Dealing with distractions

Finding a goal, while being in a mode of reflection, is not yet the same as actually pursuing (let alone achieving) that goal. As soon as you're back in everyday life, responding to the ever changing stream of new situations, interactions with people, the successes and disappointments of your actions in the world, you'll find it difficult to remain focused on the goals you have decided to be the most valuable for you to follow. The ebb and flow of life is full of distractions, and even after you have managed to keep your goals at least in view (which, to be sure, is not a small achievement), you'll most probably find yourself in fact pulled away from them more often than not, by a myriad of little things that grab your attention instead, and actually doing something that is not in line with them.
(There is a temptation here to talk about 'real life' versus what you think about when reflecting: life as thought about 'in theory'. But talk of 'real life' here is misleading at best; at worst, it's a cheap excuse for failing to transform into action the results of your reflection. What you think about when you reflect on the whole of your life, on what's good and what's bad, both in itself and with respect to some specific aim, on what sort of person you should be and how you ought to work on improving your actions, views and feelings — what you think about when you reflect on all this is no less 'real' than what you encounter when you take action in everyday situations. If anything, it's more real, for it takes into account a lot more than what you are able to perceive while involved, when you're necessarily subject to a constrained viewpoint and under pressure to decide in time, which may leave you with insufficient resources to think everything through to a satisfactory level of depth. This talk about 'real life', as compared to what you look at in ethical reflection, is a sham. It merely is a plea to give priority to unconsidered impulses of the moment over considered principles and maxims; to give priority to ingrained behavior you've been conditioned to exhibit long ago over purposeful, sustained pursuit of goals you've found to have meaning in your life; to give priority to indulging weaknesses and yielding to easy comfort instead of doing what it takes to become the person that you ought to be. 'Real life', if that phrase has any sensible meaning at all, is the life you choose to life, after having carefully considered everything that matters in such a far-reaching decision. 'Real' it can only be if it is indeed the real thing, not the thing it seems to be just for a passing moment.)
Distractions, then, consist of two components: an external occasion, and your own tendency, or willingness, to allow that occasion (or some element within it) to pull you out of what you're doing and to induce you to do something else, or refrain from doing anything. (However mechanically it is that you follow a distraction, it is always you who is responsible for doing so.)
Part of the strategy will be to shut out those external occasions which lead to distractions — when it's possible. At many times, it's in your power to withdraw to somewhere quiet and secluded. This can be appropriate for tasks on which you work alone. (And that includes reflection on your own life, character and goals.) But that isn't always an option. It is equally important to remain in touch with reality, which requires seeking feedback, trying things out, and in general putting your views and strategies to the test of how they fare in the world of action. (That includes, again, reflection on your own life, character and goals.) It's important, then, to learn how to deal with distractions even when you're not able to prevent the external occasions from even happening.
The way to do this is to carefully and patiently register every time a distraction falls in, refrain from acting too quickly, check against your real goals and inclinations (those that come from your reflections), and only then take action. Initially, this won't always work, but you will make progress sooner or later, which will show mostly in your ability to recognize potential distractions early, controlling your own impulses to follow them mechanically, leaving you to choose actively more often instead. As so often, everything you need is patience, and a willingness to actively and deliberately shape your habits. (Note that these again are qualities of character of the sort you're going for.) With time, you'll notice that you get instinctively aware of many of the typical distractions, and now you'll find yourself almost mechanically refusing to be led astray by them. That's the habit you want to establish. Take care.

Conquer fears: feeling misjudged

What's the opinions of others to you, that you are anxious they're in your favor?
Knowing what other people think of you and your actions, how they perceive your behavior, can be important feedback. There are, however, differences in the way people express such feedback. The most helpful sort is descriptive: when people simply describe what they see you doing, and what the effects are, you can match this with your goals and your own sense of the situation. Unfortunately, that's not the prevalent sort of response we normally encounter. More often, people are judgmental. When they express their judgments of good and bad (however muddled, for what people think is good, or bad, most often lacks refinement and reflection), it's often rather hurting than helping. Especially those who are themselves timid and insecure tend towards dismissive, sweepingly negative statements; of course they often don't notice how much attitudes of that sort reflect on themselves rather than on what they're talking about. Yet, for all that, weak and foolish attitudes are contagious, and an echo of their insecurity will fall back on you, luring you into taking their judgments as valid measurement of the worth and value in your actions. Thus instead of ignoring the judgmental portion of their responses, you become afraid of it, and anxious to please those with the loudest voice and with the most judgmental style of responding to you. But that means to please exactly those who deserve it least: it's not for the judgments of others that we live our lives. Instead, you need to figure out how to distinguish descriptive from judgmental feedback behavior; try to learn from the former and practice keeping a healthy reserve against the latter.
(Also, in this line of thought there's something to learn for your own responses towards others: try to avoid judgment, be perceptive, descriptive and reflective. There's a time for criticism, and for claims about value, good and bad, and right and wrong. But it's appropriate less often than you might think, especially in everyday life.)
It's not just negative judgment that one should be skeptical about; there is also a danger in praise, including that praise which is often triggered by excellence. Since excellence of character is what we're trying to achieve in leading our lives, we might be tempted to take praise from others as a mark of achievement of that goal. That would be misguided. Not only can you be excellent without it being acknowledged, or even noticed; recognition may follow only later on; you also might be seen as excellent without actually being so — and thus from praise you can never infer you're making good progress. (Consider also how high the chances are that those who praise and call you excellent in truth are bad judges of excellence, being neither excellent themselves nor used to having it around them.)
It's a weakness, this anxiousness to appear excellent in the eyes of others. Be prepared to be excellent without anyone taking notice of it! Such anxiousness is always wrong: if you have excellence in some matter, you already have the more choiceworthy thing. Recognition may follow, or maybe it won't. But even if it does, it's secondary. It's even worse if you don't actually have the excellence in question: then it amounts to willing deception. You are deceiving both yourself and others if you go for the appearance of an excellence only.
As long as you can find so many faults just by looking at yourself, you have no business believing yourself excellent from someone else's saying so. The latter shouldn't be a goal for you at all. Take care.
Copyright © 2007-2012 by Leif Frenzel. All rights reserved.