Focusing on the Important Stuff in an Age of Distraction

In a world saturated with social media and unlimited interruptions, many of us struggle to focus on what’s in front of us. With so many voices vying for attention, it’s hard to know what’s worth our time.

We end up tuning it all out, the good with the bad.

Photo Credit: Βethan via Compfight cc

The surprising solution to our distraction confronts us every day. At the shopping mall. In long lines of traffic. Even standing at the coffeepot.

Every time we wait is an opportunity to slow down and be present in an increasingly noisy world, to listen to the voices we sometimes lose in the static. And as we embrace the wait, we learn to appreciate the delays and postponements that teach us some things in life are worth waiting for.

Learning to slow down

Life was meant to be more than the daily humdrum. It was supposed to be enjoyable, full of purpose, not just stress and worry. So where has all our satisfaction gone? Where is the pleasure, the joy?

We search for it on road trips and weekend getaways, even extended vacations in the Caribbean, dreaming of the life we’ve always wanted.

We seek out meaning in our jobs and other success pursuits. We even reserve feelings of joy and satisfaction for major events like marriage and parenthood. But often we’re disappointed with what we find.

Sure, we may be happy, but we are far from complete. Even the best job, the best husband, and the best vacation have their flaws (I happen to know this for a fact). What we were hoping for, what we dreamed would be a larger-than-life experience, ends up looking a lot like morning breath and spreadsheets.

So we keep searching, and we wonder why it’s becoming harder to sit still and just be. All the while, what we’re searching for sits in front of us, hidden in normal, everyday inconveniences.

If we reserve our joy only for the experiences of a lifetime, we may miss the life in the experience.

Such experiences are everywhere, waiting for us to see them. But first we must learn to open our eyes and recognize the gift of waiting.

Choosing to be grateful, anyway

In the in-between, that place where we spend most our lives, we learn to recognize the temporal nature of life. Eventually, all waiting must end. And when it does, we are left with what we did with the time in between the beginning and the end.

Watching a tree grow will likely drive you crazy. It’s a boring process if you stand there, impatiently tapping your foot, waiting for it to do something. But if you step away and come back later, you’ll be surprised to see something beautiful emerge.

The fact is the plant is doing something; it’s growing. Just not as quickly as you might like.

Our culture has conditioned us to expect instant results and overnight success. But life doesn’t always work that way.

Our cultural impatience runs so rampant that we dress it up in terms like “productivity” and “efficiency.” But what’s really happening is we are conditioning ourselves to get what we want now, all the time. Such a mindset robs us of the lessons waiting can teach us, causing us to miss out on the slow but important stuff of life.

How we grow

Most growth happens this way: slowly over time. You don’t even notice it. In fact, sometimes the circumstances feel more like inconveniences than opportunities, but then one day you wake up, amazed at how far you’ve come.

When it comes to waiting — for anything, really — we have a choice:

  • we can try to bypass the delays to get immediate gratification,
  • or we can embrace the “long game” of life and invest those days, months, and years in the slow but intentional growth that leads to lasting change.

What would you rather do? Keep constantly searching for the next thrill or achievement to “complete” you? Or find a way to abide in where you are right now — this place that maybe, in its own little way, is perfect?

Three things that will make you happier now

If you struggle to focus, like I do, but want more out of life, try the following:

  1. Make a gratitude list. Write down three things you’re grateful for today (science shows that such lists lead to increased happiness).
  2. Stop competing. Instead of comparing yourself to someone you admire (or envy), consciously choose to celebrate their success. Jealousy leads to misery; make the effort to build others up, even when you don’t want to.
  3. Resist the urge of distraction. The next time you’re tempted to “check in” on social media, to lose focus on what’s right in front of you, take a deep breath. Remind yourself that this moment won’t last forever and you should make the most of it.

For more help with focusing on what really matters, check out this five-part series with daily challenges to slow down.

