How Your Habits Become Productivity-Draining Distractions

Agonizing over our habits, obsessing over our choices—these are clever distractions. But what's left is the real work.

It's called a lilac chaser. You've seen it before. It's an optical illusion with a small black cross in the middle, encircled by 12 blurry lilac-colored dots. A green dot animates over the lilacs as though counting the time on a futuristic clock. Stare at the cross long enough and the lilacs disappear, one by one. But the moment you get distracted and look away, the lilacs come back.

The black cross is the work you do. The lilacs are all the things ancillary to your work. They're the small choices you've made around your black cross: the time you wake up, the tools you use, what you have for breakfast, when you check your email, and so on. They're the various aspects of a daily routine—things that, when fixed in place, disappear with the passage of time.

In practice, the choices around your work aren't so neatly arranged. Should I type this up or write it out on paper first? Should I start working knowing that the meeting's coming up in 20 minutes? Do I feel like having an egg sandwich or a chicken feta wrap this morning? It's as though the lilacs move, jump around, and flicker—making it that much easier to look away from the black cross. So you look. And all the other lilacs come back. They become visible again.

You have to start over.

I have my own black cross: writing. I've been following the same basic routine since last November, when Hurricane Sandy rolled up the East Coast. Not long before, I'd gone full-time on my first novel, and I would work some days writing from a vacant desk in my old office and others from the reading room of the New York Public Library. With news of the trains shutting down, I knew I’d be stuck in Brooklyn for at least a few days. I'd always had trouble working from home, but that weekend I was determined to do something about it. I spotted the wandering lilacs distracting me from my work and made sure to fix them in place. I began waking up at the same time each morning and followed the same routine. As the days passed, the lilacs vanished—leaving me with my black cross.

We say that we want to unplug: go off to the forest or the beach to get away from all the distractions. Technology presents us with an abundance of choice and a natural reaction is to run away, to avoid having to make those choices in the first place. I've gone through periods of disconnect myself, and while I come back rejuvenated, the feeling doesn't last. It doesn’t necessarily make me a better chooser. Sometimes I come back and quickly feel overwhelmed, the same defenselessness that comes with not having a TV in my apartment for years—whenever I’m around one now, I can’t stop watching.

I've also come to believe there's another way, an alternative to shutting out technology. It’s a path that involves not leaving but staying: You just choose and commit. When you decide on some ancillary, inessential thing—like sandwich or wrap—allow yourself to accept that your choice might be less than optimal. That way, you can stop thinking about it and focus on the core work. You stare at the black cross and the technology disappears on its own, in a different way. It’s straightforward, but necessarily difficult. To rephrase Emerson: It's easy to unplug when one is off in the woods, but great is he who in the midst of his technology, keeps the independence of unplugging.

Like anyone, I falter. I have bad days and weeks, where it seems like focusing on the black cross is the hardest thing; that no matter what I do, I can't make the lilacs go away. But I can, and I have, and in times of struggle, I try to remember the feeling.

You know the one. You've felt it before. It comes from staring at that black cross and staring at it and staring at it until the green dot of time plucks away all the lilacs and you are left alone with the act of doing, and the simultaneous awareness that you can't see the lilacs but you know they are there—the breathless dissonance of your brain at work.

Stare at the black cross. Don't look away.

Jack Cheng is a designer, entrepreneur, and advertising copywriter turned novelist. His first book, These Days, is a modern love story about startups, creative work, and the human side of technology.

[Image: Flickr user Martin Fisch]

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3 Comments

  • Paul H. Burton

    Jack: My favorite book on writing - and for getting things done - is Pressfield's "Do the Work." I re-read it regularly to remind myself that my primary mission as an author/speaker is to create content. I recommend it often to anyone who needs to stare at the black cross for a living. PHB

  • ForSoundMind

    I love the way you elegantly describe this essential skill for managing our post-modern world, a skill our youngest need as they enter it.