When we think about distractions to our attention and focus, as school leaders, we often think about external distractions. Things like phone calls, emails, people dropping in, or unplanned events are the first ones mentioned when I talk to principals. However, what about our internal distractions- those inner thoughts and feelings that interfere with our focus?
From a recent coaching conversation.
Me: How has your focus been this week?
Her: Pretty good actually.
Me: How so?
Her: I have really been using the goal setting and categorization system we discussed and blocking of times for more uninterrupted work.
Me: Great! So it sounds like you are focusing more and getting lots more done?
Her: Well, not really kind of. I block off time, but when I sit down, I am still distracted. I start thinking about other things or look something up online and before you know it, my block of deep work time is gone.
Even with a workable external attention/time management system in place, school leaders often fail to recognize another significant cause for lack of focus: their minds.
In his new book Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life, Nir Eyal discusses that time management is really about pain management in that our distractions are often “spurred by the desire to escape discomfort.” Whether it is having to think hard, or write when we don’t like to, or fill in those reports we hate, we often try and escape the discomfort involved with things we don’t want to do.
Even when we force ourselves to sit down and focus, in the back of our minds we are still telling ourselves, “this is going to be boring” or “I hate doing this” ruminating on the task and resisting the urge to do something else. However, we know by resisting the urge it grows even stronger. It is the “don’t think about the white bear” syndrome. Technically it is called the ironic process theory meaning the more we try and eliminate thoughts about something, the stronger the thoughts become.
Taming our Internal Distractions
Our minds frequently seem to run themselves. Thoughts pop in and out of our heads all the time seemingly out of our control. To better understand the causes of our internal distractions, Eyal proposes you take four steps.
Step 1: Focus on the internal trigger or discomfort that precedes your distraction. For instance, when you sit down to do some deep thinking around a plan, you may feel a new thought pop into your mind like, “I’d better check my emails” or you may start to feel restless to get up and move around.
Step 2: Write the trigger down. Start to track your distractions so you can see any common patterns. Note the distraction, time, task, and feeling. Also, notice how your behavior shifts and work at observing and labeling the thought. For instance, you might say, “ I am feeling anxious about writing this plan right now, and I want to check my email.”
Step 3: Become curious about the sensation. Rather than trying to ignore the thought, try and get really curious about it. Ask yourself, where am I feeling this, how do I know when it goes away? In your mind, watch the thought as it goes away.
Step 4: Be aware of liminal moments. A liminal moment is a transition time between tasks. Just like a passing period for students, you also have moments when you move from task to task or meeting to meeting. It is during these times when you sneak an extra glance at your phone or check one more email. These small events can easily distract us and get us off focus. To avoid these, use the surfing the urge technique in which we notice our urge and sensation and ride them like a wave. Let them dissipate without acting on them.
In sum, as school leaders, we all have external and internal distractions that trigger our attention and focus in a different direction. We have techniques to rid ourselves of the external disturbances. Our internal distractions, however, may be more significant than we know. By paying attention to these triggers, and developing more conscious ways to move them to the side, you can help minimize these inner demons. It won’t happen overnight, but only through practicing can you tame those inner demons.
Until next time!
Eyal, N. (2019). Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Control Your Life. Dallas, TX : BeBella Books.