You might also like my book, The In-Between, which you can pick up wherever fine books are sold (I’ve always wanted to say that). Audiobook aficionados can get it for free on Audible when signing up for a new account.

To get more of a taste of the book, listen to the whole introduction right here (or click the player below).


Do you struggle with distraction? How do you focus? Share in the comments.

108 thoughts on “Focusing on the Important Stuff in an Age of Distraction

  1. Do I struggle with distraction? Excuse me, while I check Twitter for a minute. I just have to consciously decide to overcome FOMO (fear of missing out) and truly not miss out. And I fail at this often.

      1. I was impressed how you answered every single of the comments, isn’t this as well a part of the daily distractions? How do you stay involved in social community and at the same time enjoy meals with your family without checking, commenting or tweeting?

  2. “Do you struggle with distraction? How do you focus?”

    I struggle with distraction, but more in a sense that I can’t find my focus quickly enough. I will sit down at my desk and flutter around with all manner of things first, before getting stuck into the matter at hand. I once created a post-it note Xmas tree, before finally getting to work!

    I have started to use mindfulness meditation as a way to calm my mind down before I get started, and that has helped (although I only manage around 9 minutes of calm at most before I am itching to get started).

    What I have found works best for me though, is routine. If you have a very set step-by-step routine for sitting down to write, your mind just switches into ‘Writer-Mode’.

  3. I just applied choosing to be grateful when I was supposed to be writing my next blog post and my son came into my office exicted after finding diamonds in minecraft. Duty calls, had to mine diamonds, gold, iron, etc. Next thing you know, I’m late for work. But, it was worth it.

  4. Trying to focus with all the outside stimulation is difficult. I purposely try not to use distracting web sites sitting in front of my computer, I reserve it for my phone. It helps keep me focused on what I need to do when I sit down in front of the computer. When I need a break, I open up the phone.

  5. This is a major problem for me. I have so much going on all the time I can’t find myself half the time. Thing is, if I ever stop for a moment to just sit down I feel like I’m wasting time! I’m the guy who makes the dinner table shake with this jittery leg.

  6. The funny thing is my one word for the year is FOCUS. And lately, I have been more distracted than ever. Some interruptions can’t quite be controlled (the ones life throws at you), but many can. It helps when I take a task and focus on finishing it rather than jumping around the to-do list…I have a lot to learn this year. 🙂

  7. This is so great, Jeff. I just finished your book on a short trip to Trinidad with Operation Christmas Child – We are about to begin discussing it tonight with our young unmarried’s group. Our Pastor has been preaching through his book “Crash the Chatterbox” and these two together are exactly what we need to hear. Thank you for using your writing gift to bring forth more of God’s grace in the world. We’ll use these “three things” as action steps tonight – it’s perfect because I get to invest in brilliant young women who can get so easily distracted by all the world has to offer. (I know because I’ve spent much of my life chasing the next big thing!) Thank you, thank you!!! You should know, too that all of our groups that go on short-term trips with Bless Back Worldwide use your book “Wrecked” to process their thoughts post-trip. So, so great. We must make it a 2014 promise to connect our worlds in person. 🙂

  8. Jeff, this is great and reminds me of the idea of keeping a firm but not constricting hold on things, much like how you hold and egg. Of all the parts I liked, the idea of not competing resonates most to me. Always happy to get a reminder of the pitfalls which come with a competitive approach.

  9. Such a vital message, Jeff. We human beings have lived in the age of distraction since we had thinking, self-conscious minds, haven’t we? The difference is the sources of and rates of distractibility. The curious thing, too, is that we have access to ever more tools & resources to help with distraction. Your 3 reminders help cut to the core. Gratitude.

