is deep practice? There is an aspect of appropriate speech called Deep Listening, the action of sincerely giving over your whole attention to what is being said. Doing so allows you to hear what is really being said, as opposed to what you might want to, or think you hear. Deep practice has the same foundational ideal. You sincerely give over total concentration to the task at hand so you get done well what needs doing in a timely manner. This doesn’t mean no breaks . . . it does mean productive breaks.

Multi-tasking is the negative distraction that the author is referring to in the quote above. Multi-tasking might make us feel more important and more valuable in our jobs and private lives but it is an anathema to deep practice. The human brain and body is good but it never truly does two things at once. It bounces back and forth between actions/thoughts making excellence in any task nearly impossible to achieve. We might be 100% focused on multi-tasking but we won’t be 100% focused on either task because there isn’t a percentage higher than 100. Only 100% focus is appropriate concentration.

Mr. Lesser offers that a small break, five minutes of mindfulness meditation, standing and stretching, or just taking three deep cleansing breaths can help to maintain intense focus rather than diminish it. There is much value in Mr. Lesser’s idea. For example, during meditation retreats when periods of up to three hours are spent in silent meditation breaks are taken for meditators to rise and perform a short session of Qigong, a short walking meditation, or just stretch their muscles and breath deeply before continuing to sit. What works on the cushion works as well off.

Multiple tasks and distractions can be detrimental to whatever you are trying to accomplish. What if you turned those multiple tasks into distractions that would work for you in two ways . . . you take a break from a concentrated task and complete another task? Not trying to do both tasks at once, actually fully engaging one as a distraction from the other. Doing so we can remain in an engaged, responsive and productive state of being more of the day.

Whenever I have a time-consuming, brain-busting, thought and action heavy period of writing or studying to do I make sure there is also a necessary chore needing to be done, and that is what I use for a distraction. Not a distraction for fun . . . a productive distraction. I creatively re-describe what would be multi-tasking to deeply practicing one task and viewing another task as a distraction. I’ve been doing this for so long now that both tasks become distractions for the other and I get more done during the “work day” and have more time to relax when the “work day” is over.

For example, as I sit writing this very dharma talk I know I’m going to do some refresher reading, a little Internet searching, time for contemplation, and lots of typing. This is also the day I do laundry, washing clothes, drying, hanging up, folding and putting away. So, when my eyes are tiring and my focus slipping from reading and searching, my fingertips sore from tapping the keys I go put a load in, switch a load to the dryer, hang up clothes on the line or whatever needs doing. Any one of those ‘distractions’ take five or so minutes and then I am back to the computer and the books. Doing this I’ve come to look forward to doing laundry because it can be a welcome distraction and give my bodymind some downtime.

I don’t engage in frivolous activities during ‘breaks’. No email checking, no Twitter, no phone calls, or computer games. Whatever is the ‘distraction’ that day is a chore that must be done. It’ll be walking the dog or giving her a bath, weeding the herb or rose garden, washing the car, laundry, dishes, cleaning out the refrigerator . . . you get the point.

This isn’t really multitasking because total concentration is given to the ‘distraction’ for its time. I’m not thinking about the dharma talk while doing laundry . . . I’m doing laundry then. Distraction becomes a positive action rather than a hindrance to what needs to be done. You may be thinking that this sounds suspiciously like multitasking with a new name. I’d agree, except my experience has taught me otherwise. There is 100% concentration on the process, or deep practice. The task and the distraction are immersed in totally during their time.

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