Do you know what your biggest distractions are? Until this week, I thought I could name my primary attention killers: email and over scheduling are my top two.
Distraction is not my friend (it’s probably not yours, either). I’m a vision person and I work hard to purge distraction from my life so I can carry out my big ideas. Which is why it’s important for me to know my distractions, to be conscious of them. So I can catch them in the act and self-correct.
I thought I had most of mine identified. But here’s the sneaky thing about distraction — the most dangerous, consuming distraction is the one you don’t see. It’s so woven into your everyday life, you don’t even recognize it when you cross paths.
I discovered a blog this week that taught me I’ve got an enormous, hidden distraction in my life. I’m going to tell you what it is, but let me warn you, it’s going to seem anticlimactic. Which is exactly what it wants you to think. This distraction is particularly dangerous because our typical reaction to it is, “Eh, that’s not such a big deal, it’s pretty low on the priority list.”
You ready? It’s clutter.
Those of you who know me outside of my blog are probably thinking, “Are you kidding? I’ve seen your house and it’s impeccable 99% of the time. How can clutter seriously be the elephant in the room?”
Here’s how I reached this conclusion.
About a year ago, I read Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. In the book, he quotes a statistic that stuck with me. Our attention can only process a fixed amount of information per second. It’s like having a limited bandwidth. Psychologists argue about the precise number, but the point is you’ve got an upper limit and it’s not all that high. This is why we can’t understand three conversations simultaneously. Or why texting and driving is bad. Our bandwidth is not infinitely expandable.
Additionally, not all information we perceive is equal. Our brains rank information so we can emphasize important input and the rest runs unobtrusively in the background, ready to come into focus if necessary.
Imagine you’re having a conversation with a friend in a coffee shop. The place isn’t crowded, it’s quiet, and your friend is going through a really hard time. You’re grateful for the subdued environment so you can fully tune-in to her words.
Now imagine that same conversation, but she’s talking to you while you drive down the freeway at rush-hour, on your way to a dinner for which you’re both late. Almost everything in your sensory range is important, so your brain can’t turn the volume down on anything. You’re looking for merging traffic and radar guns while you try not to miss your exit. The scenario is cluttered, so the experience you really want — to support your friend through listening — becomes diluted and ineffective.
What I realize now is the importance of the background, especially where it concerns our physical space. Yeah, I keep a relatively clean house (mostly thanks to my husband). But there’s still a lot of information in my environment competing for my attention. I’ve got mementos, collections, drawers full of just-in-case implements, and a spice rack with about 20 bottles I never touch. I’ve got wedding gifts I kind of liked but never use, boxes of photos I haven’t looked at in years, binders full of class notes from my architecture degree, and trial-size cosmetics grouped neatly in tupperware dividers.
After reading a few essays from The Minimalists, I feel like I’m looking at my house for the first time. What makes clutter such a powerful distraction is its ability to be camouflaged by organization. All my stuff is orderly, so I never saw how distracting it is. But when I consider it now, I recognize all the background thoughts that start ticking by when I look through my closet or open the pantry.
It’s amazing how much thought-clutter I’ve been taking for granted all these years:
“What am I going to do with those family vacation photos from 1998? Should I make an album? Or scan them? Or both? I wonder if I’ll actually make more Christmas decorations using these antique jars. How many half-full flash drives are hanging around my office? I need to write to Aunt Sheryl. That picture I have of her daughter is 2 years old. Mom got me that book, it’s supposed to be really good. Why don’t I read more? Successful people read a lot more than I do.”
On and on and on.
Now that I’ve shed some light on this monster distraction, I can see the damage it’s doing. It’s like my life is full of bookmarks and every time I see one, it cues 10 tangential thoughts, none of which are pertinent to my big plans and projects. It’s a serious buffer.
This is all very new. Like I said, I stumbled across that blog for the first time this week (thanks, Cal Newport!). But I can tell this is big for me. The more I examine the clutter in my life, the clearer it becomes that purging it will have a sizable impact. And, I count myself one lucky person because my husband is totally on board with spending half our Christmas vacation renting a dumpster and emptying every drawer in our sights.
I’ll keep you posted.
What about you? Have you thought a lot about the domestic objects in your life? How strict are you about keeping them pared down and does it help you focus? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.