  10. Jeff – thank you! This is just perfectly timed for me as I’m undertaking Ali Edwards’ One Little Word project and my word for 2014 is Today – a constant reminder to really live my life in the here and now rather than rushing on to the next big thing, the next high – although with 4 young daughters rushing is compulsory sometimes 😉 Am downloading your book intro now & hoping to schedule in between time to read 🙂

  11. Thank you for sharing, Jeff. I have enjoyed reading your pieces over the past year and appreciate the journey you are taking into the writer’s life. Julia Cameron’s work — specifically The Artist’s Way changed my thinking about special moments. I make time for Artist’s Dates every week … … They make me slow down and appreciate life. A vase of flowers on a table in an uncluttered room brings peace and joy. Quiet, slow walking with a good cup of coffee, bliss.

  12. What a great reminder, Jeff. Thank you. I do find it so easy to grow impatient at the “lag time” between when I make a change and I see a result. Your words are so encouraging.

  13. Love this post. Thank you for showing me, I’m not the ONLY person who struggles with this. What do I do? Saddle up and ride one of our horses. The pure peace and quiet does wonders for your perspective. 🙂

  14. Jeff, great reminder for me today. Sowing and reaping always comes later and greater! It is too easy to forget this like you said in our day of wanting overnight success and instant results. Perseverance and prayer are key!

  15. The way I keep my focus: I write on my white board three things I need to get done this week, and three I need to get done today. Once today’s three are done, I work a little on This Week’s Three, or add three more to Today’s list.
    So far, it has worked great for really allows me to be completely present at each task / moment I have in front of me.

    Gracia & Paz

  16. Thank you for the reminder, Jeff. 🙂 This post is perfect for what I’m trying to accomplish. Ever since I decided to write 1000 words per day, I also decided to cut down my social media time. I only check my Facebook once I’m done with all the tasks for the day. And the result was amazing! I no longer feel the need to check my Facebook account every five minutes, which gave me more time to write. I am writing more than 1000 words per day. And I feel like I’m also more patient.

  17. I agree with you 100%. I’ve been make a concerted effort in 2014 that when I’m waiting in lines (the grocer store, the post office, the school carpool line), I don’t take my phone out, but close my eyes and breathe. It’s hit or miss, but practice makes progress….

  18. Thanks a lot Jeff, I have been learning a lot from you really. How I avoid distractions? Closing the social media tabs if I am writing for example and pre – feeling the satisfaction of a job well done. I will start making a gratitude list.

  19. Lately, I haven’t focused too well. But one way I do avoid the social media distraction is by setting insanely tight deadlines for myself. I then hustle and focus with greater intensity. Another smart way i learned from Pat Flynn is to set like hourly alarms on your phone that remind you to stay focused on what’s important. You start to feel bad when the alarm goes off and you’re caught being distracted and so to avoid that feeling, you gain more focus.

  20. I came off social media (well FB at least) last year and wrote my first novel! It can be hugely distracting so I make a choice to stay away. I teach mindfulness to busy business owners and Tweens and they all realise that between all the thinking and doing is a paradise awaiting and they need nothing more than themselves and a floor or chair. Gratitude is always top of my list and I often write about how on social media we compare our worst days with someone else’s projected best day. It is all so subjective…
    Thanks, I am really enjoying your blog as I go into researching my second novel and getting beta reader feedback from my first.

  21. I definitely struggle with distraction. I’m learning to focus with short to-do lists and doing one task at a time. Multitasking is a huge myth. Done one thing. Get it done. Move on.

    1. I totally agree with multitasking being a myth. It is a word too often misused. The people that are able to get multiple things done are more likely to relate to your “Get it done. Move on” process.

  22. I do not have any distraction,I suffer most about the slowness of things; am working with people who take their time,I hate waiting even if they say patience is good. I tend not to believe that it is a very lame excuse of being lazy; Tx Jeff you just made my morning;
    have a good day;

  23. Real great stories in the comments! I feel like I fight a losing battle to distraction everyday. That isn’t to say that I haven’t been making strides though. It is a never ending process that takes constant diligence. Thank you to all the commenters for sharing their story.

