Defence Against Weapons of Mass Distraction

January 23rd, 2008 | Category: Essays

In a post called “Kill Your Email” on his guest blog on the Powell’s site, best-selling author Neil Strauss made the statement that “most of us are constantly busy but not constantly productive.” It’s a simple, but key insight. At what point does your day consist of more distractions than plans? There’s a threshold in there somewhere, and finding it is crucial not only to getting things done, but to enjoying your everyday existence.

Web Map by Albert-László BarabásiWe live in a veritable Age of Distraction. I mean, were you really planning to be reading this right now? Probably not. The web is just that, a web of distraction, and as bandwidth increases, the distractions get just that much more rich and entrancing (YouTube or Break, anyone?).

Sure, one must be open to chancing upon new things. The ability to find something you didn’t know you needed to know or to happen upon a laugh that makes whatever you were supposed to be doing more bearable is one of the things that makes the web so appealing in the first place. Marshall McLuhan said that this was one of the more attractive things about the newspaper as well, the happening upon something you wouldn’t have found otherwise. “People don’t actually read newspapers,” McLuhan wrote in Understanding Media (McGraw-Hill, 1964), “They get into them every morning like a hot bath.” The serendipitous arrangement of the information in a newspaper is expanded, amplified, and “intertwingled” (as Ted Nelson would say) online.

One cannot plan for such serendipity, by definition, but one can allow for it. Finding a balance between being open for whatever and finding what you need or enjoying yourself is the difficult part.

Distraction vs Enjoyment

This relationship exists both at the task level and at the macro scale, for the little day-to-day choices and the big, life-altering ones. There’s a threshold, a balance, in there somewhere, and finding yours is tantamount not only to getting your work done, but to enjoying your everyday existence. Chris Anderson pointed out in his book The Long Tail (Hyperion) that time is the one truly finite resource. Managing it well is a skill we’d all do well to master more proficiently, myself included.

I have an older laptop that doesn’t have built-in wifi. Often when I’m writing, I use it without the wireless card. I did that when I wrote my thesis, and I don’t know how long it would’ve taken if I hadn’t. Though I do a lot of research online, I also find the web very distracting. Sometimes I just have to cut myself off.

Action ItemsI’m also a compulsive to-do list maker. I keep one in my pocket (with a pen), a scratch pad by the keyboard, a whiteboard on the wall… Without lists and notes to keep track and prioritize my daily tasks, I don’t know how I’d ever get anything done.

There’s been plenty written about these strategies. The first half of Timothy Ferris’ The 4-Hour Workweek (Crown) has a bunch of them. Neil Strauss’ post mentioned above has a list. Mark Hurst’s Bit Literacy (Good Experience) and David Allen’s Getting Things Done (Penguin) are two more recent books, and Steven Johnson contends that the computers themselves should help us more, writing in a 2005 Discover Magazine article, “after all, they’re the ones that got us into this mess in the first place.”

Even while implementing such strategies, we often find ourselves in a state of what tech-visionary Linda Stone calls “continuous partial attention” (what Marshall McLuhan called being “omniattentive”). She uses this phrase to describe not multi-tasking per se, but a behavioral trend that is driven by not wanting to miss anything, ever, a behavioral trend driven by a mislead sense of crisis (Like your mate with the remote control, exacting what my friend Mark calls a desire, “not to see what’s on, but to see what else is on.”). “Managing time is all about lists, optimization, efficiency, and it’s tactical.” Stone says, “Managing attention is all about intention, making choices as to what does and does not get done, and it’s strategic. Managing time is an action journey. Managing attention is an emotional journey.”

A simple system of making lists and marking things off of them as they are completed works for me. Some people find keeping a running tally of tasks more of a task than doing the tasks themselves. Sometimes I have to limit my access to email, IM, Twitter, and the web to get writing done. Others find the disconnection stifling. The key to these productivity strategies is to find out what works for you and to know when you can discipline yourself and when you can’t.

What are some of your strategies for getting things done or just enjoying your day?

Further Posting:


  • Justin Kistner said:

    A while back I wrote up a post called 5 Tips for Productivity, which has my downloadable task sheet. I don’t use it at the moment because my work environment is significantly less volatile than Nemo’s.

    I think the distraction problem is impacting the productivity of many workers, and I really love the way Neil put it:

    “most of us are constantly busy but not constantly productive.”

    There was another chart I saw that mapped the distraction process to our stratification of communication, which you can see here.

    As we proceed into the future, we are exposed to much higher volumes of information. Many influencers are predicting that 2008 will see a great deal of innovation around managing your attention stream (do a Google search for APML).

  • Roy Christopher (author) said:

    Hey, Justin:

    I know, I should’ve linked to your “5 Tips for Productivity” in my original post. Sorry. I’m still using tasksheets, but I’ve moved to a task notebook, which gives me more of a sense of history and flow. It looks like this:

    The back of every page has an additional calender section, which helps for scheduling, prioritizing, and visualizing the tasks for a particular week, as opposed to just listing them, which gives them very little context.

  • Gyrus said:

    Replacing busyness with productivity is a fine goal, but I don’t think we should let this be a choice between modes of activity. The prevalence of busyness and productivity leaves little room for “creative downtime” – not time off from creativity, but fruitful gaps in our focused routines that let new ideas bubble up.

    Maybe our fixation on the stream of new and unexpected ideas and images on the web is an artificial compensation, of sorts, for an atrophy of the capacity for finding the unexpected within? I’m sure there’s a complex relationship in there between the ways in which inner and outer streams of non-directed inspiration command our attention.

  • Roy Christopher (author) said:


    I wrote a piece a while back that addresses some of what you’re saying here. It’s based around Geoffrey Miller’s idea of the “fitness faking” that technological mediation achieves (i.e., “artificial compensation… for finding the unexpected within”).

  • Gabi Wan Kenobi said:

    I find that this is one of the elements to my day job that makes me wanna vomit blood. Managers, poorly educated and trained ones at that, that task-master over you like you are their retarded 7 year-old children. The fact that, if you appear busy, then they are satisfied and you can avoid their manager lazers… Sucks gettin’ zapped! There is no redeeming factor in this kind of work; it’s demeaning at worst and mundane at its most glorious.

    Yes, I’m looking for a new job soon.

  • Brian Tunney said:

    Does that make spam e-mail, spam MySpace and popups of all kinds a distraction within a distraction then?

  • Roy Christopher (author) said:

    Definitely, Brian. Those are the worst since they intend to distract.

    Advertising of all kinds falls into this category, but spam and pop-ups (and even worse, spyware) are the worst case.

  • Matt B said:

    Lists work pretty well for me at work.

    I was thinking about something closely, but not quite-ly, related to what you be sayin. I’ve got this underdeveloped theory about how time-saving technology has left us all with way too much time to do nothing but look for distractions. Filler.

    Shit that used to keep people occupied for days is now accomplished in seconds. This is beginning to apply to almost everything in our lives. Consequently, an entire generation has become saddled with idle hands and a desperate need for ways to put them to use – and at the same time this generation has been robbed of the fulfillment that would have come along with time invested. For example, why put in years learning to master an instrument when you can take much, much less time to figure out how to work a sampler and sequencer?

    Even the distractions become affected by time-saving technology, to the point where more and more and more and more time-fillers are needed to stave off the percieved terror of boredom. Even though they all taste suspiciously empty, all that’s left is more and more and more filler.

    As I’m (not surprisingly) drunk and probably making no sense, I’ll shut up…. NOW!

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