An active human life with its responsibilities naturally has its share of distractions and interruptions. Good work, however, always requires concentration and attention from beginning to end with no or few disruptions.
Whether it is a mother preparing dinner or a father using tools to do a repair or a student preparing homework, everyone needs the complete presence of mind to attend to the business at hand. As the Book of Ecclesiastes teaches, “There is a time to keep silence, and a time to speak.”
Silence allows a person to center the mind on one object with intensity. When distractions rule the day or constantly prevent the mind from fixing on the undertaking of the moment, the mind loses focus, the work shows carelessness, details suffer neglect, and the lack of care spoils the effect of perfection or thoughtful completion.
One missing ingredient from a recipe or a miscalculation of the right amount of salt, sugar, or spice makes the meal unappetizing, and reading or writing without silence and privacy interferes with comprehension and coherence.
Life in the twenty-first century, notorious for its fast pace, hectic schedules, and endless streams of sights and sounds from advertising, illustrates a feature of modern life that T. S. Eliot expressed in “Burnt Norton”: “Distracted from distraction by distraction.” One interruption follows another which follows another without any apparent end.
Distractions divert attention, and loss of attention interferes with concentration, and the absence of concentration spoils exactness or thoroughness in the accomplishment of work. It is hard to be mindful of small points and to review all the steps in a procedure when an avalanche of diversions muddles the steadiness and clarity of the mind.
The omnipresence of information technology and social media in all its myriad of forms (cell phones, iPods, Internet, Facebook) naturally multiplies the number of ways distractions fill the day and pre-empt the time. All those sounds and communications are begging for instant responses and reactions.
Distractions also assume many human forms. A mother cooking in the kitchen loses her concentration as quarreling erupts among siblings. A teacher loses his train of thought when students chatter, write notes to one another, or text messages. Drivers pay less attention to the road when the cell phone rings and conversation ensues.
All these distractions blur the mind from distinguishing between the essential and the unnecessary, the important and the trivial.
Time to Waste
Those who arrive late for public events and musical performances and then enter obstreperously also disrupt the mood of the occasion. Members of the audience who fail to turn off their cell phones also divide people’s attention and change the appropriate atmosphere.
Many of these distractions waste time and detract from a person’s performance at home, work, or school. While there is “a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance,” there is no time to waste.
The art of living demands the management of distractions, the need to select a time and place to minimize these constant intrusions and allow for a period of uninterrupted work, thought, conversation, reading, or prayer to experience peace of mind, a state of recollection, and a time for contemplative reflection.
Without the elimination or management of distractions a person lives a fragmented existence of many pieces and parts, without any sense of order or of an integrated life.
Vacations, retreats, worship, reading, and times of quiet activity without the background noise of television and commercials and without hours consumed on the Internet protect against the flurry of diversions that compete for human attention.
These distractions function like advertisements announcing their urgency.
Competing & Insistent
Distractions are not mere harmless background noise or the living sounds of human activity. Like advertisements that utilize musical jingles, sound bites, or beautiful images, distractions insist, demand, and compete for a person’s time and interest.
Even though the term “multi-tasking” has gained popularity, human experience shows that persons do their best work when they do one thing at a time with total concentration and single-minded effort—an idea that informs Plato’s Republic on the ideal society.
If rulers rule and merchants trade and soldiers fight and women govern homes, according to Plato, a peaceful society and civilized life follow because of the total attention that each person devotes to the one main duty he performs with excellence and expertise. Distractions divide a person and do not let anyone do one thing well.
No one can do all things well, but everyone can do at least one or two things with competence and excellence. To concentrate is to be centered on one item of a day’s agenda, to have a large block of time to complete the activity from beginning to end, to be on schedule, and to experience some sense of accomplishment in completing necessary work.
On the other hand, to do too much, to have a crowded schedule of ceaseless busyness, and not to manage the many interruptions that cry for attention lead to unproductive work and wasted effort with little to show.
The Grimm folktale “Clever Else” captures the life of distraction that transforms the quality of daily life from pleasant, fulfilling activity to wasted time and no sense of purpose.
Instead of concentrating on her main chore of going into the cellar and drawing beer, Else notices a pickaxe mounted above her head and lets her mind wander as the cask is filling the jug: “If I marry Hans, and we have a child, and it grows big, and we send it here to draw beer, perhaps the pickaxe may fall on its head and kill it.”
In the meantime the master is awaiting his beer as the cask pours and overflows as Else loses sight of her primary task by daydreaming of imaginary things. Distractions lead to escapes from reality.
One must not only control, reduce, or eliminate distractions from one’s surrounding world but also not cause them by inconsiderate behavior. It is the violation of good manners to divide a person’s state of mind or to rob him of time for the completion of important duties.
In The Screwtape Letters, C. S. Lewis portrays the master devil Screwtape teaching the junior demon Wormwood the techniques of diverting men from heaven—incessant, unfocused activity that leads to “Distraction from distraction to distraction.”
Screwtape explains the benefit of interrupting noises and restless movements to unsettle the mind. While the master devil detests music and silence, he thrives upon noise, “Noise which alone defends us from silly qualms, despairing scruples, and impossible desires. We will make the whole universe a noise in the end.”
The other technique the devils use is mindless busyness that amounts to much ado about nothing, a series of “meetings, pamphlets, policies, movements, causes, and crusades” that detract from a person’s efforts to do the essential and the important with superior performance.
When Clever Else’s master finally goes to the cellar, he does not find a servant drawing the beer but weeping “owing to the child that Else might have and the possibility of its being killed by the pickaxe so happening to fall just at the time the child might be sitting underneath it drawing beer.”
The simplest tasks, the most necessary work, the most basic duties go undone when distractions are never managed.
Young Woman Photo © bokan / Dollar Photo Club