  24. Good stuff, I personally like the part about using our time effectively when waiting in queue, or stuck in traffic jams, so many people use that time to get frustrated and angry, when it is really a gift to use to our advantage and be present. I totally agree with the gratitude list, being grateful is a must. Stop competing is also very true, let others do their thing and just concentrate on your own thing, become better at what you do and you will have no competition. Number three is also true, but became slightly amusing when just below it you say join me on Twitter etc.. Great post though, thanks.

  25. Some days I struggle with distractions more than others. My physical state impacts my ability to focus but so does whether or not I deliberately choose to focus. So often, I think people believe they cannot control where they go mentally, that some days they just can’t focus. I’m realizing more and more that focus is a choice, that we can direct our thoughts most of the time. It takes effort but does get easier the more the habit is developed.

  26. I leave my cell phone on silent all day long. I hate the constant or lack of pings. This allows me to look at my phone on my own time. I try not to focus on the negative in life and focus on the positive all the time. I also take time to meditate. I do agree what we live in a world of now and give it to me’s. Loved this post!

  27. Great post Jeff! I had one of those weeks last week where I saw I was easily distracted. This culminated in one of those really awful moments when you open the washing machine to add a load to find a load already in the wash from only God know’s when. In that simple homemaking moment I realized I need to have more focus in my life and less distractions. I could see that if I was distracted from the laundry I was surely distracted in other aspects of my life like marriage, relationships and writing.

    Thanks for the inspiration!

  28. Currently my husband and I are traversing unusual ground for us — both confronting health issues at the same time and since December. This morning I made a conscious decision to draw back from social media for the near term so that I can handle maintaining our home, accomplishing errands, getting us both to appointments, the mail and more. This doesn’t include my memoir in progress, my blogs, or the groups/webinars/classes I need to be actively participating in. Nor is there time for reading others’ blog posts (except yours, of course!). I decided, however, that our health was the most important thing we need to face and resolve currently. Battling with insurance companies brings on stress and I certainly can’t eliminate them from our scenario. Worrying about the yard and house won’t heal us either. So, bye bye social media for a while. More important things need my attention. I need to focus on what God is calling me to do — take care of family and health.

  29. Love your posts. When overwhelm encroaches I read them and begin breathing deeply again. Thank you.

  30. Darn it, Jeff, I was all set to get our vegetarian newsletter finished and published when I noticed your new post. It didn’t take long to read, but then, you have all these comments, and they’re good. That makes them time consuming. And now, it’s time for Carolina Tarheels Basketball (with a capital B), so it’s going to be a late night. Nevertheless, what I was going to say about handling distractions would now be a total fabrication, so thanks, Jeff. It’s all your fault.

  31. I’m with KC- He is right… multitasking is not the way to go. I was receintly reading something.. probably on a blog (on the internet so it must be true right)- and it was basically saying that all the stress in our lives and having too many balls in the air at one time is affecting our ability to “get things done”— in other words, multitasking DOESN’T WORK. The quality of the work goes down as the number of tasks increases.

    1. Rob, you hit the nail on the head. I had begun a habit of having one thing open at a time (1 tab, 1 document, 1 program) I fell off briefly but this is a great reminder

  32. I love how your posts that I read, always seem to speak to where I am at the moment. I’m so bad sometimes, my distractions are distracted. Thanks for pulling me back from the deep.

  33. Jeff, this was so great to read and the 3 steps are brilliant! I find that it’s the hardest to START, but once I’m going – I’ve got laser-beam focus. Thanks for sharing an exquisite perspective on patience. 🙂

  34. Great post, Jeff! I was just thinking this morning how Jesus came to give us an abundant life, but we seldom find it. I think the problem is we don’t know the definition of an abundant life. We often get the world’s definition and God’s definition mixed up. And in the process we keep overlooking it.

  35. I’m getting ready to cut back on my social media. My blog, represents who I am, the rest of my online accounts are just tools. I’ve found that in the big picture, Google+, LinkedIn, Pinterest, and StumbleUpon, all social media that I use for sharing, are not as effective as Facebook and Twitter. So rather than spending my time trying to build more social media, I’m going to begin to cancel certain accounts and focus on what is effective. In doing this I will simplify my Online life and open up more offline time for things that are truly more important.

