The majority of men devote themselves to silencing [their] vocation and refusing to hear it. They manage to make a noise within themselves to distract their own attention in order not to hear it; and they defraud themselves by substituting for their genuine selves a false course of life.”
– Jose Ortega y Gasset
Why am I distracted?
That’s usually the last question you ask yourself when you’re trying to get shit done. The big project is due tomorrow morning, but with each passing minute it becomes harder to focus. So you fight the resistance. You check Snapchat again, you drink more coffee, you put it off until tomorrow when you’ll “have more time.”
You’ll do anything except question why you’re distracted in the first place. In other words, you treat your symptoms, not the disease. And the disease is doing work that’s meaningless, boring, and not aligned with your talents.
As children, we experience primal inclinations – we’re drawn to activities that captivate our attention and ignite our curiosity. We enjoy them not because of their perceived value, but because we develop an emotional connection to them. We all remember spending hours on end fully immersed in our favorite activities: drawing, writing, acting, building, designing, and so on. It wasn’t hard to focus; in fact, we often had to be dragged away because we were missing out on what we were “supposed to be doing.”
Fast forward to college and the situation is reversed: students’ attention spans are shriveled. Phones are in hand, TVs glare in the background, and complaints are abundant. Anything that provides an escape from work, even momentarily, is joyfully welcomed.
So what’s the disconnect? And why does it occur?
If we are to determine why campuses are littered with distracted 20-somethings, we have to look beyond the “millennials are lazy/undisciplined/entitled” stereotype. That’s the cop-out answer. The problem isn’t a lack of work ethic or endless distractions. The problem is choosing work that isn’t engaging enough to make distractions irrelevant.
“Once you choose a career [or a major] that doesn’t suit you, your desire and interest slowly wane and your work suffers for it,” notes Robert Greene, author of Mastery. “You come to see pleasure and fulfillment as something that comes from outside your work.”
Greene goes on to say that it’s our subconscious desire to conform to our parents’ expectations, money, and social norms that pulls us away from our primal inclinations and inevitably separates us from our truest selves.
While this observation seems bleak, it provides insight into how we can nullify the distractions that hinder us: We must partake in work that is both stimulating and fulfilling – work that kindles our deepest inspiration and ignites the eagerness we possessed as children.
In order to rediscover this inclination, the first step must be inward. Set aside the noise and look for patterns throughout your life: What do you think about in the shower? What do you do for free? What makes time stand still? Whatever that is, it’s your ticket to freedom.
All masters, from Socrates to Einstein to Michael Jordan, followed their inner voice. They were able to focus not through sheer willpower, but because they cherished their work. You and I are no different in that we learn faster and deeper when we’re emotionally invested in our work. There is a sense of urgency that manifests itself when striving towards something you care deeply about. Psychologists refer to this as being “in the flow” – a state in which, to some degree, one becomes immune to distractions.
Jason Fried, the founder of Basecamp, says that distractions can serve a purpose: “They tell us that our work is not well-defined, our work is menial, or the project as a whole is useless.”
Granted, not every project will flow effortlessly from our fingertips. There will be classes we hate. There will be grunt work. Those are all part of the process. But instead of beating ourselves up for being distracted, is it time instead to reevaluate what we’re doing and determine why we can’t seem to pay attention in the first place?
Dominic Vaiana studies writing and media strategy at Xavier University. You can get the PDF “11 Immutable Writing Lessons from Legendary Authors” along with his personal articles, essays, interviews, and book recommendations by joining his monthly newsletter.