Making Peace With Distraction

My latest essay is up on Medium.

I am old enough to remember a time when a printed newspaper landed with a thud at my door each morning. I would take it with me to work and sit and read it during my lunch break. (My lunch break! How quaint it sounds already.) Today I catch snippets of NPR while I rush around the house in the mornings, coordinating schedules and shopping lists with my husband, getting myself and my daughter ready for the day. I skim an article or two on my phone in the morning, and another over coffee in the afternoon, perhaps another few bits before bed. The result is the same. I’ve read the day’s news. More news, perhaps, than I ever read while eating a sandwich. But what was once a relaxing ritual has come to feel more like a distraction. Or maybe everything preventing me from reading the news in one sitting is a distraction. It’s impossible anymore to tell the distractions from the things I’m trying to focus on. They all feel the same.

In a New York Times essay titled “No Time to Think”, Kate Murphy depicts a society unable to focus. “If there is ever a still moment for reflective thought — say, while waiting in line at the grocery store or sitting in traffic — out comes the mobile device.” And we get it; we’re all guilty of that. She points out that most people today are physically uncomfortable being alone with their thoughts for more than 6 minutes, 15 max. What, we wonder, is the world coming to?

An article in Psychology Today attributes this discomfort to a “Cultural/Biological Mismatch.”

“Relentless cultural innovation, while promising to give us more power and freedom, is also pressing our hardware to its limits. We have only so much attention to give, only so many neurotransmitters and stress hormones to burn through in a day, and only so much memory available to manage different relationships and contexts. And the demands on those systems have been increasing.”

And so it goes. On and on. Blah blah blah. Our overly informed state is the source of even more information with which to shamefully overload our fragile ape minds. The pace of life seems to be outpacing our ability to live it fully. What a shame. What a loss. What I want to know is, what to do about it.

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Quitting Up

My first ever post on Medium is about quitting, a subject near and dear to my heart. 

I did it again. I quit a job—one I loved in many ways and I know many would be eager to have. But there were plenty of problems, as well. As I grew increasingly unhappy, sleep-deprived, and frustrated, I kept trying to make it work. Until one day I just couldn’t any more.

When I say I quit, I don’t mean I left one full-time job to take another. That’s the assumption, right? When you announce you’re leaving, people automatically ask where you’re going, because it’s very hard for most people to imagine leaving for the sake of leaving. But that’s the step I’ve taken several times throughout my career. And while in some instances, I could have quit a bit more politely, strategically, or stylishly, I have never once regretted leaving. In fact, I’m pretty sure quitting has been among the best career decisions I’ve ever made.

Walking away from a clearly defined path, reliable salary, and paid time off takes courage. It is a risk, and I don’t want to minimize that. But taking that step in the “wrong” direction, or leaning sideways as I sometimes call it, has exposed me to more experiences and people than I ever would have encountered while ascending that ladder one rung at a time. Increasingly it’s a way of working that businesses are embracing, too, which in some cases makes quitting a real win-win.

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You, on a mission

In case you didn't catch it, the New York Times ran a great article about crafting a personal Mission Statement as an alternative to making resolutions.

By creating a mission statement people can begin to identify the underlying causes of behaviors, as well as what truly motivates them to make changes. “A mission statement becomes the North Star for people,” says Dr. Groppel. “It becomes how you make decisions, how you lead, and how you create boundaries.”

I've found that most larger businesses have strong mission statements—Google's "organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful" is one of my favorites—it's an incredibly important step missed by many smaller companies and individuals. The article comes with an excellent set of starter questions to help you develop such a statement.

■ How do you want to be remembered?
■ How do you want people to describe you?
■ Who do you want to be?
■ Who or what matters most to you?
■ What are your deepest values?
■ How would you define success in your life?
■ What makes your life really worth living?

A strong mission statement is clear and succinct, ideally no more than a sentence, and truly unique to the person or business behind it. In reading the article, I realized I had more or less written mine as part of a longer email to a friend:

My personal mission is to be the kind of person people want to know, the kind of parent I'd like to have, and do work I'm proud of. What's yours?