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.
Copyright © 2007-2012 by Leif Frenzel. All rights reserved.