It’s not easy to get and stay focused in today’s world of constant connectivity.
We may start our day (or our year) with the best intentions; getting fit and healthy, accomplish more, earn more, spend more time with the people we love, and so on.
If we completely disconnect ourselves from technology, work, family, friends and any form of social influence, we’d likely succeed with many of these goals. Well, at least in theory.
But we are social beings. We like to be aware of what’s going on in our world, and care about people in our lives. We want them to be happy, AND to be happy ourselves.
Sometimes that means sacrificing the things that matter the most to us in order to be there for someone else.
Other times, however, we willingly give up on our dreams and desires because it’s easier to let them go than to create structures that support our goals, and boundaries that protect our priorities.
The push and pull between what we want, and what others want, is nearly constant these days. It’s much more difficult to sequester ourselves while working on a goal when there are so many ways to communicate.
For some, completely turning off all means of communication is down right painful!
For others, it feels more like a pipe dream, our little happy place we dream about when life becomes too hectic, always feeling just slightly out of reach because of our sense of responsibility and compassion for others.
But where is the sense of responsibility and compassion for ourselves?
Now I’m not saying to forget about the needs of others here, but I am suggesting that we, too, should be a priority in our own lives.
Why can’t we thwart frequent interruptions in favor of focusing on what’s most important to us?
Why can’t we put off distractions disguised as urgent disruptions until we’ve finished our own work?
That isn’t to say that sometimes urgent matters should take precedence, but it is to say that we have the right to take a more active role in what is, or isn’t urgent.
By that I mean that sometimes what is urgent to someone else, isn’t actually so urgent as to require us to stop what we’ve chosen to focus on right now. It might be important, but is it the most important thing right now?
Jane's distraction/disruption dilemma.
Here’s an example of how distractions can seem like disruptions.
Jane is excited to get to the gym. Last week she pushed through a difficult workout with her trainer, and she’s looking forward to seeing what she can to with today’s workout. She was delighted with how great she felt after last week’s session, and feels highly motivated to keep going.
Just as she’s about to walk out the door, Jane received a 911 text from her boyfriend Tad. Tad was in a dispute with his brother Frank over a situation involving their recently deceased father.
Jane called Tad as she headed out to her car. “Can you meet me at Starbucks in 10 minutes?” he asked. “Well, I was just about to head to the gym. What do you need?” Jane replied. “I just heard back from Frank. You wouldn’t believe what he is demanding now! I wanted to bounce some ideas around with you before I sent a reply.”
Is this a distraction or a disruption?
Depending on your response, here’s what the outcome might look like:
Response A. Jane, feeling torn between Tad’s needs and her own interest in going to the gym, took a deep breath and, feeling deflated, replied, “sure Tad. See you in a few.”
Jane wanted to be there for Tad, and didn’t want him to feel worse by putting off his request until she had finished with the gym.
As a result, Jane felt demoralized, because things like this always seemed to happen when she was excited to work out.
Instead, she felt bad because she wasn’t going to the gym that day, and began to wonder why bother, since every time she looks forward to exercising, something always threw a wrench into her plans.
- or -
Response B. Jane felt bad for Tad, but realized that he didn’t need to reply to Frank right away, and that it might, in fact, be helpful for Tad to think through his response in more detail before Jane got involved.
This way Tad would begin to work through his feelings without Jane's influence. “I am happy to meet you Tad, but it will have to wait until after my workout. Let's meet in 2 hours.”
In response A, Jane might have considered Tad’s request an urgent disruption because he wanted her to work through his response, and he positioned it as something that had to be done quickly, because it felt urgent to him.
In response B, Jane kept her focus on her priorities, while still accommodating Tad’s request. Important, yes, but urgent, no.
The distraction/disruption trajectory.
Here's how distractions disguised as disruptions can affect our boundaries and priorities if we're not careful:
We face decisions around whether to attend to the needs of others over our own needs all the time. And, as research has shown, when it comes to decision-making, we are at our strongest in the morning, but as the day goes on, our ability to hold our resolve often fades as a result of decision fatigue.
I propose that our will also weakens in the longer term, when we face choices between our own interests and those of others over and over again. Especially when we don’t have defined mechanisms in place to support our personal interests.
Protecting our priorities.
What I’m suggesting here is that by creating an intentional system that provides protection for our priorities, we are better able to thwart those potential distractions and interruptions from derailing our focus.
Distractions will always be there, it’s how we respond to them that matters.
Imagine yourself in a glass bubble. Distractions are always hanging around outside the bubble, but they can’t get in unless you open the door.
That glass bubble represents the boundaries we can set to protect our priorities.
Define your bubble.
Here's how to create your own boundary bubble:
What might seem as a disruption, such as Tad’s request for Jane’s help, is more of a distraction disguised as a disruption. It doesn’t have to be addressed right away, but in response A, Jane chooses to alter her plans because of Tad’s sense of urgency.
Use the distraction/disruption litmus test.
Here’s a quick litmus test for determining the difference between a distraction and a disruption:
Most of the time, requests for our attention can wait until after we’ve accomplished our goal, but we often forego the goal in favor of other requests because of the sense of urgency that is often attached to them.
By stepping back, taking a deep breath, and really considering whether or not the interruption really is urgent, we are better able to assess and prioritize in a way that includes, instead of disregards, our own priorities.
In these cases, the litmus test above can be helpful in determining when something truly requires our immediate attention, but when we have the mindset that only one thing is always the same, static, top priority, we run the risk of completely giving up on it if other priorities frequently compete for our time and attention.
Here’s a little exercise to help add flexibility to the way we handle our priorities. I call it the priority shuffle.
Then make a conscious decision as to whether you are willing and able to return to your original priority, or, if you aren’t, make sure to schedule when you will return to that priority.
Doing this will help to minimize the sense that you are giving up on your priorities in favor of other people’s needs.
Flexing your boundary muscles.
Priorities do not need to be static hierarchies where one specific priority rises above all others all of the time. Instead, they represent those things that are most important to us. They require our attention, but not all at the same time.
By shuffling how we attend to our priorities, we pay attention to what is most important to us at any given time.
When we put another priority at the top, that doesn’t mean other priorities aren’t most important overall, but it does mean they are less important at that time.
All of our priorities, however, do require one thing of us: Our dedication and complete attention. When one priority rises to the top, we honor it by giving it our full attention and focus.
This means saying ‘no’ to requests that fall outside of the walls of that priority, unless it is something we deem as urgent.
Setting boundaries are a way to protect our priorities, but they aren’t always easy to establish. Especially if we are someone who used to say ‘yes’ to every request for our attention in the past. But it can be done.
The important thing is to recognize the boundary you want to create, communicate it to others, and then protect them. “I am going to work on posting my blog now, so please don’t interrupt me until I come down stairs. If you need anything before then, figure it out yourself or ask Dad.”
In this case, besides communicating the boundary to others, it is also important to gain Dad’s buy-in for being the go-to person while you’re unavailable.
Other people have an amazing ability to accept our boundaries, once they know what they are and that we are serious about them.
So if at first it is uncomfortable to say ‘not right now’ to people who are used to you dropping everything to attend to their needs, rest assured that by standing firm in your choice to reinforce a boundary, most of the time others will eventually get the hint and accept your choices.
For more insight around boundaries, check out this post.
If you are new to this series - How To Step Fully Into Change - take a look at previous posts here, here, here and here.
Coming up next, the last requirement for fully stepping into change: Creating A New Identity.
About the Author
Megan Rounds, Ed.D. is owner and principle perculator of perculcha, llc.
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