How to Overcome Distraction & Do Work That Matters

Art is hard. Selling is hard. Writing is hard. Making a difference is hard.
–Seth Godin

The first rule of doing work that matters is this: show up. Get to work so you can start making a difference. Of course, this is a no-brainer, so why do we not do it? We get distracted.

Life is too short artwork
Image credit: Gina Musa.

Often, we go to the place where we work without actually going to work. We let the demands of other people’s schedules dictate what we do and how we do it. We chase “skinny rabbits” that won’t be worth the reward once we catch them.

I struggle with distractions all the time. Every day, the Resistance rears its ugly, evil head and tries to lure me away from the work that matters. And that has to stop.

Just last night, I read this wonderful quote from Mr. Godin:

When you’re doing hard work, getting rejected, failing, working it out — this is a dumb time to make situational decision about whether it’s time for a nap or a day off or a coffee break… The first five years of my solo business, when the struggle seemed never-ending, I never missed a day, never took a nap…
–Poke the Box

Making a difference is hard. It requires persistence and dedication, which both require focus, something I’m not particularly — hey, look a bird!

You have an Enemy. So do I. Call it the Devil or Resistance or plain old distraction. But it’s a real adversary, prowling around you, waiting for just the right moment to strike and consume you. To destroy the work that you’re trying so hard to create.

Your job is to make sure this doesn’t happen.

Each day is a new day, and the temptations to slack off or procrastinate present themselves anew every single moment we put our hands to the plow and get to work. And each time, the Resistance has another chance to defeat you. Every. Single. Day. This battle never ends, never goes away. There is never a ceasefire or surrender. You will always be under attack as long as you are alive.

So what’s the solution? Well, here are a few practical tips for how to overcome distraction:

  1. Name the problem. You have an Adversary. You’re not inherently lazy, necessarily. Everyone gets distracted. Everyone needs an occasional course correction. The first step to slaying this dragon is recognizing the Resistance. But have hope: the very fact that you are facing Resistance means that you are probably doing work that matters.
  2. Take responsibility. You can help this problem. You can grow. (And so can I, I hope…) “The Devil made me do it” isn’t quite right. You have control over who you are, what you do, and the person you become.
  3. Show up. There’s not much more to it. Just do the work. It’s hard and it’s painful and if everyone did it, I wouldn’t be writing this post. But we all know that’s not the world we live in. So excuse yourself from that pointless conversation, close the door, and dig in the work you were born to do. It’ll feel good when you’re done, I promise.
  4. Work smarter, not harder. When we get distracted, we get frustrated and sometimes beat ourselves up. This is unproductive and self-defeating; it’s what the Resistance wants you to do. Instead, do what Neil Fiore suggests: practice delayed gratification. Reward spurts of hard work with a short-term “distraction” (like checking email or going for a walk or grabbing a cookie).

Distraction is not the artist’s friend, and it’s antagonistic to the creative process. The Enemy is inside you, looking to subvert and sabotage your work. Don’t let it. There’s too much at stake here. Yes, your job is hard — that’s why only you can do it.

How do you overcome distraction? What’s your “brass knuckles” of choice for giving a hefty blow to the Resistance? Share in the comments.

35 thoughts on “How to Overcome Distraction & Do Work That Matters

  1. Great post Jeff!

    I struggled with this until the beginning of this year when I decided I would overcome the Resistance by committing beforehand that I would post one inspirational blog entry per day.

    Setting a small, doable goal like that has helped me do work that matters even when I don’t feel like it!

    “Every. Single Day. This battle never ends.” – Loved that!

  2. I loved this post.

    I’m that guy who is EASILY distracted.

    Glancing over your blog, it appears you write a lot of about writing…. which I need.

    I’m a new subscriber!

  3. Oh my! I am definitely a “Look, something shiny” kind of gal when trying to accomplish a task…Relevant, practical reminders of how to strap the blinders on and forge ahead. Nicely communicated.

