Finding Focus and Embracing Simplicity in an Age of Distractions

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At this very moment, as I compose this piece, I’m simultaneously listening to a podcast and working on another writing assignment. In a few minutes, I’ll be chatting with my seatmate, checking my phone, scrolling through my social media feed, staring blankly at my computer, or musing over something completely unrelated to what I’m currently doing.

In a world of excess and multiple devices, distractions are coming from all directions. There’s clutter at home or in the workplace, alarms going off, phones buzzing in between conversations, not to mention the digital mess we amuse ourselves with every day.

I used to take pride in my ability to multitask, having juggled school, a part-time job, and many other side hustles for a significant time back in college. On top of that, I wasted so much time indulging in trivial affairs. I didn’t realize that my ability to retain information and recall memories suffered tremendously.

Sure, I finished my thesis and earned a diploma, got myself a decent-paying job. But in hindsight, had I learned to filter out what was irrelevant to my self-development, I would have accomplished more.

Brain, interrupted!

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It’s true that technology has given us many gifts, but it has also put a massive volume of information (and misinformation) out there that our brains aren’t designed to handle. On the surface, distractions seem like they’re just there to keep us from doing what we need to do. But in reality, they’re making our relationships sour and our lives duller. They’re making us dumber, too, according to a new University of Texas at Austin study.

We have also become “suckers for irrelevancy,” says a study on the deleterious effects of multitasking on the human brain done by Standford sociologist Clifford Nass. The takeaway from this study is that our brains can only attend to a few things at once and when overwhelmed by distractions, we end up making poorer decisions and performing less than we’re capable of. Sounds pretty relatable, doesn’t it? That’s because our brains are wired to take the path of least resistance, finds researchers at the University of College London.

So how do we take our brains back in an increasingly more complex world?

The key, as ancient wisdom has constantly taught us, is to simplify. Allow me to break it down for you.

Escaping Distractions

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Life is full of complications, we all know that. Financial instability, traffic, tiring jobs, undefined relationships, broken friendships, declining health, and other indirect problems that, one way or another, still affect you. It’s easy to lose control and let your fickle mind give in to all the distractions, especially when they give you temporary satisfaction.

But allowing distractions to consume you prevents you from getting real work done. And it doesn’t just happen at work or in school. It translates to every aspect of your life, down to the smallest, most mundane tasks, like washing the dishes or throwing out the trash. Fighting our brain’s natural impulse to take the easy route is no easy task, but it doesn’t hurt to try.

Killing your Darlings

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To kill your darlings, a piece of advice commonly given by or handed out to writers, is basically about letting go of things you hold on to selfishly and don’t move the story forward in any way. Much like in life, we refuse to step out of our comfort zone and choose to chug along instead simply because it’s easier. But the repercussions are real, and while it’s in our nature to be lazy, we can always choose to live deliberately. In other words, know when to let go of what’s holding you back from your real goals. 

Simplify, Simplify!

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Simplicity could mean differently for everyone. It can be material or spiritual, an overnight decision or a life-long experiment, the way Henry David Thoreau did in Walden Pond. The greatest philosophers agree that simplifying your life is an effective way to cope with the difficulties of life. Generally speaking, what this means is that the world is not going to get less complicated, but there are simple ways to solve problems.

More often than not, how you interpret a problem directs how you’re solving it. Embracing simplicity is also a process, a manuscript that’s open for further revisions. Like any process, it’s important to have awareness. Deciding to improve your focus, increase your productivity, live a simpler life, and stick it out through a more difficult climb is a conscious choice.

Whenever you feel like not living up to your full potential, maybe you should stop scrolling through your Facebook feed for a change, or instead of listening to a podcast or binge-watching Food Network videos, consider listening to ambient music instead or whatever helps you become more productive.

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