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Distractions Hate Distractions
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by Iban Goicoechea

 

Another semester is over, and once again is proven the timeless fact; humans adapt… quickly.  I still apply "work-arounds" I’ve developed to turn my attention into focus, then my focus into concentration, but I never have a dull moment trying to keep up with my ability to distract myself.

 

I met new people and started new projects and conversations with them (more details in my last article, plus new ones), tackled new subjects (if I had told myself in December that I would absolutely love Quantum Mechanics, I wouldn't have believed me), came to new understandings and picked up new tricks.  

 

Smart phone users, tell me if this rings a bell: You download an app, and when you find it a few weeks later, you still haven't used it (you forgot you even had it!)   Yeah, me too.

 

Or how about this: You decide you're going to the library to read and take notes on the reading.  Determined to do so, you pack everything you need, but realize that on the way to the library you have to check what additional pages were assigned in an email.  After a necessary recon of places to sit, you settle for the most conducive study spot for your mood.  You know that it's a slippery slope to check your email for the supplementary readings, but you just have to know everything you need to read before you start.  It never occurs to you to just read what you already know you must.  You could, after all, finish that reading first and check your email for the rest afterwards.  No, you sit down and open your laptop.

 

While searching for the email with the assigned reading, you catch yourself opening other emails with subject lines or senders that catch your attention.  Extolling yourself to focus, you eventually find the email you need.  Then, for no reason whatsoever, you check Facebook, stop yourself, copy down the info you need, close your laptop, open your book to the right page, open your notebook to a clean page, take a swig of coffee… then take out and check your phone.  Why?  There’s no reason whatsoever.  What makes this attention trap even more frustrating is that I'm physically doing these things that distract me from my original goal; it's not like I'm looking at a book and can't focus, I'm actually doing things, I’m taking action, I feel like I’m "making” it happen.  I’m sure many of you share my pain.  

 

Here's the thing… this particular "ADHD symptom " isn't actually driven by the inability to focus.  It’s a compulsion.  It's a psychological addiction to the pixelated media interface through which we read emails, newspapers, books, and recipes; type documents, store files, look at pictures, watch movies and video clips; play video games and Google stuff… just to name a few of the things we do with computers to both work AND relax.  It's not too much of a stretch to say that, for many of us, our eyes are exposed to pixelated screens for more hours per day than our feet are exposed to the shoes we put on in the morning.

 

So, how did I solve the compulsion that prevents me from sitting down and studying?  Rewind two weeks from my day at the library.  I had installed a "lite" version of an app that's supposed to help me study by allowing me to make notecards with it.

 

Back to the moment I pull out my phone… I told myself "I'm not going to check Facebook,” and scrolled across the pages when I stumbled across, you guessed it, the studying app I completely forgot about, StudyBlu.  Curiosity and the inescapable desire to tinker set in, so I opened it and gave it a shot.  I made a few note cards from the first section I had to review, and then grew frustrated because of some inconvenient glitches with the app, and the lite version didn't allow me to access all of the super-useful looking features.  This episode of distraction with my phone and tinker-studying with the app lasted over an hour.  Yeah.  I studied effectively for over an hour because I had a glitchy tool that facilitated studying to distract me (or to draw me in).  Then, despite the fact that I was actually studying with this thing, the glitches got to me.  Defiantly, I opened my laptop to check if the iPhone app had a laptop version.

 

Then, something cool happened.  I thought, "Even if a full version exists, I'll just have to buy it, and I already know it has annoying glitches.  I'll just open up "Notes" and do my homework "old school.”  So I did.  I answered the Section & Chapter Review questions, typing out the answer in a complete sentence – not just the correct words – checked my answers when I was done and corrected the answers I got wrong.

 

I stayed put another 6 hours with only one distracting incident.  I had a conversation that lasted for about an hour, but it was absolutely worth the time… how could I pass up on the opportunity to hear a former-Amish person tell me the story of his trip around the world without the use of airplanes, then segue into the research he's doing on DNA scaffolding?  Okay, maybe a bit more than an hour, but I finished studying!

 

If there’s one thing you must you take away from this article, it is this: Distraction is its own form of attention.  Rather than using your energy to fight it until you're exhausted (because whether your energy is feeding your distraction, or it’s feeding your desire to fight that distraction, they're both pulling from the same tank of gas), do your best to prepare for it in advance, and at the very least, make the effort to work with it.  I'm sure that from your own wrestling matches with distraction, you'll agree that, "Distraction doesn't like distractions."

 

For instance, one incoming text can easily trigger an entire conversation if I'm forcing myself to look at my books and take notes, or write a report or (insert pretty much any activity I’d rather not be doing here.)  But once I’m already distracted by my phone, incoming texts are as unwelcome an interruption as someone asking, "What're you doing?" when I'm deeply concentrated and finding a solution any 'serious' problem.

 

The key to getting focused is not to give up too soon.  Just because you were distracted doesn’t mean the day is a write-off.  Once you realize you were distracted, bring your attention back to what you want to do.  Do this enough times to engage your brain and suddenly, you’re focused.  Once that happens, it’s the distractions that become annoying and therefore less interesting, so you’ll work to avoid them instead.  And you know how good we can be at avoiding things we’re not interested in!

 

Iban Goicoechea is the ADDA eNews "Vetran’s Affairs” Editor.  Many military veterans with ADHD are facing life, not only with ADHD and PTSD, but with other comorbid cognitive disorders as well.  ADDA’s eNews is giving a voice to the veterans through Iban’s articles.  If you wish to add your voice to the discussion, you may contact Iban directly at ADD.Iban@gmail.com.

 

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