The First Distraction

Right now I’m waiting to start a video interview. I called in early, but my friend who is doing the interview wasn’t ready, so I’ve got five or ten minutes to kill before we get started. My first inclination was to catch up on email. I only had a couple to write, so I finished them quickly. Still some time to kill. I took a look at a SETT bug that’s high priority, but the solution wasn’t the obvious one that I thought it might be. I’ll have to take a deeper look when I have more time. Still have a few minutes before we start. May as well write a blog post.

I think that there are two basic modes that a productive person’s mind can be in. There’s that mode where you’re going to get your work done, but you’ll fight yourself every step of the way. When you’re in that mode, your reticular activation system, the part of your brain that is constantly scanning, looks for non-work things to do. Ooh, five minutes before the call– why don’t you browse Facebook? I call this the distraction-first mode.

I’ve been in distraction-first mode plenty of times, probably spent most of my life there, but today I’m not, so when I have a few minutes of downtime, my default is to find something productive to do. Email, SETT, blog post. Productivity-first mode. It’s not that I force myself to fill these minutes with something productive, it’s that it’s what I actually want to do. That’s the magic of it.

Being in productivity-first mode is beautiful. It’s like living your life in a flow state, executing task after task without the mental toll of having to cheerlead yourself into doing. Emails finished, open up my code editor with no hesistation and start poring through the source code. Determine that it needs more time than I have, and before I can even think, I’m two sentences into this blog post.

It’s important to stay in productivity-first mode, not only for the added tasks you get done all day in stolen minutes, but mostly because it allows you to push the limits of your productivity without stressing yourself out. When I’m in this mode I can work for 10-14 hours per day feeling more and more energized as I go. When I’m in distraction-first mode, I slog through the day, feeling like it’s an uphill battle. If I work ten or more hours, I’m exhausted. Ironically, the mental struggle I experience when giving in to distractions negates the positive feelings associated with the distraction. It’s sort of like eating a tub of ice cream– sounds appealing, but you’re not really glad you did it afterwards.

How do you stay in the productivity-first mode? The key is to avoid the first distraction, the original sin. Distraction lurks around every corner, and once you give into that first one, your brain is emboldened and starts looking for the next distraction. Give into that next one, and now the next is easier. Before you know it, you’re scrolling through Reddit, thinking, “What the hell am I even doing? I’m supposed to be working!” but you’re near powerless to stop yourself.

You have to remember that the first distraction, no matter how benign it’s appearance, is your enemy. Give in to that one tiny indulgence and you risk your entire day. This is hyperbole, of course, but if you can really believe it in your head, it takes away a lot of the shiny appeal of that first distraction. If I give in to the first distraction, usually because I didn’t even consciously realize I was doing it, I reprimand myself internally and say, “Look, now you’ve made it really hard on yourself. Whatever you do, don’t give in to the next distraction.” I still give in sometimes, but it’s very rare now because I’ve become so aware of just how harmful it is. Maybe one in twenty days.

There’s a time for work and there’s a time to relax. Most of the time is for work, if you ask me, but you can make your own decision on that. One thing that I’d suggest you keep absolute, though, is that whatever time you do set aside for work, keep it pure. Don’t allow distraction to creep in and poison it.

Photo is from the Bellagio Garden, which is probably my favorite thing in all of Vegas (besides the free tourist money at the poker table).

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