“Not enough time” is likely not the source of your inability to get things done. The “Vicious Cycle of Distraction” is to blame.
A few weeks ago I saw this chart, and I haven’t stopped thinking about it:
According to this data, the average working American spends more than two hours watching TV per day, and has more than four hours per day of overall leisure time.
Yet, everyone I know is constantly saying “there aren’t enough hours in the day” to get stuff done.
Really? Both things can’t be true: we can’t have four hours of leisure per day, yet also have too few hours for doing important stuff.
“Well, there aren’t enough hours in the work day,” you could clarify.
But as I discuss in my book Indistractable, we spend hours upon hours distracted by pseudowork (checking email unnecessarily, having too many meetings, corporate politicking, etc).
On top of that, we allow ourselves to be constantly distracted by notifications, which waste enormous amounts of time. As a result, our to-do lists grow and the window of time available to get stuff done shrinks.
In reality, a lack of time is not why we fail to do what we intend to do.
The time crunch is what you see on the surface, but it’s only the tip of the iceberg. Beneath the time crunch, there’s a massive ocean of overwhelm and frustration. And at the bottom of that sea of bad feelings is the real problem:
The vicious cycle of distraction is what creates the feeling of not have enough time.
The more distracted we are, the more frustrated we feel, the more prone we become to distraction.
Here’s how the vicious cycle of distraction works:
You start your day with a mile-long to-do list. Some of those to-dos are important; some less so. Either way, with so much to do, you feel overwhelmed from the get-go.
But instead of diving into the most important task on your list (the one you’ve been putting off because you don’t feel like doing it just yet) you tell yourself it’s ok to check email for a quick second. Then, you check social media, reply to Slack channels, get a snack, read the news — you know, just to get yourself “ready for the day.”
The distractions often feel like things you have to do at some point, so you convince yourself it’s alright to wait a bit longer before diving into the big task you’re putting off.
After several minutes (or hours) you realize you still haven’t worked on the most important task of the day. Now, you’re starting to feel frustrated. To escape the uncomfortable feeling of frustration, you seek to tick a quick task off your list.
You pledge to only do the task on your to-do list that will take just a minute and then you’ll get back to the thing you’re procrastinating on.
Except the quick task doesn’t take just a minute.
People often fall victim to the “planning fallacy” — our tendency to think tasks will take less time than they do. Soon, you realize you’re off track again, but that further frustration just fuels the cycle.
Distraction serves as an escape from emotional discomfort. The trouble is, every time we go through the cycle, we create more discomfort from which we want to escape. That escape comes in the form of more distraction.
Those stuck in the vicious cycle of distraction have a few things in common:
- Overwhelmed: With so much to do and so little getting done, it’s hard to even think about improving your workflow, making yourself more efficient, or reflecting sensibly about the real problem causing distraction.
- Reactive: Instead of being in the driver’s seat of your life, you only have the bandwidth to manage things as they come. You prioritize the urgent tasks at the expense of important work.
- Frustrated: Everyone stuck in the vicious cycle of distraction experiences frustration. They feel frustrated that the most important things didn’t get done, yet again, and disappointment that their goals have been pushed back another day.
Does this sound familiar? I wrote Indistractable because I wanted to stop feeling this way myself.
How to Escape the Cycle
As I’ve illustrated, the desire to escape psychological discomfort fuels this vicious cycle.
The way to finally escape is to first understand your internal triggers. Uncomfortable emotional states are the real reason we procrastinate. We must therefore have tools ready to deal with that discomfort in a healthier manner.
Next, plan how you want to spend your time.
Remember, you can’t call something a distraction unless you know what it is distracting you from.
Only by setting aside a specific time in your schedules for “traction” (the actions that draw you toward what you want in life) can you turn our backs on “distraction.”
People who are schedule builders rather than to-do list makers are more successful at accomplishing their priorities.
I recommend using a Schedule Maker tool to plan out your day.
Look at your schedule as a game or puzzle. The pieces of the puzzle are the time blocks you’ll allocate to turn your values into time. Like in Tetris, the mission is to arrange and rearrange the pieces of the puzzle in order to fit them into your schedule.
This is your game, your life — your rules. Escaping the vicious cycle of distraction starts with knowing the difference between traction and distraction and it’s essential for living your life on your terms.
It’s not a matter of not having enough time. After all, we all have the same 24 hours in a day. Spending those hours wisely and with intent is how we become indistractable.