I’ve been trying to figure out why I’ve been so into the World Cup. I’m not much of a soccer fan, so why have I been glued to the TV during these games? Sure, there’s an element of national pride at stake – after all, I did get pretty into the Olympic hockey in February, even though I’m not much of a hockey fan at all. And ESPN has been promoting the hell out of the Cup, so my awareness of its existence has certainly been heightened. But most of all, I think I’m just a sucker for any sporting event that takes place during weekday mornings and afternoons. Most daytime TV is so unappealing to me that any semi-decent sporting event – March Madness, the Summer Olympics, the first couple days of a major golf tournament – almost always ropes me in.
Of course…I have a job. I’m supposed to be working during the day. Which means the World Cup has the potential to be something of a distraction.. So, the big question: how do I keep distractions from becoming a problem? Well, like most anti-vuvuzela U.S. viewers, I can turn the sound off. That’s the great thing about sports (and, to a lesser extent, cable news) – you can watch it on mute and still get something out of it. Or, I could leave the sound on, and turn away from the TV. Enjoy those sarcastic British announcers calling France’s play “pathetic”! It’s like listening to talk radio or music while you work – it only requires part of your attention. Think of it like this: most of us can do two things at once, but three is a lot harder. Watching soccer and listening to soccer both take my attention. That doesn’t leave a lot of my brain for work.
Or, another idea: each hour, give myself 5-10 minutes of uninterrupted, sensory overload soccer time. When it’s over, devote myself fully to work. This has several benefits: it forces me to work without distractions, lets me enjoy the soccer fully (albeit on a reduced basis), and allows me to rationalize my soccer-watching as “clearing my head time”.
When working at home, I have a similar problem – I love to play online poker. (Don’t worry, my life savings are not at risk – I like to joke with my wife that while I do have the addictive gambling gene, I also have the cheapness gene, and they cancel each other out. Also, if I go to Vegas for a few days, she doesn’t have to worry about me being tempted by any strip clubs. I’ll be at the poker table the whole time.) Online poker is available to me 24-7, and, as it happens, involves being at my computer – yes, the very same computer I write on.
For a while, I thought I had come up with an ingenious solution. I would simultaneously write and play in a low-stakes online poker tournament. As long as the TV and web browser were shut off, this fulfilled my “one distraction maximum” rule – plus it kept me anchored to my seat and forced me to write. Eventually, however, I realized that I was not devoting my full attention to the writing. So now, I try to limit myself to no more than thirty minutes of online poker per day. This allows me to get in just enough action to fulfill my jones but not so much that it’s affecting the amount of work I get done.
We all have things that take our attention away from what we’re supposed to be doing. The key is figuring out a way to make sure that they only take away a tiny part of our attention – or, alternately, all of our attention for a tiny portion of our time.