How Shiny Objects Derail You Despite Your Best Intentions

One of the most basic, most quoted tenets of productivity, one engraved into our brains, is “avoid distractions”.

Only, that isn’t taking it nearly far enough — something I (re)learned this week…finally.

I don’t know about you, but when I read or hear a version of “avoid distractions”, I tend to slide over the statement with a mental nod because, yep, got that covered.

And I do.

All the Shiny Colors of Distractions

I long ago learned to disable all my notifications, turn my phone off, shut down email, the Internet, yadda yadda, when I settle in for a writing session.  The Internet of Things is a cesspool of alluring objects, screaming for attention, and I’m well aware of the danger of stepping onto that highway.

I just missed one shiny object that has been derailing me over and over, lately, because I didn’t recognize it as a distraction.

Distractions aren’t just the online world beckoning you.

Distractions are anything that pull you away from your writing.  As anything and everything in your life has the ability to yank you away from your writing, then everything has the potential to be a distraction.

Family crises, illness, and other emergencies are just that: Emergencies.  They are legitimate (but unfortunate) disruptions that you must deal with, then, to quote Marcus Aurelius:

“When jarred unavoidably by circumstance, revert at once to yourself and don’t lose the rhythm more than you help. You’ll have a better grasp of the harmony if you keep going back to it.”

It’s when the “everything else” in your life lures you away from writing, under the guise of “sort-of-emergencies” or “might be an emergency if I don’t deal with it now” and other pseudo-excuses, that their potential to become distractions is realized.

You decide you have to mow the lawn now because the weather forecast says it will rain tomorrow (but you could always mow the day after that…or not mow at all).

You should have that discussion about branding for an upcoming series with your cover designer now, because she might forget the details if you leave it for later (but if you document the details properly later, no one will forget).

You have a headache, you should really lie down (but it’s not a really bad headache, and extra water and maybe a Tylenol will fix it).

You’ve succumbed.

Writing is Hard

It’s very easy to be distracted by just about anything else, because writing is hard.  It’s a marathon, not a sprint.

Writing is physically hard if you’re sitting in the chair for a long period of time, like I do.

It’s mentally hard, because writing is 100% making decisions–big, small, and micro–which all take a big bite out of your daily quota of executive decision making juice.  If you’re already low on that capacity, writing becomes even harder.

Then there’s the typical author fears (fear of success, fear of failure, fear of ignominy, fear of <insert your favourite>) that sap at your confidence, making you want to shy away from the testing ground your novel represents in your mind.

All these reasons drain your energy and make writing seem difficult and unpleasant.  Is it any wonder we grasp at any excuse not to write?

Over the years I’ve learned to recognize fake emergencies, and rationalize my way back to writing.  Sometimes, a quick phone call or email to hand the issue on to someone else, or a note to myself so I don’t worry I’ll forget about it later, is enough to let my mind return to the story at hand.

This week, however, I learned of the existence of yet another category of distraction that has been side-swiping me for months now, and I simply didn’t recognize it for what it was.

The Power Of Open Loops

David Allen of Getting Things Done fame wasn’t the first one to use the concept of Open Loops, but he did popularize it.

When you finish a task, even the smallest task, and either check it off, or simply decide that it is finished and dealt with, your mind receives a little hit of dopamine.  It’s like a reward for finishing.

Because of this reinforcement, your sub-conscious has developed a powerful need to complete anything not yet finished.  Allen’s solution was to capture everything in a task list, so your mind lets go of the focus upon finishing and lets you move on to something else.

That works very well for small tasks and items.  What about the bigger stuff?  Life decisions, new business plans.  Hitting a best seller list.  Not every open loop or emergency is a negative one.  Positive, unexpected events will also push you off-balance and require adjustments.

That was what was happening to me, and I didn’t notice the pattern.

I have a well-established morning routine that included checking all the blog feeds I’m subscribed to, which is a great many.  I don’t do podcasts, so I collate industry news via blogs and news sites, and (with deep reluctance) Facebook.  I’ve learned to disengage from Facebook quickly, for that distraction is well known.  The pattern I missed was generated from reading the blog feeds.

The blogs I read are all brilliant sources of information and ideas about how to get ahead in the indie publishing world, how to market, how to run a small business, etc.  There are also more than a few productivity blogs.  The new ideas I get from these blogs are endless.  My OneNote is stuffed with clippings and notes about things I should try, changes I should make, items that need to be added to my business planning in the future…and on and on.

Occasionally, though — sometimes once a week — I would come across a suggestion or idea or new way of tackling a writing or publishing problem that made me sit up with energy and excitement, my pulse racing as I thought  “Yes!  Maybe this is the tiny change that will make a big difference!”  And off I would race, to spend hours putting the new tactic into play, re-organizing my schedule or my work processes, and rebuilding checklists to incorporate the strategy…

Can you see the pattern?

Put as baldly as I have here, it’s easy to see what was derailing me.

Every new, exciting idea with potential built my enthusiasm, which set up an open loop in my mind.  Like Pavlov’s dogs, I am incapable of not completing the loop.  I must incorporate the new idea into my business structure in whatever way ensures it isn’t overlooked, forgotten, or badly adopted (as I hate half-assing things).  I have spent years and years training myself to be super-productive, so the ingrained need to close the loop is very strong in me.

And I thought I was simply being undisciplined, allowing myself to be lured by a shiny object.

The force at work, derailing me from writing (which I do straight after breakfast each morning), was more powerful than simply being “undisciplined”.   In fact, the more disciplined you are, the greater the ability of open loops to completely side-swipe you.

I credit Cal Newport’s Deep Work for pointing this out to me in peripheral comment which jerked me awake and dropped my jaw, as I recognized what had been happening to me.

The solution

The solution is very simple:  I have stopped reading my blog feeds first thing in the morning.  It’s requiring a bit of adjustment, as the habit was deeply ingrained.

I’m also now on the look-out for anything which might generate open loops just before I start writing in the morning.  Emails have the potential to throw up new, open loops, for example, but clearing email in the morning is necessary, so I don’t leave readers waiting too long for responses.  I tread cautiously, though.

I’ve only been following this new practice for a few days, and I am sure that eventually, I will be beckoned by a shiny object that sets up an open loop.  My strategy for when that happens is to take ten or fifteen minutes and write quick notes about how the shiny object/idea will be useful and how to deploy it, then put a reminder in my notes so the idea isn’t lost forever.  Loop closed.  Back to writing.

What Are Your Open Loop Generators?

Think about what activities you routinely complete just before you settle in to write for the day.  Are any of them generating open loops?

If they are, can you not do that activity until after you’ve written?

If you cannot avoid the activity (say, it’s a day job responsibility), then can you devise a method for closing the loop fast, even temporarily, so you can circle back later and deal with it?

It will likely take you some trial and error to figure out how to deal with this class of disruptors, but even being aware of them will greatly reduce their power.

Give it a try.

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