Are you one of those people who can’t stand to be told what to do—even by yourself? According to Oliver Burkeman, psychology columnist for The Guardian and author of The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, “We’re desperate for a sense of autonomy, a feeling that we’re the ones in charge. As a result, we rail against anything we feel we’ve been ordered to do—even if it’s ourselves who gave that order. And so you decide in advance to spend Wednesday morning on your business plan, or the next chapter of your novel… but when Wednesday morning comes, you rise up against the taskmaster who gave that command, and start scrolling through Snapchat instead. Congratulations, you’re a rebel—but unfortunately it’s your own goals you’re undermining.”
Why is it so hard to stay focused on what matters most to us? According to Burkeman, we blame our distraction on external temptations and interruptions , but the real reason is that we have an internal urge to be distracted. “Nobody diagnosed this problem as brilliantly as Friedrich Nietzsche, the cantankerous 19th-century German philosopher who argued in Unmodern Observations that we seek out distractions in order to stay mentally busy, so we can avoid facing up to the big questions—like whether we’re living genuinely meaningful lives,” he says. “Even work that feels productive can really be a form of distraction, if it keeps us from addressing what’s most important.”
Let’s face it, it would be really scary if, after you eliminated all distractions, you came face to face with the fact that your work (and life) is far from what you want it to be. Knowing you’re predisposed to distract yourself is empowering. When you recognize that urge, you can acknowledge it without acting on it. Achieve your goals, write that novel, and accomplish what you believe gives meaning to your life.
Burkeman recommends frequent journaling because it’s a powerful, research-backed way to make sure those big questions get air time. If you stop trying to avoid them, they’ll lose much of their power to distract you.
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