  4. I certainly face this. And you are right – the resistance is daily!

    I like putting Jon Foreman’s ‘Limbs and Branches’ on when work gets stressful. The acoustic guitar has it’s way of soothing headaches. 🙂

  5. Great post Jeff – I needed to read it!

    I get distracted a LOT, but I’ve learned that if I turn off my cell phone, close out my FB and Twitter windows and my email, and make a to-do list, I am often a lot more productive.

  6. I find I’m actually most productive when I get out of the house and go to a coffee shop and just hunker down. I can do about 5-6 hours’ worth of work that wouldn’t happen when I’m at home. Which is great when I’m working on a design project on the laptop, but it doesn’t work for the painting I do. I see myself renting a studio in the near future, once I’m able to afford it.

  7. Late to the comments, but I have to say my favorite part of your list is naming the enemy. I have this idea of finding a really good image of a wicked dragon or something. (Something way more threatening than this:

    It helps to imagine the resistance outside myself– something that can be fought.

    That Fantasy is sort of my framework just enhances this analogy. {grin}

  8. I have spent the last hour and a half discovering your blog, reading your every post with a sense of compulsion! And finally I landed on this brilliant nugget. (amongst many brilliant nuggets!)
    So I’m going off to work and show up for myself, once and for all!  As soon as I finish this post I will turn off the mail and face “my creative clutter” ,(the paper copy of my manuscript in progress is somewhere in there!) 
    Thanks a mill!

  9. Hah. I’ve just spent an hour procrastinating… reading your blog. Oops. 🙂
    Better go park my butt in another chair for a couple of hours, with no distractions.
    Thank you!

  10. Nice piece. I’m thinking about this one a lot at the moment.

    One thing, I try to remove all metaphors of war from my life. I don’t think they help. So instead of viewing it as a daily battle, I view it as a daily opportunity to do exactly what I most deeply want.

    Framing it that way gives me no sense of guilt when I do something I don’t truly want to do (distractions), and motivation to do better in future.

  11. My computer faces a wall, though there are 4 windows in the room. Light and bright. In and near my work space are objects (my horse collection, and the horse books, which I choose not to look at when working—but I know they’re there) that energize me. Believe it or not, they keep me in the mode. Many of them, I’ve had for a lot of years.  I’m still pretty much a kid at heart. When writing for kids, this helps. Greatly. I try to do the kind of writing for kids that I would have wanted to read when I was their age. Horse oriented, but with a twist. I visualize them reading the finished, published work. There can’t be time to get distracted.

    1. I like your idea of a specific work place. Writing – working- just anywhere doesn’t work for me. I’m too scattered- pun intended, maybe not! Lotta windows a voracious temptation for me!

  12. There are many, many, many distractions in this world. I start my day with God and work from there. It’s easier to be undistracted when you know why focusing matters

  13. “And that requires focus, something I’m not particularly — hey, look a bird!”
     – Lol!!

  14. Good point about writing prompt. I do use daily prompt for my blog only because I have been isolated for toooooooo long. But your posts here has urged me to try to dig up ideas inside my mind, not from someone else. 🙂
    Thank you for the post!

  15. If you really want to force yourself to be creative, don’t just make a to do list; make a to do list of things you would rather be doing even less than your creative activity, so that being creative looks like an escape.

    Also, interesting ideas often come when you are relaxing, so find ways to relax. Take walks with a pen on hand, a hot bath or shower (once again with a pen nearby), a massage, a long drive, etc, and just let your mind wander around what you are trying to accomplish. Brainstorming ideas with smart friends also can bring forth great ideas, even if they are all your own. Humorous conversations are often very productive because humor is the part of language that is geared towards exposing things for what they really are.

    The distraction that inclined me to look up this topic online, however, is my health. Unfortunately, that is not something you can just ignore. But it sure is a distraction from my goals. 🙁

    1. Great advice! We get so stressed about the fact that we’re distracted we end up hurting our ability to create.

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