    1. Dan, I couldn’t agree more! In fact, I’m currently taking a “social media sabbatical.” Once I get my ducks in a row and life settles down medically for my husband, I’ll go back but only to Facebook and Twitter, as you say, to share things. Simplifying life online is a priority for a writer. Thanks for expressing my thoughts and feelings so well.

  36. I’m so glad I’ve finally entered this world of inspiring bloggers. Even though I’m only 17 I’ve been really confused trying to figure it out what is life really about. I think society is walking towards the wrong path. We have forgotten what it is to be grateful, help others and slow down. Thanks for this amazing post. It definitely changed how I’ll guide my life.

      1. Hi Sherrey, I’m not sure what you need, but if you’re asking to be unsubscribed from the email list, you can do that by clicking the “unsubscribe” link at the bottom of the last email your received. 🙂

    1. I totally agree Natasha. I see some worrying signs in society. Instead of getting too down about it, I am trying to ‘be the change I want to see in the world.’ It is the little things, like a wave when a car lets me in when I’m driving, or providing positive feedback when a customer service rep goes out of their way to really help me.

      There are some wonderful people in the world…best to surround yourself with those sort of people 🙂

  37. Yes, I really find it hard to make a book. Now I just keep on writing articles for my web blog. Soon I am going to make one book someday.

  38. I need to eliminate some distractions like too much watching movies, and youtube videos to create my first book.

  39. So true Jeff…but I am glad I allowed myself to get distracted by your blog post today, amidst 15 other open windows 🙂 As a writer myself it is so easy to be distracted by all the great information and opportunities out there.
    There is a danger though–I am starting to feel that we need to be careful of not becoming overwhelmed and burnt out. This was something I was only posting about last week. Thank you for the always necessary reminder to slow down, connect with yourself and enjoy life as it unfolds.

  40. This is such a unique take on waiting. “I need to open my eyes and recognize the gift of waiting.” Thanks Jeff…

  41. Always great content Jeff.

    I often tell the story of the Chinese Bamboo Tree: Where, if we were to plant one today and diligently nurture and care for it, (even hold hands, dance around it and sing kumbaya), nothing visible would happen for the first four years. However, in the fifth year, it would shoot upward ninety feet in a period of six weeks.

    When I share that story, I usually follow-it-up with a question – So, was anything going on during those first four years? “Yes.” It was developing beneath the surface and growing strong roots which would form a solid foundation and be able to support it’s growth.

  42. “In fact, sometimes the circumstances feel more like inconveniences than opportunities, but then one day you wake up, amazed at how far you’ve come.” I love this point, Jeff. I love that as I look back over my own journey, it’s the detours that have grown and shaped me the most.

  43. Sometime it’s hard to keep your perspective when you’re in the moment. We all want success now, we want happiness now, and we want acceptance now. But you’re right, if we can learn to live in the moment we can get so much more out of life. The challenge is recognizing that. Each moment in our lives contributes a little to who we are. Even the tough times.

  44. Thanks for another great article Jeff. Too often we try to remove obstacles and problems from our lives, but it is the obstacles and the problems which are our best teacher in life.

  45. It’s true that culture measures success by rapid growth. This is my biggest challenge as someone who isn’t patient. Thanks for reminding me that growth happens in stages and small steps which may not be tangible.

  46. I read your book “The In-Between” when it first came out. It has a great message. Thanks for the reminder today to enjoy what’s right in front of me, instead of doing constant Facebook checks.

    1. Thanks Tami! You just reminded me to put my phone away and get back to my vacation. Embracing the in-between is a constant struggle for me. But I’m learning.

  47. Thanks, @jeffgoins:disqus for this post on focus. I’m realizing I need to block times for writing and separate times for responding to people on social media or checking email. That way I continue to engage with my community and still get my posts done.

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