August 25, 2022
 min read

Mind Macros 31: The truth about distractions, five priorities for life, and the power of thought

Table of Contents

Table of Contents

Hello, friend.

Welcome to another issue of Mind Macros - I hope you find something of value.

Food for Thought

I. Distractions are manifestations of avoidance

“Consider the archetypal case of being lured from your work by social media: It’s not usually that you’re sitting there, concentrating rapturously, when your attention is dragged away against your will. In truth, you’re eager for the slightest excuse to turn away from what you’re doing, in order to escape how disagreeable it feels to be doing it; you slide away to the Twitter pile-on or the celebrity gossip site with a feeling not of reluctance but of relief. ​

“We’re told that there’s a ‘war for our attention,’ with Silicon Valley as the invading force. But if that’s true, our role on the battlefield is often that of collaborators with the enemy. Mary Oliver calls this inner urge toward distraction ‘the intimate interrupter’—that ‘self within the self, that whistles and pounds upon the door panels,’ promising an easier life if only you’d redirect your attention away from the meaningful but challenging task at hand, to whatever’s unfolding one browser tab away. ​

“This also makes it easier to see why the strategies generally recommended for defeating distraction—digital detoxes, personal rules about when you’ll allow yourself to check your inbox, and so forth—rarely work, or at least not for long. They involve limiting your access to the things you use to assuage your urge toward distraction, and in the case of the most addictive forms of technology, that’s surely a sensible idea. But they don’t address the urge itself. Even if you quit Facebook, or ban yourself from social media during the workday, or exile yourself to a cabin in the mountains, you’ll probably still find it unpleasantly constraining to focus on what matters, so you’ll find some way to relieve the pain by distracting yourself: by daydreaming, taking an unnecessary nap, or—the preferred option of the productivity geek—redesigning your to-do list and reorganizing your desk. ​

“The overarching point is that what we think of as ‘distractions’ aren’t the ultimate cause of our being distracted. They’re just the places we go to seek relief from the discomfort of confronting limitation. The reason it’s hard to focus on a conversation with your spouse isn’t that you’re surreptitiously checking your phone beneath the dinner table. On the contrary, ‘surreptitiously checking your phone beneath the dinner table’ is what you do because it’s hard to focus on the conversation—because listening takes effort and patience and a spirit of surrender, and because what you hear might upset you, so checking your phone is naturally more pleasant.

“Even if you place your phone out of reach, therefore, you shouldn’t be surprised to find yourself seeking some other way to avoid paying attention. In the case of conversation, this generally takes the form of mentally rehearsing what you’re going to say next, as soon as the other person has finished making sounds with their mouth.” — From Four Thousand Weeks by Oliver Burkeman (read my three takeaways)

Distractions are used as an avoidance strategy, avoiding the assigned task, a difficult conversation, and, at extremes, engaging with the world altogether. The purpose of distraction is to seek some modicum of relief from the activity we are engaged in.

Social media and other on-demand entertainment services receive much of the blame for causing our distraction-prone demeanor. Yet, as Burkeman notes, no one is holding a gun to our head forcing us to refresh Instagram. Aside from notifications, the need to 'just take a quick look' arises from within, followed by a scroll that lasts much longer than intended. If we were staying in a log cabin within the desolate forests of Vancouver, the lack of Wi-Fi wouldn't cause us to develop an intense ability to focus; instead, the need for distraction would follow us, seeking new mediums.

II. Decide on five priorities for life

“There is a story attributed to Warren Buffett—although probably only in the apocryphal way in which wise insights get attributed to Albert Einstein or the Buddha, regardless of their real source—in which the famously shrewd investor is asked by his personal pilot about how to set priorities. I’d be tempted to respond, ‘Just focus on flying the plane!’ But apparently this didn’t take place midflight, because Buffett’s advice is different: he tells the man to make a list of the top twenty-five things he wants out of life and then to arrange them in order, from the most important to the least.

​​“The top five, Buffett says, should be those around which he organizes his time. But contrary to what the pilot might have been expecting to hear, the remaining twenty, Buffett allegedly explains, aren’t the second-tier priorities to which he should turn when he gets the chance. Far from it. In fact, they’re the ones he should actively avoid at all costs—because they’re the ambitions insufficiently important to him to form the core of his life yet seductive enough to distract him from the ones that matter most.” — From Four Thousand Weeks by Oliver Burkeman (read my three takeaways)

There is an increasing responsibility to stay updated with everything that's happening in mainstream society. A feeling of apprehension when one is excluded from a conversation has become known as FOMO, the fear of missing out. I use the word ‘conversation’ here to mean both speech, and more commonly, online participation.

Time spent on such activities leaves us little or no time for what truly matters. Many experience keeping pace with societal trends, as a social expectation that exerts great pressure on their time. As a result, another acronym was born as an antidote to FOMO, JOMO. The joy of missing out describes the pleasure we gain from purposefully ignoring things that do not add value to our lives. As the mainstream content engine continues to pump out new episodes, we focus on building a deeper relationship with meaningful activities. Warren Buffett's story provides a practical example of how JOMO can be applied to our personal pursuits. Burkeman reminds us, however, that we will always suffer the pain of losing out on some true passions:

“Convenience culture seduces us into imagining that we might find room for everything important by eliminating only life’s tedious tasks. But it’s a lie. You have to choose a few things, sacrifice everything else, and deal with the inevitable sense of loss that results.”

Regrets are a feature of life, not a bug. In his last interview, British-American author and journalist Christopher Hitchens said that there are no pain-free paths in life. We have to choose our regrets. Which regrets can we live with, and which can we not?

Quotes to Ponder

I. Tim Ferriss on those who delay living:

“’Someday’ is a disease that will take your dreams to the grave with you”.

II. Sam Harris on the power of thought:

"Take a moment to marvel at the power of thought. Even the happiest person is never more than a thought away from being miserable. And the most miserable person is never more than a thought away from being happy. Perhaps it's time to recognise that there will be no peace in your mind until you break this spell that thought casts over everything in your life."

Thank you for reading,

Matthew Vere

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