Week five of the Shattering the Meme novena, explores the link between distraction and fear. We derail our dreams without even realizing what we are doing as we load up our days with seemingly virtuous activities that deplete us.
Thwack! How did that extra meeting sneak into your week? The planning for it is swarming around your head like a bunch of flies, an endless stream of issues to deal
with. It’s bad enough to cope with the constant distractions of a day,
the ping of email (thwack), people walking up to your desk (thwack), and
crises real and imagined that never stop rearing their ugly heads
(thwackety, thwack, thwack, thwack). All of these tasks add up to
distractions that derail us from achieving the things we really value in
our lives. But while swatting all those flies, you might want to
notice that you are the one who left open the screen door.
It’s done with the best of intentions (or so we think). After all, big life goals are, well, big. They take time to reach. And today was exhausting. This week is an endless stream of meetings, in between which are deadlines. Better to think about what you need to do next week...month...year. Year! That’s real time we are talking about, and deferring progress on achieving the things that will lead to your professional and personal fulfillment can’t wait that long. What happens when you don’t make time for the things that will make you happy is that you begin to define yourself by the things that distract you. The meme of virtuous distraction draws you in with task lists and deadlines, then starts pulling you ever downward in its spiral. Other people validate this by demanding “responsiveness” and instant attention to their issues. The idea of setting any kind of boundaries seems downright unholy. So instead of doing our life’s work, we spend our time swatting flies.
Business equals avoidance
Chores are one thing. Departures from your life path are something else. I want to define chores here as any of the things you have to do in work or life, whether reading your email or attending a meeting, or dropping your kid off at karate class. Chores that can be delegated should be and the remainder of them done as efficiently as possible so that they do not consume all your time and sap your energy. Your day itself should be about far more than the to do list, if it’s not, you have crossed the line into distraction. Distraction is easy. It gets your mind off of things. It alleviates the pressure of seeking fulfillment. It tricks you into thinking you are making progress all the while corroding your soul. You keep so busy doing all these “necessary” things that you can justify procrastinating on the things that really matter. I strongly believe that we make time for the things that matter to us and excuses for the things that don’t. When we are afraid of what it will really mean to take the risks and do the work to accomplish our dreams, we decide that they aren’t nearly as important as all the busywork. Resolve right now to add more structure to your day so all these duties and expectations occupy a smaller and more concentrated percentage of your time and won’t keep pulling your attention away. If you find that you go to the distraction zone when you feel stuck, it’s especially important that you have a routine that doesn’t allow you to run around with that fly swatter.
You go kind of numb inside and start to settle when you are in the business trap. You tell yourself that this is how life is. You lower your expectations. And you probably start to like using your fly swatter. The mind craves action and will take it any way it can get it. However, you did not become an architect so that you could respond to urgent emails about paint color. Ask yourself what you would tell a high school student who was interested in majoring in architecture. If your first thought was to jokingly give your condolences, you have settled. Fix that by no longer accepting the premise that professional practice is defined by a whole bunch of chores. Get in touch with why you love being an architect and resolve to do more things related to that. Every time you think you have to put those activities on hold because you have too much to do, recognize it as fear of the unknown and make it a priority to open your schedule up. Some of the most successful people are the busiest, and they never let that little fact stop them, do they?
The meaningfulness litmus test
We have explored the meaning of success in this novena, but you can’t be successful if you don’t pursue things that are meaningful. Being your boss’s right hand might get you on her good side, but the rush you feel from that “attaboy” doesn’t last very long, does it? Don’t mistake the stress response for actual creative energy, either. Meaningful work feeds your soul, and leaves behind a trail of accomplishments that build on one another and take you closer to the things you want for your career. Ask yourself where you want to be in ten years and whether or not anything you did today helped get you there. The things that did are actually meaningful, the rest was a waste of time in the larger context of your life. Get a handle on your compulsory activities so you can make some space to freestyle.
Shatter the meme:
As creative people, we are often attracted to action and new ideas, but it’s so much wasted effort if you can’t see things through to completion, or lose sight of why you ever started down this path in the first place because you have stopped so many times along the way. Nature abhors a vacuum. Your life will fill up with a bunch of activities you didn't choose if you leave the space for them. Along with those activities will come the expectations of others, and your own need to meet those expectations. Swatting the flies of distraction can be exhausting. No matter how many you kill, more will keep buzzing around. Shouldn’t you redirect your energy in a more meaningful way?