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How To Minimize Distraction And Focus on What Actually Matters

March 6, 2019


Don't Let the Peripheral Work Become the Core Work


I recently heard a writer say that they are struggling to find the time and space to actually write. They felt overwhelmed by email, social media, marketing, and other administrative work. This isn't just a problem for writers. It affects virtually everyone. Doctors get bogged down in charting; less than half their day is spent actually practicing medicine. Knowledge workers spend more time in meetings than problem-solving or creating. Coaches and teachers spend more time working through organizational politics than coaching or teaching. Even professional athletes feel pressured by all their perceived off-field responsibilities. 

It's ubiquitous. There is a growing trend of the peripheral work becoming the core and the core work becoming peripheral. This is problematic for two reasons:

1) The way to improve, perform well, and contribute something of lasting value to the universe is to focus on the core work, not the peripheral stuff.
2) The way to cultivate energy, happiness, and meaning is to focus on the core work, not the peripheral stuff.

When the peripheral stuff becomes the core work and the core work becomes the peripheral stuff you almost always end up with massive declines in performance and wellbeing. I bet most readers can point to many examples in their own lives. (This is every bit as true for more intimate relationships as it is for work.)

The million dollar question is how can you avoid this? The answer is not a simple fix but an ongoing practice; a way of living that requires effort, especially in the age of distraction, but that yields big-time rewards.

Lots of the peripheral stuff comes with immediate gratification (a bunch of retweets or likes; a response to an email; a feeling of being known or power in an organization) whereas focusing on core work almost always is a delayed-gratification endeavor. You get a lot more feel-good neurochemicals now from banging out emails or social media posts or talking for the sake of talking in a meeting than you do from writing a few paragraphs in a book or coaching a single workout. But you get a lot more meaning, fulfillment, and lasting joy from writing a book or developing an athlete. Yet you can only do the latter if you're willing to let go of the former.

Unfortunately, merely knowing about this paradox is rarely enough. The peripheral stuff that preys on our attention and time tends to have a very strong pull. The best way to escape this pull is not to rely on willpower but to remove the peripheral stuff altogether or set very rigid boundaries around them. If you rely on willpower at best you won't give into whatever distraction you're resisting but the act of resistance itself will tire you out; at worst you'll cave in. Much better is to design for core work. For example, you could consider having strict windows for when you do "peripheral work" and only doing the peripheral work in those windows. You can also be very explicit about progression markers in the longer-term meaningful work and celebrate them. This way, you get some daily hits of feel-good energy along the long-term path.

It's also helpful to go about this change with others, in a community. Shifting from peripheral to core work tends to feel worse before it feels better. Lots of people go through a transitory period of distress because they aren't constantly getting the feeling of having "done" something. Or because they realize how hard it is to do the core work without relying on distractions every time they get stuck. After about a week or two this goes away. It's just a transition period. When you are expecting it and can share this journey with others walking the same path, it's not so bad.

Another big issue is organizational structures and norms that are set up for peripheral work and not core work. This seems ridiculous but it's surprisingly common. If you are in an organization like this:


  • Speak with your superiors and let them know this is happening and the consequences of it. (e.g., Nothing of real value gets done; people lose motivation and burnout; too-much redundancy crowds out new value). If you're a leader in an organization like this, speak with your team about what's happening and why it's happening. And then change it.

  • If you try the above and things don't change you've got a few options:

    • Start ignoring peripheral-work-first norms and see what happens;

    • Work on a meaningful side-hustle while everyone around you sinks time in valueless activities; 

    • Start looking for a new job.


Life is short. The more of our lives we spend in peripheral nonsense the more our lives contract. Commit to a plan that will support your focusing on what matters and then design for it. Try various experiments for a few weeks at a time. Eventually, you'll find a practice that works for you (or your organization) to focus on the core work while keeping the peripheral stuff in its place, at the periphery. When you do this you'll almost surely experience a sense of ease and expansiveness. Amazingly, a less frenetic and distracted life starts to feel a bit less short. Perhaps there's some truth to what the Stoic philosopher Seneca said: "Life is actually pretty long if you know how to live it." 


Most of Us Are Addicts


We’re all addicted to something. Our phones, exercise, eating, watching TV, drugs.


Some of these things, like exercise for an elite athlete, we celebrate. Look at the dedication, will power, and work ethic. Others, like drugs, we demonize, asking why the user has no self-control.


The war on drugs did a disservice to our conceptualization of addiction, framing the chemical in the drug as the main culprit, and a healthy dose of willpower as the solution. As we’ve ventured into the 21st century, virtually everyone is addicted to their phones, and we can see the foolishness of blaming addiction on some external chemical; it’s the inner ones that matter most.


Don’t believe that you are addicted to your phone or exercise or whatever else? Try to go without it. Chances are you’ll feel a strong urge and compulsion to grab and scroll on your phone. Research has shown that when habitual runners take a week off, they show classic signs and symptoms of withdrawal, including depression.


While I realize I’m making sweeping generalizations, addictions lie on a spectrum. An addiction to exercise is generally easier to kick then one to drugs, but their foundation is the same. A hit of neurochemicals that cause us to desire/want to do something, and some reinforcement of reward when we do. Repeat it enough, and you don’t even need much of the neurochemicals to set the stage. That daily run becomes ingrained, a necessity, something that you’ll feel anxiety if you don’t complete.


We often call positive addictions habits.


So what?


We should have empathy and understanding for those who suffer from “negative” addictions. After all, most of us experience a small snippet of their experience in another realm. Furthermore, it helps to ask if you have control over your habits or if they are controlling you?


I’d venture to guess that your cell phone is doing most of the controlling in that relationship, commanding you to check twitter, facebook, or Instagram as you sit in a class or meeting. Maybe, it’s time to take back some of your control. I’d recommend Mark Freeman’s book You are Not a Rock as a good starting point for building up the capacity to do so.


We now live in a world where our attention is the commodity for sale. It's up to us to develop skills that we once took for granted. An ability to be alone in our head, to be bored, to create space between urge and action; to notice when our attention is being pulled away and then rein it back in.


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